There was a time not so very long ago when the most common complaint about Christmas was that it had become too commercial and that its Christian significance was being forgotten. Since then the decline in religious belief in Britain has grown so much that the secularity of Christmas is taken for granted. It is effectively a pagan festival now. According to the Church of England, only about one million people, or around two per cent of the population, still attend church on Sundays (though about twice that number do so on Christmas Day). The Church is in a bad way, and it is only natural that it should seek, as it has always done, to recruit new members by proselytism: hence its decision, in the run-up to Christmas, to use modern media for the purpose and screen a 60-second commercial in cinemas featuring the Lord’s Prayer.
I haven’t seen the commercial, but it sounds jumpy and irritating in the way that most cinema advertisements are. It reportedly shows the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, reciting the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, with the other lines being said in succession by different groups of people including schoolchildren, refugees, policemen and weightlifters (why weightlifters?).
It may well be irritating, but certainly no more so than all the other advertisements for such things as motor cars, watches, drinks, deodorants, or Jeremy Clarkson advertising his new paymaster, Amazon. But it has been banned by Britain’s biggest cinema chains on the grounds that it would offend cinema audiences. Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the company that handles most of Britain’s cinema advertising and is owned by Odeon and Cineworld, announced very late in the day, well after it had been approved by the appropriate authorities, that the C of E’s commercial should not be shown because it had a policy of not screening religious commercials on the grounds that advertisements reflecting personal beliefs risked ‘upsetting or offending audiences’.
I don’t know where this policy springs from or how it came about, but it seems perfectly reasonable of the C of E that it is now complaining to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that DCM’s decision is discriminatory and an attack on religious freedom. Who could the commercial offend? Some people may be offended by it, just as some people might easily be offended by ads for deodorants or by ones starring Jeremy Clarkson. But this was not a commercial on behalf of Islamic State. It was a commercial on behalf of England’s established church of which the Queen is the Supreme Governor. And, as Justin Welby said, it was ‘about as “offensive” as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day’.
As for the content of the ad, it consisted purely of the words of the Lord’s Prayer, which, in its calls for forgiveness, resistance to temptation, and deliverance from evil, hardly invites much controversy among normal people. And to advocate the efficacy of prayer, however many people may not believe in it, is a desirable antidote to all the violence and brutality we are living through at the moment.
The C of E also deserves more respect than this. It may be a much-diminished institution, but it still has an important cultural role in our national life. People without faith still turn to it for baptisms, weddings and funerals. They are still comforted by its music and its rituals and inspired by its architectural heritage. It crowns our monarchs and commemorates our war dead. Life would be much poorer without it. Yet here are cinema chains stamping on its little effort to remind us of its existence and to recruit supporters. This is shameful.
Well, Christmas is upon us. I am more than a little wobbly in my own Christian beliefs, but I plan to go to church on Christmas Day, mainly to show my contempt for Odeon and Cineworld, but also to show my affection and support for the institution in which I was brought up and which I continue to admire, for all its defects, idiocies and misguided pursuit of ‘relevance’. But there is still time for the cinema chains to achieve redemption by changing their minds. The commercial was due to be screened before the new Star Wars blockbuster, which opens a week before Christmas.