But the other hit intrigued me. It looked as though this same quotation was being used in an uncannily similar setting, a blog about how St Mark talks about the first Easter Day. As I scrolled up and down, I thought first: this chap's 'take' on the story seems very like my own. Then I thought: he even writes like me. And finally - far too slowly - I cottoned on to the awful realisation. This is me! I was reading my own sermon on somebody else's blog. It was topped and tailed and there were a few small amendments, but apart from that it was word for word what I had written back in 2004.
Now, I wouldn't have minded in the least if the blogger (a priest) had acknowledged his sources. I'm not proprietorial about preaching: you fling your words from a pulpit (real or virtual) out into the world and if someone picks them up and runs with them, that is gratifying, and indeed, God-given. It's the idea that another writer could simply copy someone else's text and pass it off as his own. That feels like a kind of theft. (Which under copyright law it is: intellectual property is precisely that - property.) If a student is found doing it, he or she is awarded zero for that assignment and disciplined, sometimes severely. Plagiarism is taken very seriously.
I have tried to reflect what I think and feel about this little episode. My first reaction was a kind of amused bafflement. If this priest down under reckons my work is good enough to pass off as his own, I should take it as a compliment. Imitation, famously, is the sincerest form of flattery. But then I began to think about the consequences. My reason for googling the poem in the first place was that I wanted to rewrite that part of the sermon with the poem in a chapter of my next book. What if readers were to stumble across the blog and find all-too-similar material there? Wouldn't it be I who would then be suspected of plagiarism?
I tweeted about this and got a unison response: I need to challenge the blogger. So I did. I left an anonymous comment on his blog saying he should acknowledge his sources and directing him to the Cathedral website. The next day I went back and added a link to my sermon in case he hadn't found it. One or two others did the same. None of these comments were published, and 3 days later the blog still hadn't been taken down or amended to attribute the source. So I tweeted links to both his site and mine and having 'outed' him, waited to see what would happen. So far, nothing: this story (like Mark's resurrection narrative!) may not have an ending.
There is moral hazard attached to the worldwide web. It is just too easy to lift other people's writing, photos, artwork or music and pass them off as your own. When a priest does this, it raises rather sharper questions about Christian ethical behaviour. OK, so in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was perfectly normal for Baroque composers to lift musical themes by others and incorporate them into their own works. And in ancient times, pseudepigraphical texts carried the names of well-known writers to lend them authority. There are examples in the Bible itself. But that was then; this is now. Our vastly increased access to information in the digital age needs to be matched by increased moral awareness about how we use these powerful tools.
What does this leave me? I don't want to make too much of this. There are plenty of bigger issues to keep us awake at night. The worst thing would be to become self-important about it. That's the moral hazard the victim faces. Perhaps a Christian response is to register the point and then get over it. If we follow Christ the Servant, we shouldn't be surprised that we are sometimes 'used' or stolen from or walked over.
It reminded me of a very Anglican limeric about the famous Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon.
There once was a preacher called Spurgy
Who greatly disliked the liturgy.
His sermons are fine:
I use them as mine,
And so do the rest of the clergy.
Here's the calculus of my emotions so far. Flattered? Yes, quite a lot if I am honest. Amused? Yes, a little, at this bizarre discovery. Irritated, angry even? Yes, but less than before. Writing a blog is cathartic. I recommend it.
My sermon at
http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/schedule/sermons/8 - St Mark
His blog at
Judge for yourself.