Church of England

The National Secular Society's vacuous and arrogant stance against the Lord's Prayer


For decades the Church of England has gained a not entirely undeserved reputation for being a bit wet behind the ears and having all of the subversiveness of a ham and cheese quiche. But now we find its attempted foray into the world of multiplex advertising has led it to join the disreputable company of Zombie Creeping Flesh, Cannabal Holocaust, Deep Throat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre III – all deemed unfit for cinema audiences. There’s only so much sex, violence and recitals of the Lord’s Prayer that our society can handle before it slides into a sordid pit of depravity.

The joyous aspect of this furore is that as with anything we’re told is unsuitable for viewing, notoriety becomes the best form of free advertising – just ask Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Yesterday at 8am when the news of the #justpray video‘s censoring was beginning to arouse interest it had a paltry 531 views on YouTube now little more than 24 hours later it has racked up 203,181 plus further exposure to millions more via the papers and TV news. Yesterday His Grace suggested that the Rev’d Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church of England, is a communications genius for turning a ‘silly decision’ into a PR opportunity on a grand scale. He may well be right. The icing on the cake would now be for Digital Cinema Media (DCM) to concede that such an advert really isn’t ‘offensive’ after all and allow a few million more to watch it in full, taking a moment to reflect on the force of something truly festive and life changing before that other force in a galaxy far, far away awakens in front of their eyes.

Being made to sit through a series of adverts when we’ve already forked out a chunk of money to watch a film is bordering on offensive in itself, but we all cope with it. Plenty of those ads that DCM will be showing at Odeon, Cineworld and Vue cinemas in the run up to Christmas, will unsurprisingly centre on that very event. If DCM are so concerned that a film encouraging prayer is likely to deeply upset a potentially fictitious minority of cinema goers then surely they ought to be gagging the latest offerings from John Lewis and Marks and Spencer too on the grounds that they celebrate a religious festival that is exclusive to one religion.

Let’s ask a very simple question: Who exactly is going to be offended by so badly by the C of E’s offering that it would spoil their evening out? Even DCM didn’t have a problem with it up until a couple of months ago having previously offered a 55 per cent discount for an ad slot before showings of Star Wars Episode VII. The British Board of Film and the Cinema Advertising Association were happy with it as is Richard Dawkins who told the Guardian yesterday that, “If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” (Prayer isn’t trivial Richard, but coming from you, we’ll take that as an encouragement). In a welcome moment of solidarity, droves of self-proclaimed atheists came out on Twitter and elsewhere to lend their support for the film. As did the Muslim Council of Britain, explaining to the Mail on Sunday that they were “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”. So who would buck the trend and tell us all that being made to listen to the Lord’s Prayer would be a terribly traumatising experience?

Usually in these situations it’s a toss-up between the British Humanists and the National Secular Society. It looks like the BHA was enjoying a Sabbath day of rest yesterday which left the NSS’s president, Terry Sanderson to vent his fury: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.”

Really? Some of us have unexpectedly had to sit through trailers for Alvin and the Chipmunks and managed to survive without any obvious mental scars or a desire to demand a full refund. Perhaps Mr Sanderson needs to calm down just a little bit and get things in perspective. Who exactly is being arrogant here? Where does this vacuous claim come from? He may feel the need as a prominent secularist to promote his cause at every available opportunity, but giving the impression that he’s having a rant for the sake of it doesn’t help his cause. He didn’t do much better last month when he attacked the BBC for having too much religious programming despite it being a teeny, tiny proportion of the corporation’s total output.

Why should the NSS feel it has any greater right to determine what expressions of religion are acceptable? The attempts of secularists like the NSS to remove all traces of religion from public life can only lead to increasing ignorance, division and mistrust in our society. How exactly will that make our lives more joyful and fulfilling? Would DCM have been quite so worried about any offence being caused if people who have no explicit reason to be offended go on about how terrible these things are just to further their cause? If we honestly can’t cope with the Lord’s Prayer – which speaks of hope, grace and forgiveness – being presented in a very mild and thoughtful way then it speaks much more about our own insecurities and fears than anything else.

Prayer is for everyone, but only some of us are brave enough to believe that it can work. So in once sense prayer will inevitably be offensive. Not in the way that DCM have approached it which comes across as little more than naïve foolishness, but for those whose very aim is to dismiss every experience of prayer that leads to comfort, healing or restoration. For when prayer does work, it destroys the very paradigm that they wish to establish as the norm.

According to an ICM poll in 2013, four out of five adults believe in the power of prayer. Why should those who choose to believe otherwise dictate that this should not be a topic fit for sharing largely because they don’t have the guts to admit that they could be wrong?