No one ‘banned’ the Church of England ad – they’re making it up

There is no ban on Christian advertising, just like there is no ban on people wearing crucifixes at work or whatever other bizarre fantasy the Church of England has come up with.

Here's what happened: A commercial agency decided a Church of England ad might upset paying customers going to the cinema so it decided not to take it. They did so, rather predictably given they are a commercial agency, for commercial reasons. Then the Church of England played an absolute blinder of a press strategy and got themselves on the front of the Mail, the Times and all over the BBC. Fair do's to them. If you're in PR, watch what Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, is doing and learn it. It's a great way of getting far more free advertising than you would ever have been able to pay for by putting your ad in a cinema.

The ad shows a variety of people from different walks of life praying and encouraging the viewer to do the same. It would not, one imagines, have been very effective. It's incredibly dusty and a bit odd. Whenever the church reaches out to the public it merely serves to highlight how distant it is from it and the ad largely complies with that trend.

The ad was given the green light by the Cinema Advertising Authority and the British Board of Film Classification. So it was not banned. This is worth repeating because the word 'ban' has been flung around with gusto over the last 24 hours. The decision not to take the ad came from Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which handles the advertising for Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, which make up the vast majority of UK cinemas. It was, in other words, a commercial, not a political or religious, decision.

DCM said it had received "considerable negative feedback from audiences" when it ran Yes and No campaign ads during the Scottish independence referendum. In a statement, it said it had a policy of not accepting any political or religious advertising in cinemas.

"Some advertisements – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith," it said. "In this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally".

You can think what you like about that statement. Personally, I don't like it. I hate the word 'offence', which is supremely slippery. People get offended about loads of nonsense, so cementing the word in a policy just makes it completely subjective and value-laden. That being said, my afternoon out to the cinema with some friends does not seem the ideal time to come preaching to me and I think I would have found the Just Pray ad completely baffling if it had come up ahead of Star Wars.

But regardless of my opinion of the policy, or anyone else's, that ad did not get banned. It fell foul of a policy, just as a non-religious ad would have done.

And that's not a thought experiment. Non-religious ads get rejected all the time. "We don't even think about it," Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), says. "It's a routine part of advertising buying. There was no chance the [Church of England] ad was ever going to be approved."

When the BHA tried to launch a photo competition for young people recently in photography magazines, a similar agency controlling lifestyle magazine advertising turned it down on the basis of the same policy. There were none of the howls of anguish which accompanied the Church of England decision. When their ad on ticking non-believer in the census was rejected by Transport for London, there was none of the outrage on the front pages of the newspapers as there is today.

Instead we've cranked up the Christian outrage machine once again. The cottage industry of people claiming the church is some poor victimised minority group, persecuted by an intolerant secular mainstream, is in for another good quarter of growth. Except of course that it is the most unthinkable rubbish. The establishment church is not some silenced minority. It has plenty of ways to get its message out, including through it's state-protected schools, it's state-protected peers in the Lords, it's state-protected position during moments of public ceremony, or even Thought for the Day. Religion is still given a pride of place in society which is completely at odds with the level of support it enjoys.

If anything, it only goes to show how powerful the church remains. Make a decision against a humanist organisation and it is unworthy of comment. Make it against the church and it's the end of free speech as we know it.

But there is one interesting thing about the response to the ad. It shows how the church has followed the debate on free speech and offence and managed to insert its own narrative into it. Suddenly it too is the victim of a thin-skinned, easily offended culture which is keen to surround itself in a safe space free from critical voices.

The wider attack on free speech is real. But this is not an example of it. This is just the church playing a particularly canny PR game in which it defines itself as the victim during any national debate which can be used to its advantage.