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Rowan Williams on the Lord’s Prayer ad

Rowan Williams on the Lord’s Prayer ad

Former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Rowan Williams reflects on the controversy stirred up by the Lord’s Prayer advert banned by a cinema conglomerate in the UK in last night’s London Evening Standard.

You know Christmas is coming when the papers begin to fill up with stories of well-meaning and cloth-headed persons trying to avoid the terrible threat represented by mentioning the Christian origins of Christmas (the clue is in the name…). It is so obviously offensive to be reminded that singing about peace and goodwill started two millennia ago, for a very particular reason, on a hillside in Bethlehem.

The delicate and sensitive public — impervious to industrial levels of cinematic violence and internet trolling — has to be protected from this appalling truth.

Williams’ defense of the ad rests on two poles, which are not entirely aligned with one another. One the one hand, he argues that as a member of the public, he is assaulted frequently and unwillingly with competing philosophies of life, and that disallowing this one is unfair.

Now, when I go to the cinema (not very often, I admit), I have to sit through an assortment of adverts actively and aggressively promoting a set of values and myths that I find mostly incomprehensible or alien.

They are myths about the happiness that comes from acquiring various consumer goods, values illustrated in sophisticated (and eye-wateringly expensive) bits of film that nurse some of our most childish fantasies about power and success.

As a cinemagoer, I’m being carefully targeted for conversion to a philosophy of life. If I don’t like it, that’s my problem. After all, this philosophy of life is completely self-evident to the film-makers, and assumed to be acceptable and attractive to every sane citizen. So advertising our Christian history is not intruding dangerous propaganda into a neutral and benign space. It is competing with existing propaganda, existing philosophies and ideologies.

He does not, however, believe that the “Christian history” promoted by this advert is equal and comparable to those of consumerism and film fantasy – nor, as a senior cleric, should he.

Yes, it encodes a philosophy of life — one that a lot of us would still find understandable and might even wish we could live by a bit more consistently. It is a philosophy shaped by the conviction that we are most human when least obsessed with defending and promoting our self-interest and when recognising our shared human needs.

The problem is, says Williams, that the general public has decided that all religion is dangerous stuff.

Religion has fostered cruelty, obsession with power, inhuman repression, exploitation, dishonesty and misery. We tend to forget that much the same is true of politics, capitalism, socialism, science, alcohol, sex and football.


Every vicar is really a mad jihadist in mufti.

If he is defending the advert on the grounds of competing philosophies, then the concept of free speech and fairness may be his argument. But when Dr Williams promotes the virtues of the Lord’s Prayer and its history against a background of “peace and goodwill, to coin a phrase,” his choice of tone towards the general public, “cloth-headed persons,” and popular culture might be found to work against him.

Which is not to say that Dr Williams is wrong about the public perception of religion, at least according to the comments sections of various online news outlets. One comment to his own article responds:

here is no such thing as sane religion.

like mental health problems there is a wide spectrum, from those with harmless problems who will make a harmless nuisance by e.g. talking to themselves in public, through to those who can not restrain themselves from murdering everyone in sight… but they are all still problems.

unlike mental health problems, which are not the fault of the sufferer, it requires a continued and conscious effort to persist in having religious beliefs in the face of morality and intelligent thinking, especially in the modern world.

So what are the ways in which we can promote an image of Christian religion as a force for “peace and goodwill” in the world?Advertising prayer? Arguing for advertising prayer? Or something else? Read the article here, then have your say below.


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Gary Paul Guilbert

The question of whether religious material can be presented in profane cinemas goes back to the early days of cinema, as in “The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” – 1903 – Tinted and stencil colored silent film–Full movie

The question then was concern that the viewers were not up to the material. How ironic that nowadays the former ABC wants to advertise the Our Father!

Can film as medium present a serious call to a way of living?

I doubt it.

Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” comes to mind.

Ann and Gregory, I agree with your analysis.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Jos. S. Laughon

There is a fascinating state of mind at play here, and Williams is right to point it out. To be scandalized by a 2,000 y.o prayer that is a fundamental part of the cultural heritage of one’s nation and not by a crass commercialization of violence and sexuality is a tad odd.

