What the Lord's Prayer cinema controversy tells us about religion in the UK today

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Today, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Church of England and Richard Dawkins have united to question the wisdom of the Digital Cinema Media (DCM) agency, (which runs Odeon, Cineword and Vue) in banning the Lord's Prayer advert by the Church of England. The resultant fuss and media and Internet chatter, have already ensured the ad has been a great success. However, what interests me is what this little pre-Christmas spat teaches us about the state of religion in Britain today.

1) Secular 'equality' means that all religions are to be excluded from the public square. DCM declared: "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," and that "in this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally". The National Secular Society issued a statement that declared that the Church of England does not have "an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience". The problem is that none of us, when we go to the cinema have paid good money so that we can experience adverts for deodorant, cars, alcohol or chocolate – but we are a 'captive audience' nonetheless (unless we have the wisdom to head in 20 minutes late and so miss them). That is the point of advertising. 'Equality' here just simply means the exclusion of all religion from the public square – except of course the philosophy and faith of the atheistic secularists. The British Board of Film Classification passed the advert as a 'U'. It is not a preachy, exploitative or proselytsing advert and yet, in case some people are offended, it has to be banned. This is the danger of the secularist position. I have even heard people 'reasoning' that because of the Paris attacks, this advert should be banned – in their minds there is a logical connection between a Jihadist terrorists and a Church of England vicar!

2) Militant secularists are one of the greatest threats to tolerance and freedom of religion in the UK today. But who is offended? Not Muslims, not Hindus and it seems not even the majority of the British public who are indifferent to most religious things. I was on BBC Radio this morning speaking about this issue, and they were struggling to get any callers who agreed with the ban. The Muslim Council spoke out against it. Richard Dawkins spoke out against it. Stephen Fry tweeted "Banning the ad is bizarre, unfair and misguided." It seemed as though unanimity was going to break out among the chattering classes. But no – the National Secular Society swung into action. They immediately tweeted "There is no ban on the Lord's Prayer. We support the right of cinemas to decline religious/party political adverts."  We will leave aside the semantics of the difference between 'banning' and 'declining to show', and just note the hypocrisy of the secularists. It's a commercial organisation they cry, they can do what they want. A standard they did not apply to the bakery case where Asher's were prosecuted for refusing to post a religious/political advert on one of their cakes supporting Same Sex Marriage. 

3) There is an increasing immaturity and incivility in public debate in the UK today. Are we not capable of watching an advert for something we don't like and agree with, without needing to be protected from it? And why are people so intolerant of those who hold different points of view? Os Guinness wrote a superb book, The Case for Civility, addressing this issue. The polarisation between the militant secularists and the religious could cause a great deal of harm. While it is true that some religious people use the notion of offence to try and shut people up, the trend in todays culture is in the reverse direction. It is the militant secularists who are using the notion of offence to shut the religious up. They have apparently been so traumatised by the possibility of there being a God, that they want society to be a 'safe space' where no mention of God, except perhaps as an expletive on an object of ridicule, is ever made. If you are going to ban ads in cinemas, then logically you should remove them from billboards and buildings... indeed all crosses and steeples should not be available for public view lest someone takes offence!

The secularists want Christianity airbrushed out of British society. All of it – education, politics, media, and history. One recent example of that, which would be amusing if it were not so pathetic, is the admission that Downton Abbey had any references to Christianity removed in case it 'offended' people. Alastair Bruce, the historical advisor to the show told The Daily Telegraph that the Crawley family is never shown in the process of sitting down to dinner, with the action instead starting part-way through the meal. This, he said, was to avoid having to show the characters saying grace. 
"In essence, you hardly ever see a table that isn't already sat at. We never see the beginning of a luncheon or a dinner, because no one was ever allowed to see a grace being said, and I would never allow them to sit down without having said grace," said Mr Bruce.

It was so ludicrous that he says he was banned from having napkins folded in the shape of a bishop's mitre, in case it was seen as 'religious'. There was even serious discussion about renaming the show because it featured the term 'Abbey'!

4) Man Britons still regard Britain as in some sense a 'Christian' country. The reaction to this advert is quite revealing at another level. While the political secularists seek to remove every last vestige of our Christian heritage from public life, it seems as though the majority of the great British public don't agree. Most people don't go to church, but nonetheless many still regard Britain as a 'Christian' country. Those of us who are Bible-believing Christians might not like the terminology of Christendom but we should not be so quick to neglect the general sense that many of our fellow citizens have, of Christianity being an integral part of our culture, history and current society.

We are not an Islamic country, we are not an atheist country and we are still not a secular humanist country. We are a secular Christian country founded upon Christian principles (principles which include tolerance, equality and compassion) that therefore welcomes people of other faiths and none. Perhaps we need to get people to question whether replacing Christianity with the, as yet untried, secularist promise of nirvana, is such a good idea? And then we need to remind people that in order to have a Christian society you need Christians. Praying the Lord's Prayer is not a bad place to begin. It's for that reason I hope and pray the DCM will see sense, start treating their customers like adults, and stop being unwitting agents for the atheistic secularist faith. Let the advert show. Given the rest of the material that is on display in British cinemas, I would suggest that the great British public will be able to cope!

David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.