Is the Lord’s Prayer offensive?

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 23.25.37While 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 ‘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.

  1. 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.
  2. The ads were cleared by the Cinema Advertising Authority and the British Board of Film Classification.
  3. 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.
  4. One slightly confusing factor is that, in previous years, they have allowed ads for the Alpha course to be screened.
  5. 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.
  6. 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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17 thoughts on “Is the Lord’s Prayer offensive?”

  1. Thanks, Ian, for bringing some calm thoughtfulness to the debate – some of the reaction has verged on the hysterical and has used emotive language, although the paradox is that for once I found myself agreeing, in part at least, with Giles Fraser.

    For me this piece captures the key dilemma; To what extent can we consider Christian faith privileged in contemporary Britain? My sense is that despite our Judaeo-Christian heritage, the only way forward is to recognise that we have to debate the nature of truth in the public square and to demonstrate the truth claims of Christianity. In that we follow in the footsteps of our first century predecessors.

    • John, you agree with GF? Oh no!

      It is worth remembering that there are a number of levels on which you can ‘privilege’ Christian faith. One of those is in relation to truth, and you are right: this is the apologetic challenge.

      But there are two more basic grounds on which you can do this. One is the historical contextual. We do not have sales running up to and holidays at Christmas in a way we don’t for Rosh Hashanah or Eid. So we already privilege Christianity within our culture.

      The second is raising questions about what constitutes ‘personal’ belief, which relates to truth in the public square, as you say.

      This second question asks whether DMC should have the kind of policy they do; the first asks whether Christianity should be treated uniformly with others within that policy.

  2. I would not object to other religious groups advertising. I object to the suppression of the freedom of speech. I believe that there needs to be more openness and discussion of beliefs and we need to help the secular humanists to see that their viewpoint is not neutral, in fact it is dangerous to freedom.

    • Ross, if you want to go down that route I think you are leading us to the nightmare scenario of religion as a marketable commodity, and will have to tolerate the richest (i.e. Tom Cruise) imposing propaganda about his beliefs on everyone.

      Here in the States, it is shocking to see medicines advertised, as if a nice video of people playing golf is more important than medical evidence. The parallel scenario with a market of religions would be equally shocking.

      • Hi Ian,

        Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you, but the ‘nightmare scenario’ already happens in political promotion, where the richest parties ‘impose propaganda about their beliefs on everyone’. We still have the freedom to investigate, and listen to opinions contrary to the claims of those beliefs.

        Also, I’d be surprised if any of those ads for US pharmaceutical companies omit any recommendation that sufferers from the symptoms they seek to alleviate should seek the advice of a qualified physician.

        Unless there is a blatant appeal for donations, I’m not sure why permission to propagate one’s beliefs freely, but responsibly through mass media is tantamount to the commodification of those beliefs.

  3. Nuanced piece, Ian, thank you. 🙂

    I can see how, thanks to the legacy of Christendom, we could justify giving Christianity special status in the West — but as a secularist, and a believer in equality before the law, I’d have to come down in favor of an all-or-nothing approach. Christianity had special status once, but now, it’s just one religion amongst many.

    • Thanks. I understand that position, but, given that secularism is itself a worldview with personal beliefs involved, I am wondering what the justification is for you to impose your belief system on all ‘religionists’ in such a totalitarian way…?

      • Secularism’s merely state neutrality in matters of religion, so it’s hard to see what’s being imposed on religious believers.

        I would deny Christianity (or Scientology, Islam, Jainism, whatever) special status, but denying privilege isn’t much of imposition. Especially when Christendom only came about by ruthlessly and violently suppressing its opponents.

        A level playing field isn’t much of a burden, is it?

        • I think that’s either an optimistic, a naive or even a dishonest exposition of secularism. There is a difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ secularism, but overall secularism makes claims to superior epistemic confidence and marginalises religious views’ epistemic claims, and does so in a totalising way.

          • Ian, secularism’s about the legal status of religion. That’s it. It makes no theological claims, totalizing or otherwise. Ironically, it began in part amongst Christian dissenters, who didn’t want to see a rival church enjoy the perks of establishment.

