Some talking points about the Church of England’s proposed cinema ad promoting prayer and the debate it has prompted:
- The 60-second series of vignettes of different people offering phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in succession is a commendable mission effort by the church to encourage prayer and bring spiritual practice into the public square.
- The cinema industry is right to categorize the ad as religious and to exclude it from theaters on the grounds that allowing one church or religious group to present prayer and faith would make it difficult to exclude similar ads from any other group.
- A possible response that the Church of England is the established church and may therefore have its ad presented as an exception simply exposes the deeply problematic and, in fact, anti-gospel nature of any kind of state-established religion.
- Ironically, though, the church’s gambit, even if unsuccessful in its immediate objective, has been wildly successful in highlighting prayer, drawing attention to its new website Just Pray, and prompting important discussion.
First, the ad itself: It’s good. Various people in various settings, beginning with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, pray phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. Altogether there are 17 vignettes with people of various ages and ethnicities in short snippets: a young man at a grave, emergency personnel in a street, a couple at a snack table, a farmer among his cows. Some are in groups: a black gospel choir in rehearsal, a youth event, a wedding, and, notably, a group of young adults in St. Augustine’s Chapel under Lambeth Palace.
Then the intent: Clearly the Church of England is trying to have an impact beyond its stained glass windows. It is seeking to fulfill its mission, that is, to respond faithfully to God’s call that it reach beyond itself and out into the world and, in this case, let people know that there is a life of prayer available to them that can illuminate their lives, strengthen them in tough times, and nurture their relationship with God. As an attempt to convey that message, the ad is good mission work, as is the website Just Pray.
But the problem: The Church of England could resort to a common contemporary distinction and say that the ad is spiritual but not religious, that is, that it seeks to reawaken people to resources of spiritual practice and not promote Christianity in particular and certainly not Anglicanism. The church has not said this, but such a characterization could be an undercurrent in its rationale. After all, there is no evangelistic appeal, and the tone of the ad is meditative, not doctrinal.