While I have been in the States for the weekend, I gather that back in the UK you’ve been experiencing a little local difficulty in relation to prayer, free speech, and the cinema. Digital Cinema Media (DCM), owned by Cineworld and Odeon and controlling about 80% of cinema advertising, decided not to screen a 60-second advert produced by the Church of England to promote its new website JustPray.uk. ‘The Church’ (in the form of Arun Arora, its Director of Communications) thought it was “really astonishing, disappointing and rather bewildering”, adding that the “plain silly” decision could have a “chilling effect” on free speech. Justin Welby was (according to the Mail on Sunday) ‘furious’:
I find it extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Giles Fraser deployed the nice phrase ‘nonsense on stilts’ (though ‘stupidity on stilts’ might have been more alliterative) and is not impressed:
I’m sorry, but the whole thing stinks. If you are offended by the Lord’s Prayer you are too easily offended.
Interestingly, Richard Dawkins agrees. So what is going on here?
I know that we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of our outrage, but it is worth pausing to consider what has actually happened.
- The advert was planned some time ago, and with the agreement of DCM, who actually offered the Church a discount for one of the prime slots.
- The ads were cleared by the Cinema Advertising Authority and the British Board of Film Classification.
- However, DCM then had a change of heart, as they realised that the ad would contravene their policy of not broadcasting religious or political messages.
- One slightly confusing factor is that, in previous years, they have allowed ads for the Alpha course to be screened.
- However, the new policy was introduced following the screening of both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ ads during the referendum for Scottish independence, which resulted in some very negative responses.
- DCM never actually said that the Lord’s Prayer, nor the C of E ad, would cause offence. It refers to the reasoning behind the general policy: “some advertisements – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith,” and that “in this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally”.
The immediate difficulty in all this is that, as has happened before, it turns out that those of other faiths don’t have much of a problem with media exposure of Christian faith, in part because their own religious tradition involves a respect for Christianity and sees points of shared values, and in part because they recognise that they are living in a country which has historically been shaped by Christian faith, so its prominence is no surprise to them.
The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said: ‘I am flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief.’
And, if Richard Dawkins is right, atheists don’t have a problem either. (It is perhaps worth noting that Dawkins would be happy to fund the distribution of Bibles in schools in order to show children what a thoroughly wicked book it is—but this does not appear to be his reasoning here.)
At this point it is worth pausing to ask what we think a better outcome would have looked like. Suppose that the ad had gone ahead, and that in a couple of months the Muslim Council itself had decided to run an ad promoting Islam. Or, even more controversially, there was an ad promoting Scientology, which two years ago was recognised by the supreme court to be a religion in the UK. Under Equality legislation, it would certainly have been impossible for the DCM to allow one religion to advertise, whilst blocking others. Would we be happy to see ads screened for any religious movement that could afford it? I am not sure that I would.
Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, sounds exasperated by the whole affair—and one part of his argument is that the Lord’s Prayer has a universality about it.
The fact is: people pray. Billions of people across the globe pray the Lord’s Prayer every day. For some Christians in some parts of the Middle East and Africa, the utterance of this prayer can amount to a death sentence. Yet, it is a prayer I have seen uttered by those committed to other faiths, but who see in this prayer – taught to his friends by Jesus – a fundamental recognition of human being, human need, and the realities of human experience.
I am not sure I am really persuaded by this line of thinking. It might suit the agenda of the Church of England in its aim of raising the profile of faith whilst being as inoffensive as possible, but it is not really true to what the prayer says. In the neighbouring part of Yorkshire, Steve Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, wonders whether DCM have in fact made the right decision.
I disagree with their decision and I disagree with the reasons they have given. I hope it’s reversed. I don’t believe the film will offend or upset audiences, in the way they mean, and I don’t believe it creates a new precedent. But from the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there are very good reasons indeed to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas and from culture and from public life.
He then goes on to explore, very engagingly, seven reasons why the Lord’s Prayer might challenge assumptions, corresponding to the seven lines of most English translations. (The prayer in the Greek of the New Testament actually has 10 poetically structured lines in Matthew 6.9–13).
There are only 63 words in the Lord’s Prayer. It takes less than a minute to say them. Yet these words shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator. No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.
I would add something more. This is not simply a religious critique of secular culture, or a transcendent critique of materialism. It is a specifically Christian critique of culture and, by implication, of other religious outlooks too, even if we might share some of our responses to contemporary secularism. For example, the opening line encourages us to address God as ‘Father’, which was a distinctive of Jesus in his day and (becoming rooted in a Trinitarian understanding of God in Christian theology) is a problematic claim for many other religions. The prayer points to a quite distinctive understanding of human sinfulness, forgiveness, redemption and eschatology, albeit in summary form. In that respect, there is nothing ‘generally religious’ about it at all. It is quite particularly Christian.
However, I think Nick Baines does hit the nail on the head later in his piece:
Well, the problem is basically the illiteracy of a liberal culture that thinks itself to be intellectually mature and culturally sound. This culture assumes (I choose the word carefully) that secular humanism is neutral – and self-evidently ‘true’ – and that, by definition, any religious world view is somewhere up the scale of irrational and loaded madness. A five-year-old child could demolish that one. There is no neutral space.
If you divide the world into the ‘religious’, within which each religious tradition has its own set of vested interests, and the ‘secular’, in which we behave with rational neutrality, then the decision of DCM makes perfect sense. Refuse all religious perspectives with their interests, and stick with the merely material and commercial, which is ‘neutral’ and interest-free. Except, of course, it is not. The comment of DCM’s finance director Paul Maloney was very revealing:
Having fully looked into the matter, I am afraid we will be unable to take forward the proposed Church of England campaign … DCM has a policy not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs.
Religion, it appears, is a personal belief rather than something public or communal, whilst commercial interests transcend the merely personal and should shape our culture without question, since they are ‘neutral.’
There’s another reason to reject this taxonomy of perspective. On what grounds could Steve Croft suppose that allowing the ad would not set a precedent? Only if Christianity in fact had a distinctive significance, over against other religious traditions, for British culture. The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, also an atheist, rejected the idea of the advert causing offence.
She wrote on Twitter: “As a gentle atheist, I’m not offended by Church screening gentle cinema adverts; we shouldn’t reject our deep cultural roots in Christianity.”
The ad could easily be played, without opening the floodgates of religious advertising, if it was recognised that Christianity has a unique influence on our values as Western, liberal democracy—which is, after all, why we are celebrating Christmas at all. I wonder if that is going to happen any time soon.
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