This is the text of an article requested this morning by the Yorkshire Post in relation to the decision by cinema advertising bodies not to show an advert about the Lord's Prayer in their cinemas before Christmas this year. The decision has provoked a spat in the media and on social media – some of it even polite.

So, the major cinema chains have banned a one-minute advert from being shown in their theatres on the grounds that people may be offended. God, give me strength. (Which is a prayer.)

If you don't pray, then you are almost certainly in a small minority of people on the planet. Even people who claim no faith seem to admit to praying in certain circumstances.

In the last couple of weeks we have seen hashtags and posters, banners and even football scarves, emblazoned with 'pray4paris'. Why? As I said on last Friday's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, “it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom?”

The fact is: people pray. Billions of people across the globe pray the Lord's Prayer every day. For some Christians in some parts of the Middle East and Africa, the utterance of this prayer can amount to a death sentence. Yet, it is a prayer I have seen uttered by those committed to other faiths, but who see in this prayer – taught to his friends by Jesus – a fundamental recognition of human being, human need, and the realities of human experience. We are not God, but we live in relation to God; we have daily physical needs and we get tempted to go the wrong way; if we don't forgive those who wrong us, then how on earth do we expect to be forgiven and reconciled by God and others?

In the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes. Prayer is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.

So, why do the cinema people think prayer is so dangerous? And who exactly is going to be offended by a one-minute advert that consists of a pile of people saying a phrase of the Lord's Prayer in sequence? No propaganda. No coercion. No pressure. Just an encouraging invitation. What is the problem?

Well, the problem is basically the illiteracy of a liberal culture that thinks itself to be intellectually mature and culturally sound. This culture assumes (I choose the word carefully) that secular humanism is neutral – and self-evidently 'true' – and that, by definition, any religious world view is somewhere up the scale of irrational and loaded madness. A five year old child could demolish that one. There is no neutral space.

Secondly, as an irrational reflex, religion gets widely connected inextricably with 'problem', 'trouble' or 'conflict'. Therefore, it has to be neutralised. The five year old would be on a roll by now. Just this morning a Muslim tweeted that, rather than ignoring Remembrance Day and the poppy appeal, his group had actually raised more than £400,000 for the Royal British Legion this month. Has anyone actually asked who might be offended by this and why? This phenomenon has echoes in seasonal appeals to empty Christmas of its name.

Thirdly, this religious illiteracy goes deep. Last week the Daily Telegraph reported on the debates that nearly saw the word 'Abbey' removed from 'Downton'. It seems that there was no reference to church (although, for good or ill, church would have been an integral part of the life of those characters), and we never got to see them sit down for a meal because that would have meant seeing them say grace. Really.

There is still time for the people who run the cinema chains to change their mind. They might even invite a conversation about reality 'out there' in the world. But, even if they don't, they have exposed yet again the intellectual and cultural redundancy of a dominant knee-jerk assumption about religion and the world. It would be funny if it weren't so common.

(Of course, the word limit meant I couldn't ask how advertising actually works, if it isn't to get inside our heads and promise to meet our deepest needs by selling us something. Which, apparently, is unproblematic.)

 

How predictable! ChurchAds.net comes up with a striking image for the Christmas poster campaign and the responses could have been written before they were given. First, the poster:

As I discovered last December, speak about the reality of the original Christmas events and you invite the piling of ordure on your head. After all, they say, who cares if the Nativity narratives of the Gospels get confused with Cinderella and the pantomime stories? There is something shocking about making the humanity of Jesus too real – sometimes a problem in the Church itself where a spiritualised version of the Messiah is easier to contemplate than one who had to eat, went to the loo, endured the real temptations of young men and got his hands and feet dirty in real muck.

So, this image compels the viewer to consider the reality of the Incarnation in a mode familiar to anyone connected in any way with anyone pregnant. When my daughter-in-law had her scans she texted them over to family and friends. That’s how it’s done and the good news is shared around these days. When we had scans twenty or thirty years ago they were indecipherable to amateurs like me: I couldn’t tell the head from the rear end.

So, what were the predictable responses? Look at the Times article which reported them:

John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said: “This advertisement sends a powerful message to everyone in Britain where 570 babies are killed every day in the womb, 365 days a year, under the Abortion Act. Whenever we kill an unborn child in an abortion, we are killing Jesus.”

Er… this isn’t an advert for SPUC or the anti-abortion lobby (although they might wish they had thought of it first). And the last sentence is simplistically contentious (although the need for a serious moral debate about mass abortion in the UK is long overdue).

Then we get the ubiquitous Terry Anderson of the miniscule National Secular Society (why is he asked about everything – because he can be guaranteed to miss the point, get irrationally cross and draw the wrong conclusions… which is great for the media):

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, criticised the image. “At first glance it looks like a poster for a horror film — perhaps The Omen VI: He’s Coming to Get You,” he said.“But it is also the kind of image widely used by anti-abortion campaigners and I hope that the Church of England isn’t trying to use its Christmas poster campaign to make a political point. If that’s the intention, we may have questions to ask at the Charity Commission… If, on the other hand, it’s supposed to make a Christian Christmas more appealing to our secular nation, I think it is likely to have the opposite effect.”

Terry! Calm down! This isn’t a Church of England poster campaign. And it isn’t remotely political. So, don’t waste the postage on your letter to the Charity Commission. (But your reaction does reveal again your lazy assumptions and prejudices – clearly not the sole preserve of religious people…) And it is not about abortion – that’s just another lazy connection based on prejudice. As for Terry’s final (subjective) judgement, well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Full marks to Ruth Gledhill for kicking off a good story, but fewer marks for resorting to the usual suspects  for critical comment. It will be interesting to see which Christians stick the boot into the campaign – and on which grounds. But, as in the past, if some people hate it, it’s a sure sign the campaign got it right.

This poster is designed to arrest the attention of the usually disinterested. It is aimed at awakening the imagination, teasing the curiosity and provoking fresh consideration of the heart of Christianity – precisely what Jesus did with parables, images and stories. No, it doesn’t cover all the bases and deal comprehensively with every theological nuance; but it gives a huge kick start to thinking about what Christmas is all about.

And that is needed as much in the Church as outside.