The Church of England often seems mired in internal controversies over issues such as same-sex “marriage” and lady bishops. Its leaders are in the firing lines of both internal critics and crusading secularists.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, was scolded a few days ago for admitting to a BBC interviewer that the Paris attacks made him “doubt” where God was “in all this”. A “doubting Thomas” is the last thing the Church needs at a time like this, wrote the editor of The Conservative Woman.
To be fair, Dr Welby said that he prayed to God about his doubts, which is as much as you can ask even an archbishop to do.
Now, just when he was about to appear before British cinema audiences as a man of prayer who encourages others to pray – a bunch of Christianophobic advertising executives have thrown a spanner in the works.
Happily, the Archbishop and his administration consider that a trespass too far on their Christian tolerance and are threatening to fight the decision before they forgive it.
What happened was this. Anticipating Christmas, the Anglicans wanted to encourage fellow Britons — who, as Prime Minister David Cameron has pointed out, belong to a Christian nation — that it is good to pray. So they produced a 60-second film about prayer that would be screened with other advertisements to the family-type audiences expected to fill theatres for the new Star Wars movie.
It’s a very nice, non-threatening, not overly pious piece of work. A succession of very different people ‑ starting with Dr Welby himself and including refugees, a grieving son, weightlifters at a gym, a sheep farmer and a gospel choir ‑ pray successive phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. The film ends with the tagline, Prayer is for everyone and points to the website justpray.uk
That’s all. No sermon about the meaning of Christmas, no exhortations to go to church, just a diverse line-up of Brits addressing God in the diversity of their daily lives.
But Digital Cinema Media, an agency that handles British film advertising for the major cinema chains, treated it like a sermon from some radical mullah. They believe it might upset or offend some people.
You will be pleased to know that this film passed the UK censors uncut (!) and with a “Universal” certificate, but the ad agency has its own censorship rules. It said in a statement that “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 Anglicans are, understandably, miffed by the rejection of a broadly inclusive (there’s even a North African woman wearing a white headscarf in the line-up of pray-ers) version of a prayer that, as a spokesman for the church said, is “prayed by billions of people across the globe every day, and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries.”
As Dr Welby said, “This advert is about as offensive as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day.”
Whose sensibilities are the cinema gatekeepers trying to protect?
People like the handful of sour-pusses who objected to the hugely popular #prayforparis hashtag after the Paris attacks? But surely Star Wars enthusiasts would be the last ones to object to a snippet of real religion given that the film franchise has assumed the status of a cult.
Muslims? Yet Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief,” according to Dominic Lawson writing in the Daily Mail.
Lawson, an atheist, agrees:
The man from the MCB has certainly got this atheist right: I would not be in the least offended by 60 seconds of people saying the Lord’s Prayer — although nothing on earth would get me into the cinema to watch a Star Wars movie in the first place. And Mogra is probably speaking for the vast majority of practising Muslims, whose religious outlook makes them especially sympathetic to the idea of promoting prayer.
For heaven’s sake, even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins thinks that refusing the ad is a violation of free speech.
Lawson also points out that DCM’s claim to be even-handedly against religious and political content would be more credible if they were not about to “screen an advertisement supporting UN policies on climate change, with the actor Liam Neeson providing what has been described as ‘the voice of God’.”
DCM have also screened an ad by “the League Against Cruel Sports, showing what that animal rights body called ‘the terror and cruelty of hunting from the hunted animal’s perspective’.”
Both have been contentious issues but the agency did not mind offending the opponents of these essentially political campaigns.
What did the cinemas have to lose, really, by screening a one-minute recital of the Our Father? Mass walkouts by Star Wars fans? A few cutting comments from a handful of secular miserablists? Or were they simply scared of looking tolerant of Christianity – the last taboo in liberal society?
In a truly liberal society, of course, everyone would be able to advertise their wares — Muslims, Jews, atheists, Christians, Calathumpians – within the limits of public order and safety, and the Lord’s Prayer is well within that limit.
Dr Welby is correct to say, “Let the public judge for themselves rather than be censored or dictated to.”
And it is good to hear the Church’s chief legal adviser warn that it could challenge the decision under the Equality Act, which bans commercial organisations from refusing services on religious grounds. Let’s hope the Church goes ahead with that. It would be doing a service to a lot more of humanity than its own flock.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.