Banning the Lord’s Prayer advert is a foolish affront to freedom of speech

A still from the Church of England's advert

Most of the cinemas in the country will not be showing a one minute advertisement made by the Church of England which features the Our Father (or the Lord’s Prayer, as Anglicans, and indeed most English people, call it.) You can read the Catholic Herald report and watch the advert here.

The reaction to this ban has been uniformly negative. It seems to be a case of political correctness gone mad, as well as a threat to our free speech. The cinema chains in question look pretty foolish.

However, I am not altogether surprised that the cinema chains refused to run the advertisement, or thought that the Our Father would not go down well with their audiences. I regret their decision, but it has to be admitted that for many people, religion is a huge turn off, and thus anything that is overtly religious would tend to get the thumbs down. There are several reasons for this.

The first is Islamist terrorism. Though it is completely unfair and shows a lack of judgment, in the popular mind Islamist terrorism has damaged all religions. The concept that “Religion is the problem” has got into the mainstream, despite the fact that the Church of England and ISIS have very little in common. I have commented on this before now, as you can see here.

The concept that all religions are somehow the same and equally problematic can only emerge in a society that is profoundly ignorant of both history and theology. Our education system may well be to blame, but also at work is a general lack of interest in intellectually rigorous religious ideas and concepts. Religion is seen as a ‘soft’ subject, one in which all ideas are subjective, and where words mean what you want them to mean. Thus religion is seen as standing apart from the world of science where everything is subject to rigorous verification. And yet, many statements made by religious people are easily falsifiable, but because this rigour is rarely applied, people like the ideologues of ISIS are allowed to get away with murder.

Apart from this, there is also something that long predates the rise of religious terrorism, and that is the cringe factor that so many people, particularly the English, associate with religion. In recent years, many on the evangelical wing of the Church of England have done their best to repackage religion, so that the cultural baggage that puts people off and which is a barrier to faith is removed. This is what Catholics call inculturation, and evangelicals call indigenisation: presenting the truths of faith in a way that the culture can grasp, without compromising the truth of faith. It involves judging what is essential, and what is cultural baggage that can be left at the Church door. This process has had some success in England, and great success in Africa. Ironically, the current banned film is just that, an exercise in inculturation, presenting the Our Father in a way that is accessible to our culture, as something not extraneous, but normal: religion without the cringe factor.

The rejection of this inoffensive short film should alert us all to the fact that the traditional language and appearance of religion in our country put people off in a way that they would not be put off in, let us say, Italy. In Italy, faith and culture have not parted ways in the manner they have here. It is not simply a matter of people still going to Church; it is something more basic than that – it means that going to Church, or going on pilgrimage, or tipping your hat to a statue of the Madonna, are all considered very normal things to do. But religion in England is no longer ‘normal’. It is a minority pursuit, tolerated perhaps in foreigners, because not to do that would be racist, but otherwise seen as deeply eccentric.

One last point: the rejection of this film should convince us all, if we need convincing, that the culture is our battleground. We must not give up. Some see the culture wars as an almost entirely negative phenomenon. They are not. They have been raging for decades, and they are more important than ever. Just think for a moment: do you really want to live in a country where the Our Father – the most beautiful set of words know to mankind – is judged offensive? Is that the culture anyone, religious or not, could want? So let us not give up on this, but rather let us persevere, just as the Blessed John Henry Newman did, in the evangelisation of culture.