David Streever

I agree; sexuality & violence are incredibly powerful as well. We happily tolerate them in a Coke ad… but we’re offended when the Archbishop reaches out to show Christians as a diverse group of people living peaceful lives? It seemed to me like an important message to a largely secular English population that uses religion as a scapegoat to cover up their real sins of colonialism and exploitation.

Prof Christopher seitz

Insightful. And not abstruse…

Shirley O'Shea

I think the former Archbishop is quite right in his critique of the double standard – that the entertainment industry has a philosophy, even a religious perspective, of its own, and I would not call it humanistic, either. It actually takes a very low view of human nature, and is content to stop there. That said, if the people – the audience – are offended by an ad that contains the Lord’s Prayer, then do not subject them to it. Dust off the sandles, as the scriptures teach, and move on. The world will break your heart every time.

Ann Fontaine

Pretty snarky piece by the ex-ABC. I know I am in the minority on this issue but I think the ad is not a good thing. It trivializes one of the most powerful prayers – putting it on a par with Coke and popcorn ads. And I wonder how people would feel if Wiccans ran an ad for their style of prayer – would we be all “great” freedom of speech, etc? Last I do not go to movies for preaching but for entertainment. Of course movies have a message but I know what I am getting with them – an ad for the Lord’s prayer – unpleasant surprise. It is not an innocuous prayer.

David Streever

Good points; I’d say that I fully would accept an ad by Wiccans (and I hope others would too). I hear you on trivializing the Lord’s Prayer… but, I think it reveals the main difference in our perspective. To me, the Coke ads & popcorn ads are incredibly powerful–they are the secret power that ruin many lives. TV ads create a false world–an idol–that most of us subscribe to, even while decrying it. How often have we (or friends of ours) lamented the gross materialism/consumerism around us, while simultaneously endorsing a product that we bought which we see as ‘non-consumerist’?

I think the power of mostly unfettered capitalism is clear in our acceptance of advertising; it’s incredibly powerful and dominates our public spheres. So, I don’t see the former ABC as trivializing the Lord’s Prayer; I see him as acknowledging the very real power of capitalism, consumerism, and marketing.

Gregory Orloff

You bring up an ironic point, Ann. For the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church didn’t advertise the Lord’s Prayer — in fact, she kept it secret. It was only uttered in the second half of the eucharistic liturgy, after the catechumens and other unbaptized people had been dismissed, and it was only taught orally to catechumens in the very last stages of their preparation for initiation into the Church — when, through baptism, chrismation/confirmation and their first taste of the eucharist, they “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27) and received “the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father,'” (Galatians 4:6), which thus “enabled” them or gave them “the right,” as members of Christ Jesus and thus adopted sons and daughters of God, to utter those words in a true sense: “Our Father…” But nowadays, we tend to consider that prayer the most “generic” and “common” Christian prayer there is…

Gregory Orloff

So true, Ann. There is nothing at all innocuous about the Lord’s Prayer, if it is understood aright, rather than just mouthed by rote in routine. Take, for instance, just one of its petitions: “Thy will be done.” As presbyter and theologian Thomas Hopko wrote: “To pray ‘Thy will be done’ according to the spiritual teachers, is a daring and dangerous act. This is so, first of all, because when one makes this prayer, he must be ready, like Christ, to follow where it leads. God will answer this prayer, and make known His will. The person who prays must be ready to obey, whatever the consequences. When asked why many Christians are frustrated and irritated, grouchy and mean, and sometimes even somewhat ‘unbalanced,’ one spiritual teacher responded that the reason is clear. They pray ‘Thy will be done,’ and continue daily to do so, while at the same time they resist God’s will in their lives and so are always ill at ease. Then they begin to justify their attitudes and actions, to explain and to rationalize their behavior, before their own consciences and others. A person in such as state can never be at peace…”

Ann Fontaine

Thanks Gregory — very interesting point. And those who argue that it is inoffensive – do not know the power of it.

John Chilton
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