A sixty second commercial shows a former oil executive, a weight lifter, a child and some refugees uttering 63 words.
These words are instantly recognisable.
They are uttered by billions of people around the world every day. They are powerful and life transforming. They have changed the world, and will continue to.
They are commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer.
The advert has been given a U rating by the British Board of Film Classification and cleared by the Cinema Advertising Agency. Despite this the Odeon, Cineworld and Vue chains – which control the vast majority of cinemas around the country – have refused to show the advert as it “carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.”
So where, exactly, does the risk of upsetting, or offending, lie? Is it because the prayer is an expression of the Christian faith – and, some will argue, faith should stay inside the Church and outside the cinema? The irony is that the advert was booked to run before the new Star Wars film. Seven people in every thousand in England and Wales gave their religion as ‘Jedi’ in the 2001 Census.
So you can screen a whole movie about the Jedi faith, but you might upset people by running a Christian advert?
Neutrality is a myth. Worldviews are everywhere and they pervade adverts and movies. In a plural society, like Britain, secularism and this false neutrality is not the answer. We could follow the French route of an aggressive secularism that pushes religion to the shadows – the French laicite.
This ardent secularism banned prayer rooms from university campuses and hijabs from government buildings. It also failed miserably.
The other option is a plural public square making space for a variety of worldviews, those of all religions and none. This notion had thrived in Britain. It is deeply rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage – and depends upon this – though it does not require anyone to be a religious believer to believe in its value.
That said, even if religion shouldn’t be banned from cinema adverts, some would argue that as private companies cinemas should be able to do what they like.
These are the same people who protest that Ashers, a private company, should have made that cake. The parallels are interesting as it now appears that the cinemas encouraged and accepted the advert before changing their minds at the last minute.
Commercial companies are not completely free to do as they please. A blanket ban on all religious adverts is likely to discriminate against all religions. The key distinction in Ashers is that they did not refuse service based on the customer’s religion.
And of course the cinemas have to be consistent – any advert mentioning Christmas or Easter would presumably be refused for being offensive. Yet, a raft of advertisements which commercialise the celebration of the birth of Christ seem to have slipped past this policy.
So, if it’s not religion, what really is offensive about the Lord’s Prayer?
In response to the Church of England advertisement, some have complained that they don’t go to the cinema to have things they don’t want pushed at them. I am obviously going to the wrong cinema – there are twenty minutes of adverts before most movies. These adverts are far from value-free pushing messages of consumerism and materialism.
The latest deodorant, car or drink will change the story of my life, fulfil me, or meet all my desires. Digital Cinema Media have said that their policy is to refuse anything ‘connected to personal belief’ which should mean the end of all adverts. All adverts tell a story – they are trying to shape my values and beliefs and ultimately my behaviour so I buy their product.
In a consumer driven culture, a prayer that says “Give us this day our daily bread” is offensive – not to cinemagoers, but to the advertisers encouraging them to spend more in pursuit of happiness.
In 63 words the Lord’s Prayer checks our greed, calls us to surrender and declares a new boss is in town. It shapes our identity, redefines our relationships, affirms a greater purpose and calls for the kingdom of God to come. Coming at the end of the most radical manifesto ever spoken, the Sermon on the Mount, it really is a powerful prayer.
So yes – the advertisement is offensive. The Lord’s Prayer is offensive to the gods of consumerism and the corporate powers, but surely it shouldn’t be banned.
• Peter Lynas is NI director of the Evangelical Alliance