Posted by: Titus Presler | November 25, 2015

Church of England’s ‘Just Pray’ cinema ad: Problematic tactic but good missional vision

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.

Here are two links about the controversy, one from the Guardian, the other from the New York Times And here’s the story from the Anglican Communion News Service.

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.

Yet the ad has many specific religious markers, beginning with the centerpiece of the Lord’s Prayer.  I’ve often observed that then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s televised invitation at Diana Spenser’s funeral in 1997 that viewers pray the Lord’s Prayer together wherever they were and in whatever language resulted in the largest event of unison prayer in all of human history, around 2 billion people, and probably many of those so praying around the world were not Christians.  But the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ prayer, and it is a distinctive of the Christian tradition.  It cannot be claimed to be a generic form of prayer; for instance, Muslims are not comfortable with invoking God as Father.  And then the video begins with Justin Welby and includes Christian baptismal and wedding scenes.  Its opponents are right in anticipating that some moviegoers would find the ad religiously intrusive.

Mind you, the spiritual-religious distinction is a dubious one to begin with.  As Robert Bellah highlighted years ago in Habits of the Heart, much that people view as generically spiritual but not not religious actually derives from historic religious traditions.  So the CofE’s reliance on Christian tradition in the ad is not a weakness, for it is rightly simply being what it is, a Christian church.  And if it had attempted a Christian-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist-Bahai-whatever amalgam, not only would the inevitable committee have taken years to reach consensus, but the result would have been, if anything, more controversial than the current attempt as contentious religionists debated its compatibility with their own traditions.

Free speech versus free commercialism: The cinema industry in the UK evidently has a policy – whether longstanding or recently beefed up is immaterial – that excludes either religious or political ads in pre-film videos.  That seems quite reasonable at entertainment events to which people have paid admission.  Commercial ads on television and in theaters are widely accepted, but people should not have to settle into a theater with the apprehension, “What brand of religion or politics am I going to have to endure before this Star Wars film?”  A low-key spiritual encouragement from the CoE might be only minimally objectionable, but what if the next one were hard-hitting from a fringe religious group?  A similar controversy has been playing out in the New York City subway system, where offensive political ads have resulted in a ban on all political subway advertising.

The problem compounded: Anglican establishment in England, like Lutheran and Roman establishment in parts of Europe, is an unwelcome anachronism in the 21st century and is bound to get the church into quicksand whenever it is invoked.  Some British church people – and even some progressives like Rowan Williams – continue to defend establishment on the grounds that it gives Christian faith a recognized place in public life and in parliamentary debate.  Yet the downsides seem to far outweigh the supposed but dubious upsides: public resentment and consequent scorn at Anglican privilege; parliamentary power over some intrinsically religious matters; a government role in the selection of bishops, and so on.  One has only to survey state-established Islam in the Muslim world today to see the pitfalls of religious establishment.  The church would do well to eschew any establishmentarian defense of the Just Pray ad.  Of course, my view of established religion is conditioned by my USAmerican background of church-state separation – I’m not even comfortable calling the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral the “National Cathedral” but prefer “Washington Cathedral” or the “Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul,” its Christian name.

Back to the intent: While buying ad time for the video in cinemas may not be a viable tactic, the strategy of encouraging prayer in the public square is missionally faithful.  The website of Just Pray is fairly good and a commendable missional initiative – it includes resources for prayer, perspectives on prayer, and even a place for prayer requests.  And now the ad and the website probably have more traffic than they ever would have had if the ad had simply been accepted for circulation in theaters!

What’s that about God’s mysterious ways?

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