A dispute over the refusal to screen a cinema advertisement from the Church of England, featuring the Lord’s Prayer, continues to rumble on.
The C of E’s director of communications, the Revd Arun Arora, has said that Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which handles advertising for Britain’s cinema chains, did not have a written policy banning religious adverts when it turned it down.
The advert was made to promote a new C of E website, http://www.justpray.uk, and was made to be shown before screenings of the new Star Wars film in December. It has been cleared by the Cinema Advertising Authority, and rated U by the British Board of Film Classification.
Emails show that, at first, the DCM agency was receptive to approaches from the C of E, and even offered a 55-per-cent discount if it booked slots quickly.
But by September, Mr Arora was being told that the company’s policy was not to accept political or religious adverts, as they could offend audiences. When he asked for a copy of this policy, he was told that it did not exist in written form.
On Tuesday, however, a spokeswoman for DCM insisted that the policy prohibiting religious adverts had been in place since the company was formed in 2008. “Once we became aware of the religious nature of the proposed content, then we informed the Church of England of our policy and our decision,” she said.
Tweets from DCM on Sunday said that it declined all religious advertising, as “some advertisements — unintentionally or otherwise — could cause offence . . . to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith.”
In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who features in the ad, said: “I find it extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas.” Billions of people pray the Lord’s Prayer every day, he said, and they would be “astonished and deeply saddened” to discover that it has been deemed inappropriate to show it in cinemas.
“I think people need to watch the film and come to their own conclusions as to whether it is offensive or upsetting. Let the public judge for themselves rather than be censored or dictated to.”
Mr Arora has also suggested that rejecting the advert might contravene anti-discrimination legislation.
The row has sparked interest in the advert, which is available on http://www.churchofengland.org and elsewhere online. It was viewed more than 500,000 times in the first 24 hours after its release, and has now been seen more than 1.5 million times.
The minute-long film features Christians, including a police officer and a body-builder, reciting one line each of the Lord’s Prayer while they are at work, putting flowers on a grave, exercising in a gym, at a choir practice, or patrolling the streets.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that it, too, was concerned about the ban. “Freedom to hold a religion and freedom to express ideas are essential British values. We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups.” The statement also said that no law prevented “Christian organisations promoting their faith through adverts”.
“Digital Cinema Media have said an advert could cause offence to those of differing faiths. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and lies in the eye of the beholder,” the statement concluded.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that he, too, was concerned about potential discrimination. He asked a question in the House of Lords on Wednesday about DCM’s decision. He said on Tuesday: “It touches upon a whole range of issues which are relevant to the life of nation — about freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression and the place of the Church in public life.
“It gives us an opportunity to ask some questions about what sort of a society do we want to live in — who deems what is acceptable and what is not.”
The DCM spokeswoman denied discrimination: by banning all religious advertisements, the agency was being as fair as it could, and not discriminating against any particular belief or faith, she said.
Professor Richard Dawkins, a prominent secularist, was among those who criticised DCM’s decision. “If anybody is offended by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended,” he told The Guardian.
David Cameron’s spokesman told reporters in Westminster on Monday that the Prime Minister thought the situation was “ridiculous”.