Anatomy of an outrage (or, a prayerful revolution)

The Church of England thought it would be good to record one of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith for a new generation to hear as a prequel to watching about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It was rejected by the largest agency distributing adverts to cinemas meaning it will not be seen in Odeon, Cineworld or Vue screens. The agency, DCM, referred to their policy which clearly states they that they reject religious adverts because of the potential they have to offend people of different or no faiths.

Cue outrage.

    1. Saturday night as the first front pages hit twitter the outrage began, how dare they stop us from praying the Lord’s prayer. Well, they’re not actually stopping it, they just have no obligation to screen it. Some of the early outrage suggested discrimination that wasn’t actually taking place.
    2. The National Secular Society never miss a chance to miss the point: “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.” Presumably they will be leading the campaign against all adverts and trailers before films .
    3. People with different beliefs speak up for the prayer being shown, the Muslim Council of Britain, atheist MPs, Stephen Fry, even Richard Dawkins got in on the act. Which both reminded me of the strong cultural memory of Christianity in the UK, and the passivity towards it’s infusion across society. The latter is not necessarily a good thing.
    4. Enough time had passed for people to start writing blogs about it. Nonsense on stilts opined Giles Fraser.
    5. Eagled eyed observers who looked at the DCM policy realised it was no surprise that the advert was rejected. Although the Church of England state that the policy wasn’t in existence when they first inquired about running the advert.
    6. But the Lord’s Prayer is offensive. If I’d been quicker off the mark I’d have gone with this angle but Stephen Croft and Andrew Wilson beat me to it.
    7. Over 200,000 people have watched the advert on YouTube, and a similar number from the Church of England’s facebook account.

Two very brief comments on this fandango: first, I initially thought this advert had been designed to be rejected, however, this wasn’t the case: when the Church of England first put the advert forward for publication it was accepted before being declined later. The new policy from the DCM is abundantly clear – it may be ‘nonsense on stilts’ but it is clear. The policy may warrant a legal challenge in that it privileges non-religious beliefs over religious beliefs, but from my non-legal perspective I think that would be a hard case to make.

This was a brilliant piece of marketing, it’s been all over the news yesterday and today. I had wondered if this was all part of a grand stategy, but instead seems to be a great example of a PR victory coming out of the censor’s jaws of defeat. Far more people will see it than if ever it was run before Star Wars. In season 6 of the West Wing when Santos’ primary campaign is running very short of cash they can afford one TV spot. They know they need to leverage it to get people to cover the coverage, and thereby exponentially increasing the impact. That’s exactly what’s happened here.

Second, I hope it helps Christians to think about what they pray. The words of the Lord’s prayer are offensive. They are counter-cultural, they do offend the norms by which our society runs. They should provoke and challenge us, they should disrupt and disturb, they are about a King whose Kingdom is yet to fully come, it is about a God in heaven who is above all other rulers. It’s a prayerful revolution.

[UPDATE: I’ve amended the paragraph beginning two very brief comments to take account of things I’ve read and picked up today.]

Godbaby controversy

A few weeks ago the Church Ads group released their plans for their annual advertising campaign which continues the theme ‘Christmas starts with Christ’. The whole point is to encourage the public to think about Christ amid the festivities, presents, mince pies and mulled wine.

The adverts tend to be arresting and they tend to be controversial and this year’s is no different with the BBC and the Daily Mail reporting shock at this image of Jesus promoted by the church. Words like blasphemous and irreverent abound.

Firstly, the picture is a little freaky. It also doesn’t look particularly Middle-Eastern. Secondly the cries and wees slogan is a little base.

But while both these can count against it l, they also work in its favour. The image grabs your attention and the words remind you of the humanity of Jesus, of his incarnation – he was one of us.

The test will be whether it work, when on the billboards and bus stops it provokes conversation and gets people talking about Christ at a time when he is often neglected. I also think it provides a challenge to the church, do we like our god clean and sanitised? I don’t think it does what it is criticised of doing – making Jesus a laughing stock or reinforcing the idea that he’s not real, just a toy good for a bit of diversion.

One final thing that’s of interest: yesterday afternoon I got a call from the BBC looking for someone from the Evangelical Alliance to go on this morning’s breakfast show to talk about the adverts, and they expected we’d be speaking against the ads. They certainly divide opinion and we’ve had lively discussions in the office, but I found it slightly disconcerting that the evangelicals were the go to people for a voice ‘against’ something.

Simon Jenkins gives his defence of the advert.

And the Beaker Folk point out why it might not work.

Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines explains his not quite so enthusiastic support for the ad.

Here’s the slightly less provocative version of the ad