Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Our Father at the Cinema

The banning of a Church of England advert for prayer consisting of the recitation of the Lord's Prayer has undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of people watching the ad and hearing the prayer! It has also stung the Church of England and, indeed, many people who count themselves Christians and can't see what all the fuss is about, or who regard the ban as an attack on freedom of speech and religious belief. Even the Prime Minister commented that he thought it all ridiculous, perhaps reflecting a sense of shock that, in a nation that has until recently regarded itself as Christian, this could happen.

"The Lord's Prayer may be committed to memory quickly
 but it is slowly learned by heart.' F.D. Maurice

Digital Cinema Media, who imposed the ban, state that their decision is based on anxieties that the ad 'risked upsetting or offending audiences'. More importantly, I think, they also state that showing it would run contrary to their policy of not screening ads that 'in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute political or religious advertising.' They hold that 'a clear neutral stance remains the fairest policy for all and allows DCM to treat all political and religious beliefs equally.' This is a very coherent position. The Church of England's legal department have stated that this decision may give rise to legal proceedings though it's difficult to see on what grounds they would succeed since the Equality Act 2010 makes it clear (Section 13) that discrimination depends on a person or company treating A differently from B - it's not discrimination to treat all entities equally well/badly (sometimes called the 'bastard to everyone' defence!) So the debate is centring on 'giving offence' and the fact that there is no 'right not to be offended' in British law. 

I've recently been to see Spectre, Suffragette and MacBeth and I wonder how I might have reacted had any or all of them been preceded by the screening of ads with an uncontextualized and unexplained recitation of, say, the Tephilla and Shema (Jewish prayers) or verses about alms-giving from the Koran or a demo of the principal positions in Tai Chi. I imagine I would have watched politely and even been quite interested but I would have been puzzled about the relevance and purpose of showing them. And I might wonder whether, next time, there would be Pagan, Buddhist, Humanist or Sikh ads and where this was all leading.

Odd, this move to advertise the possibility of prayer. We are told by various surveys that between 65% and 80% of the population prays. We know that a lot of people use the Lord's Prayer; as the churches have hastened to point out in defence of the ad, billions of people around the world use it every day. We know that, as well as people of faith, some people who regard themselves as agnostic or of 'no religious belief' pray at times of extremity. We know that prayer is profoundly and intrinsically bound up in the way we live and that to separate it from this whole-life context runs the risk of emptying it of much of its power. We have the example of Jesus who appears to have taught the Lord's Prayer to His followers, at their request, and then trusted the example of their prayers, lives and words to spread it. And we have the example of the relative ineffectiveness of teaching the Lord's Prayer to generations children at school by staff who do not share the faith, as has happened over the last 40 years.  So what is the ad setting out to achieve and what can we learn from the reaction to the ban?

If the idea was to communicate that everyone has the option to pray, it was unnecessary. In my experience people know that. If it was to remind people of the existence of the church or the words of the central Christian prayer, there are probably better ways to do it. If it was to invite people into a relationship with God and with other people who pray using the #justpray hashtag as I suspect it was, then OK, but let's recognise this for what it is, namely, an evangelistic enterprise using competitive, consumerist tactics to influence people's spiritual practice and choices. I'm not convinced that this is where the church best puts its effort and money.

Strangely it is in it's own miscalculation that the Church of England has succeeded. Due to the DCM ban, thousands of people have sat quietly in their own homes and places of prayer and meditation and considered the relevance, power and challenge of these ancient words. The prayer Jesus taught His followers is based on even older prayers from Judaism. Who knows what the fruits will be? Who says spiritual benefits are not born of mistakes? There's something about redemption here. But there ought to be something, too, about honesty. We live in a religiously diverse society where faith or belief systems that assume, as of right, to have a voice that is denied others are dangerous. Jesus lived at the cross-roads of the main trade routes of His time where several of the world's religions were in evidence. He seems to have trusted to the fruits of a life of genuine prayer over-flowing into action to persuade people to try prayer out for themselves. 'Jesus was praying in a certain place and after He had finished, one of the disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray.' (Luke 11.1) Attempting to join the maelstrom of consumerist advertising, though well meant, is not necessarily the same thing and is not quite where we should put our faith or our hope for the future of Christianity.