            Secularists can, of course, also be hostile to religion; but they can just as easily be devout believers, believers who defend a wall of separation between church and state.

  4. So, DCM (the agency that decided that the cinema ads were offensive) stated in defending its ‘policy not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion’ that there was “considerable negative feedback from audiences” to adverts from both sides in the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum.’

    And yet, in the face of that negative feedback from the 2014 Scottish Referendum, they ran political ads for the 2015 General Elections, knowing full well that a sure-fire way to avoid offence would be to ban General Election party political broadcasts from the cinema too. Yet, my local Vue cinema ran them as, I’m sure, others did.

    It’s just indefensible hypocrisy and prejudice.

  5. Yes David, DCM are being inconsistent. So what? I prefer to forgive DCM for being inconsistent, then on the Day of Judgement God may forgive me for my own inconsistencies.
    There is also the point that it’s nice if Christian bakers can be allowed not to bake cakes bearing messages they disagree with, so let’s allow DCM to not do what they don’t want to also.
    C’mon Church of England, get a life. Just move on.

  6. The Gospel of materialism which is what most cinema adverts promote is not neutral. It is asking us to buy into a culture where things are seen as the key to a successful life. I could say I find that more offensive than the idea of allowing a spiritual dimension (of whatever faith) to be advertised, though I take the point made about religion not being a marketable commodity.

  7. I just wondered how many more viewings of the advert have happened as a result of the ban? The stats would be interesting to know. What has the role of the DCM inadvertently been in Christian evangelism?

  8. I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the decision to ban the ad, or whether it is, or is not, limiting free speech to do so. However, the accusation that it could be offensive is absolutely true.

    As alluded to in the article, identifying with God as ABBA (Daddy) is a distinctly Christian way of understanding the relationship between humans and our Creator.

    “Hallowed be your name…” is a call to see God make His great in a world that generally wants nothing to do with Him.

    “Your kingdom come…” is a petition for a kingdom of selfless love to come into direct conflict with a world built on pleasing itself however it wishes.

    “Your will be done…” is asking that the will of the Creator God be made active and apparent here on earth – where my will reigns – as it is in heaven.

    “Forgive us our sins…” requires admitting that we are people who willingly and unwittingly hurt others and ourselves and God by making bad choices and that we are accountable for that to someone outside of ourselves.

    “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…” reminds us that this world is full of temptations – personal and universal – which we must be aware of and willing to admit our inability to resist, without help from a Daddy God who loves us and is actively and intimately involved in our everyday lives.

    Is that potentially offensive? Yes, it is and it should be! As Christians we have tried to float along now for too long expecting everyone to agree with us. And when they don’t we either begin moan loudly that the world has gone astray and hope the government does something to fix it. Or, we go into hiding because we have no idea how respond to those who don’t hold our traditional “British” or “American” values. The government is no longer there to fight our cause on our behalf. The message of Jesus – who gave us this prayer – needs to go out to this world, but it’s up to us to take it, and yes, that will offend some people.

  9. You mention this at the end of your article, but to me it’s the most important (and shameful) point. The west – and specifically western Christians – have bought into the secular argument that religion is and should be an individual matter, and “secular values” should dominate.

    This argument has a certain validity in the US, though my reading leads me to believe that the founders would see “no established religion” and “non-christian society” as very different concepts. But in the UK there *is* an established church, and an official state religion, and it’s Christian. Heck, your head of state is also nominal head of the Anglican church. The only reason for Christianity not to be given a prominent and privileged place in the UK is that there are movers and shakers trying to shove it out, and the Church (as a political entity, not necessarily individuals) has been happy to “move with the times” (aka rubber stamp those trying to eliminate any political or secular power the Church may have).

    The UK Anglican Church needs to grow a spine and say “We are the official state religion. We have been for centuries. This is a good thing. And while we don’t demand that any given person join the Church, we’re not going to help you disenfranchise us.”. Some people have been asking whether it would be good to disestablish the Church; that discussion is only happening because they’ve bought the lie that the State – rather than the Church – is the primary focus of moral authority in the nation. When someone demands that you move from the prime suite into the closet, you tell them to go jump, not offer to move out early and pay the moving costs.


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