Britain woke up this morning to the news that the Lord’s Prayer has been banned from cinemas.
The Church of England has produced a sixty second commercial. The only words are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, said by children, the bereaved, people at work and so on. It’s a beautiful film, Certificate U. The ad is to promote a new website, Just Pray.uk. The plan was (and is) to show the film before Christmas at screenings of the new Star Wars film to help everyone think about prayer and to pray. What could be more simple?
The distributors have declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening. They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences.
Cue indignation from the press, fury from the Archbishop (according to the Mail anyway) debates about free speech, a possible challenge in the courts and a storm on social media.
But wait just a moment. Suppose the cinema chains got this one right?
I disagree with their decision and I disagree with the reasons they have given. I hope it’s reversed. I don’t believe the film will offend or upset audiences, in the way they mean, and I don’t believe it creates a new precedent.
But from the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there are very good reasons indeed to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas and from culture and from public life.
This is a prayer said by billions of people every day in every language on the planet. In every single moment in time, someone is praying these words. They are the first words of prayer we learn as children and the last words we say at the moment of death.
The Lord’s Prayer is powerful for a reason. These words shape lives and families and communities and whole societies.
There are real reasons why the Lord’s Prayer has been banned by the demigods of consumer culture, in the boardrooms of the cinema chains. Here are seven, one for every line.
First, this prayer gives to those who pray it an identity and a place in the world and a countercultural community. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”. It opposes the myth that we are random specks of matter floating through space and time. It opposes the myth that our lives do not matter. It opposes the myth of fragmented humanity.
We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers. Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.
Second this prayer gives us the courage to live in an imperfect world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
The world is not as it was meant to be. It is distorted from its true purpose. But God is at work to redeem and transform this world, to establish his kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer invites us not to retreat from the world in fear and pain, to anaesthetise or indulge ourselves. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to join the struggle to see justice and peace prevail.
Third, and most powerfully, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with just enough. This is the most dangerous reason why it cannot be shown with the adverts at the cinema. It teaches us not to want more. It teaches contentment, the most subversive virtue of them all.
“Give us this day our daily bread”. This is not a prayer for more. This is a prayer only for what we need. Every other advert in the cinema is there to encourage us to spend money in pursuit of happiness. This one restrains our greed.
Fourth, the Lord’s Prayer teaches me to live with my imperfections and the imperfections of others. There is a way to deal with the rubbish in our lives. “Forgive us our sins”.
Consumer culture holds before us the image of perfection. We cannot be happy until we look like this person, live like that one. Each image is a lie.
The Lord’s Prayer acknowledges human imperfection and sin, daily. The Lord’s Prayer offers a pathway to forgiveness, daily. The way of forgiveness cannot be bought. It is a gift. Grace. Grace subverts the whole culture of advertising.
Fifth the Lord’s Prayer offers a way of reconciliation. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. We are not meant to feud or live in hostility or rivalry. We are meant to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled to each other. That reconciliation happens without expensive presents, without going into debt, without credit. People are not made happy by more things, another consumer lie. The greatest happiness comes from relationships. The key to great relationships is reconciliation and forgiveness.
Sixth, the Lord’s Prayer builds resilience in the human spirit. When you say this prayer each day you are prepared for the bad days. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
When we say this prayer we remind ourselves that we are not living in a Disney fairy tale, a saccharine creation of film makers where every story has a happy ending.
We are living in a real world of cancer and violence and difficulty, where we are tested, where bad things happen for no clear reason. We live in that world confident in God’s love and goodness and help even in the midst of the most challenging moments of our lives. Faith is for the deep valleys as much as the green pastures. We may not have the answers but we know that God dwells with us and in us.
And seventh the Lord’s Prayer tells us how the story ends, how this life is to be lived and lived well. “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen”.
The prayer returns as it begins to the praise and glory of the living God. Our hearts return to their origin and source, the one who created us. Life is to be lived to God’s praise and glory, not to satisfy our own small desires. We are beings with a higher calling and a greater purpose.
There are only 63 words in the Lord’s Prayer. It takes less than a minute to say them.
Yet these words shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator.
No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.
Note:This post is based on a sermon given in Peterhouse, Cambridge on Sunday 22 November.