It was timely that on the day that a survey for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released results of a survey showing that a third of EU women had experienced either physical or sexual violence, the Evangelical Alliance publicised their support for the No More Page 3 campaign. The campaign seeks to pressurise The Sun newspaper into removing its page 3 topless models.
It will be interesting to see what level of support the Evangelical Alliance's endorsement of the campaign generates amongst the two million evangelical Christians it represents in Britain.
Back in the late 1970s, when I was an ordination candidate from Africa studying at a well-known evangelical theological college in this country, I was an instigator of a Common Room motion proposing that the College's subscription to the newspapers that displayed Page 3 models should be discontinued. The reaction amongst my fellow ordinands was interesting.
A few were supportive, but the response of the majority ranged from, at best, the somewhat patronising dismissal of what was deemed to be a rather Victorian colonial mindset, to outright hostility at worst. A number of ordinands, some who are now in senior church leadership positions, saw it as a right-wing attempt to remove working-class tabloid newspapers from the theological college Common Room. The newspapers were justified on the grounds that a knowledge of, and identification with, the average working class Briton was essential for any would-be clergyman. Indeed, the whole debate became highly politicised, and when the vote was taken there was a clear majority in favour of retaining the offending tabloids.
The prevailing attitude was that those who were offended by the Page 3 girls were under no obligation to pick up or read the newspaper in the Common Room. The question of what kind of witness it might give to visitors to the College walking through the Common Room (where the papers were often left on view) was not really deemed worthy of much consideration. Nor, I suspect, the argument that over-sexualised images of young models were demeaning to women and whether subscribing to those newspapers was a tacit endorsement of that.
Of course, it could be argued (and was, by a number of students at that time) that none of the national newspapers, whether tabloid or broadsheet, could meet with unequivocal Christian approval, and that it was therefore wrong to reject The Sun or The Mirror merely on the grounds of that particular issue. Surely there were equally objectionable attitudes and practices that were evident in the broadsheets? And yes, long before the News of the World's phone-hacking scandal came to light, most thinking Christians would have had little hesitation in highlighting the unsavoury aspects of virtually any newspaper.
Does that mean that Christians should not buy newspapers, period? Well, of course, each Christian has to decide for themselves before God what they read and how they spend their money. But given that physical and sexual violence against women is clearly a major problem in British society, the Evangelical Alliance's willingness to rally behind the No More Page 3 campaign is important. Even if sociologists were to dismiss any connection between the effect of sexualised pictures on male mindsets and the perpetrating of physical or sexual violence, EA General Director Steve Clifford makes the valid point that, "As evangelical Christians we believe that we are all made in the image of God and that our bodies are a product of God's amazing design, not to be ogled at or objectified."
The EA is writing to every single church leader in their membership asking them to sign the No More Page 3 petition. Christians, of course, are sometimes wary of petitions on the grounds that they nearly always highlight what we are against, and thereby typecast us as negative people. But, interestingly, this did not originate as a Christian petition. Plenty of people with no specific Christian allegiance can readily identify what is sexist, exploitative and damaging to children as well as to adults. Whatever would-be Christian leaders felt a generation ago, my mind goes back to the words of another Christian leader from much longer ago, who said "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.