So the Church of England is not allowed to show the #JustPray video of the Lord's Prayer as a cinema ad. The evergreen popularity of Star Wars would have guaranteed that it would be seen by huge numbers of all ages. The days before Christmas seemed an ideal time. But at the eleventh hour Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the company that manages advertising in the big cinema chains has said no. It would go against the policy of not accepting ads 'connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion'. It might offend people. (Did DCM make it clear at the planning stage that this was its policy? I think we should know.)
It's an intriguing debate. You'd expect this kind of thing in France where the Republic has a fiercely defended doctrine of laïcité which means that public space is strictly neutral when it comes to religion. Hence the annual rows about whether the Christmas crib can be displayed in the foyer of public buildings like the Mairie. We see it in this country too, though not yet with the same shrillness. Watch whether your town hall carries a sign wishing you a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Seasons Greetings' (with or without an apostrophe). See if your kids are allowed to perform in a school nativity play that focuses on an infant called Jesus.
People go to the cinema to be entertained, not offended - that's the gist. But there's a lot of cinema advertising that very much offends me. Far from being value-free, it's heavily freighted with all the bogus assumptions of consumerism. It tells me what I need, shapes my hungers, tempts me to spend money I don't have. It persuades me to buy into a set of values that is alien to my core beliefs. From fast cars and seductive fragrances to chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, the advert says: you must have this and have it now! Your humanity will be diminished if you don't! Here's where fulfilment and purpose lie! All deeply theological and filled with unconscious commentary on the human condition and the nature of desire. And DCM's policy statement about refusing to show anything 'connected to personal beliefs' is just naive. All advertising is about personal values and attitudes - it's precisely 'beliefs' that advertisers want to influence as they try to persuade us to buy their product!
But in an age of toleration (which I'm so grateful to have been born into), I do not have the right not to be offended. Nobody does. As a Christian, would I be upset if a cinema ad showed the Islamic call to prayer and devout Muslims streaming into the mosque? Or Jewish people at the Western Wall praying uttering the Shema? Or Hindus on pilgrimage to their sacred river? Of course not. I'd be glad to think that humane spiritual values were being promoted and the lives of other faith communities affirmed. What about atheists and their ads on London buses, 'There probably isn't a God, so get on and enjoy your life'? No problem. Let the argument happen, I say. It can only do us good to listen carefully to others, exercise free speech without fear, disagree passionately if we want to, and even take the risk of changing our minds. When Richard Dawkins says he's relaxed about the Lord's Prayer advert because people are big enough to cope with it, he's saying something important.
But even if I don't have the right not to be offended, it's proper to place boundaries on what is allowable in public discourse. Here's what DCM is possibly arguing. Western democracies struggle with this, and it's far from clear what crosses the line of acceptability and what doesn't. Threats to public or personal safety are the easier cases. Religion and politics are more difficult. The temptation is to draw the line too far in and exclude content that is not only harmless in itself but offers stimulus to thought and discussion. The effect is to infantilise us by being over-protective and parental. No-one is arguing that radical Islamist propaganda or promoting the political programmes of far right extremists should be showed on our cinema or TV screens. But who is going to place the C of E's gentle Lord's Prayer video in the category of the deviant and dangerous, to be suppressed at all costs? Does DCM not rate the intelligence of the viewing public very highly?
It's dug itself into a hole here. No doubt DCM is trying to be even-handed and respond consistently to endless requests to promote this or that ideology or creed. And of course it's free to show or not show whatever it wants. But it hasn't done the calibration carefully enough. Maybe the religious landscape is too mysterious to navigate. Then their leaders need advisors who can help them become more literate when it comes to faith. But make no mistake. By not showing the Lord's Prayer, they are making a clear statement about the beliefs and values that they do wish to promote. And because they are in control of what we see, that removes from us the audience the chance to make up our own minds.
(I'm tempted here to add something about the profoundly theological character of cinema. Film is a rich resource for theology and spiritual reflection. In particular, Star Wars has given rise to a large and fascinating literature about human destiny and redemption. The big cinema chains have never fought shy of showing films about religion. Cinema is a space where there is deep and passionate engagement with religion both explicitly and in more analogical and metaphorical ways. So DCM is out of step with its own medium.)
To me, being infantilised is a lot worse than being offended. And in hard cases, I'd rather take the risk of including rather than excluding. I know that precedents haunt all decision-makers. But DCM is being needlessly risk-averse. So I hope it will have the courage to change its mind about this innocent little film. To treat us as grown-ups won't be the end of civilisation as we know it.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.