In an age where we can sit in our living rooms, and download literally tens of thousands of films, an unending number of TV programmes and more content than anyone could watch in a lifetime via YouTube, it may be surprising that going to the cinema remains as popular as ever.
But the hype surrounding the new Star Wars film is vociferous and with its release coming in the run-up to Christmas, distributors expect record-breaking ticket sales. It's understandable then, that the Church of England decided it to capitalise on festive Star Wars fever and buy some advertising space. In the final weeks of Advent, people who don't go to church for the rest of the year might be looking to their 'spiritual side' and asking questions about whether God is real, what the nativity story can tell us and whether we might be able to get beyond shopping and be in touch with the transcendent.
The Church produced a minute-long advert with a very simple and ancient concept. A diverse group of people simply praying. From refugees to body builders and from school children to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, the footage shows normal people doing what normal people have always done.
In this instance, they're praying the Lord's Prayer, an old and profound prayer, formulated by Jesus. It's one of the few things which unites different branches of the Church, believers of diverse backgrounds across time and space. It's something most British people will still be familiar with, whether or not they attend church.
So it made for depressing news this weekend to hear that the advert was not going to be shown by cinemas. The Church said it had effectively been 'banned' from showing the ad. The agency responsible suggested this wasn't the case – that it was merely enforcing a blanket policy of not accepting religious or political adverts.
This may superficially sound reasonable. But a closer inspection makes the decision seem more murky. DCM, which is responsible for placing ads in cinemas does have a policy which states, "To be approved, an Advertisement must...not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising."
So far, so clear. But there are two issues. First, when pointing to this policy on its Twitter feed, DCM said, "DCM has a policy of not accepting 'political or religious advertising' content for use in its cinemas... Some advertisements –unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions... as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith."
So here DMC is suggesting that anything which "could cause offence" can't be shown. The problem here is obvious. I might be offended by any number of companies which advertise their products. Those companies which refuse to pay a Living Wage, those companies which don't pay their fair share of tax, those companies which ban trade unions and so on. But such companies are free to advertise in the cinema, whether I feel offended or not. So there is a double standard at work.
Secondly there's the issues of whether the Church was even told about this policy before the plug was pulled on the advert. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, said on Twitter that far from having a long-held policy, DCM had changed its mind recently. He said, "DCM had given positive encouragement & offer of discount until a few weeks ago. No policy then." When he was asked, "you're saying this policy was only created in last few weeks?" The bishop responded, "Well they never said anything six months ago when they were offering a discount." At this point, the Church of England's Communications Director, Rev Arun Arora stepped in and tweeted, "Policy didn't exist. They were still checking its legality in sept 15."
It's ok to sell all the things you don't need like popcorn, perfume & booze in cinemas. But not prayer. Which you might.— Stephen Cottrell (@CottrellStephen) November 22, 2015
So the Church seems convinced that DCM's stance here has been made up on the hoof. That's something the Bishop of Leeds picks up on in his blog on the furore, saying, "They have exposed yet again the intellectual and cultural redundancy of a dominant knee-jerk assumption about religion and the world."
No-one is suggesting this is an easy issue. In fact it's something Christian groups, churches and other faith groups rub up against on a daily basis. How much is it appropriate to share our faith? How much can we talk about our beliefs when offering a service to the public?
This was at the heart of a recent report by Theos entitled, The Problem Of Proselytism. It's also the theme of a conference next week for charities and faith groups who offer services to the public. How shall we behave in the public square?
Keeping the Middle East in the forefront of our minds, we mustn't be seduced by suggesting we're being 'persecuted' because this advert won't be shown. Clearly that isn't true. And clearly, there have been ways in which Christians have abused positions of power in the past.
So, when operating in the public space, there are things which clearly aren't appropriate for us to do. We should never 'force' anyone to say the Lord's Prayer. But is saying the Lord's Prayer in itself 'offensive?' If so, why?
We have a great story to tell and we mustn't be boxed in by negative version of secularism, which wants to extinguish all representations of faith from the public space.
The Problem of Proselytism day conference organised by Theos and the Centre For Theology & Community takes place next Wednesday, 2nd December from 11am – 4pm in the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields. The event is free and you can book in here.