A few hours ago, my jaw dropped when I read about the furore concerning the Church of England’s #justpray advert and the refusal of the Digital Cinema Media agency to screen this advertisement in their cinemas. Before I read any of the arguments for and against this film in which the Lord’s Prayer is recited and sung, my mind immediately went to Matthew 6, 5-9, which records the words of Jesus himself, so for the benefit of those of you who might be unfamiliar with these passages, here they are:
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye:…
After which, we’re presented with the Lord’s Prayer, or the very same prayer that’s delivered in a modern version in the aforementioned advertisement. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that nothing could be more against the clear and express statement in the passages above than to pray or be seen to pray in front of the forthcoming Star Wars audience in the run-up to Christmas, which I would guess would number in the tens of millions.
This minor point aside, I personally found a scene at the end of this advert deeply disturbing, where young schoolchildren were praying with their eyes closed. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself has expressed his doubts as to whether or not God exists and while I genuinely commend him for his candour, it strikes me as bizarre to say the least that this man should have reservations of such a profound nature while at the same time, the church over which he presides throws cash at an advert that depicts such young children in a state of unquestioning, blind devotion.
The Archbishop’s latest doubts came after the recent Paris attacks, but I suspect that any member of any faith would struggle badly after such horrific events. A few days ago, I saw a BBC video where some Paris imams, who had gone to publicly express their condemnation of the killing, found themselves immediately embroiled in a heated exchange with a Muslim lady. From memory, this lady was asking what hope there was if people like her – and her children – were taught that unbelievers would burn in Hell for eternity, to which the imams replied that God expected no-one to be an executioner.
My point is that everyone concerned was upset and struggling to come to terms with these dreadful things, while I would assume that members of all other faiths and none would experience similar difficulties. With this in mind, I fail to see how the advert provides any of us with any answers, even if most of the sentiments in the prayer are noble ones.
As for the outrage expressed by senior church figures when they learned that the relevant authorities had declined to screen their advert, I strongly suspect they knew this was coming and indeed hoped that it would happen, purely for the purposes of publicity. When we got to the cinema to watch Spectre or Star Wars or just about everything else, we pay good money to be transported into another reality for a few hours, to briefly escape the cares and worries of our day to day existence.
Just about the last thing we want to see before we settle down with our popcorn to watch James Bond or Luke Skywalker do their thing is the jarring sight of others at what should be their private devotions, regardless of which faith they subscribe to. For me, the worst of the lot were the Wheatleyesque, white-clad acolytes who appear at 0.34, solemnly intoning “Deliver us from evil” and if they’d appeared to me just before James Bond, I’d have lobbed my popcorn and coke at the screen in disgust.
I’m sure that the Digital Cinema Media agency realised all this, but were simply too polite to say as much, while I’m equally sure that the Church of England realised this as well, but are being disingenuous by feigning bewilderment and outrage. It seems to me that the whole object of the exercise, as far as the Church is concerned, is to reverse the decline in church attendance, so this indescribably awful #justpray campaign is just the latest manifestation of people with no insight or imagination desperately casting about for solutions.
It strikes me that the answer is a simple one. You can’t please all the people all the time, but if you want congregations to swell – and your collection plates to start groaning once again – then you must make your church a place where people want to go and I can’t see any reason why this appeal should be limited to devout Christians. Find clerics who can deliver compassionate, thought-provoking sermons and if they can sustain this, then word will get around, while there are many other aspects of a quiet sanctuary with old-fashioned architecture that would appeal to people in this day and age if you work on it. Once again, I would point to the legions of people from around the world, who turn up at Stonehenge in all weathers, as living proof that pure spirituality has a very real attraction for us all.
Finally, let us assume for the sake of argument that the Church of England has been in existence for around 500 years. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the Church has lost the appeal it undoubtedly possessed until recent times; I’d argue that the mere existence of the Church’s ‘Communications Office’ is solid and depressing proof of this, while I very much doubt that this latest advert will tempt more than a bare handful of people back to take their places before the altar.
By contrast, Pink Floyd have been in existence for less than 50 years, but if a simple announcement appeared nowhere else but on their website stating “Pink Floyd will be playing a free concert in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Eve 2015 – all welcome”, I’d be prepared to bet that London would be brought to a standstill by a gathering of millions from all corners of the world, so the high officers of the Church of England might consider putting some time aside to ponder why this should be.