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Newsline 4 December 2015

Thank you to all of our members who attended the AGM last week. The NSS is a membership-led organisation and if you want to get more involved with our work, campaigning for secularism, promoting social cohesion through an integrated education system, defending free speech, join us today.

Time for the Church to come clean on the ‘Just Pray’ controversy

Time for the Church to come clean on the ‘Just Pray’ controversy

Opinion | Tue, 01 Dec 2015

With a considerable media firestorm the Church launched a crafty piece of marketing for their 'Just Pray' campaign – centred on the accusation that their Lord's Prayer advert had been "banned" because it was "offensive". One week on, new facts raise significant questions about their claims.

The National Secular Society was initially something of a lone voice when we criticised the Church's claims that it had been discriminated against by several cinema chains' decision not to screen the Lord's Prayer advert, and the Church's complaint that its freedom of expression had been denied because people were unreasonably "offended" by the advert. We've since been joined by many others in expressing scepticism for a variety of reasons, including some Anglicans disappointed with the Church's behaviour, and others less willing to accept the Church's spin without question.

On BBC Sunday Morning Live on 22 November – just after the media embargo had released the story and the furore began – the Bishop of Chelmsford was asked if he understood why DCM had declined to show the advert and said "not really". He said that the company had encouraged the Church and even offered a discount (true), but then added that "for some reason best known to themselves they suddenly changed their mind in the last couple of weeks".

"The last couple of weeks" is the key phrase. In fact, over three months before the Bishop's "last couple of weeks", on the 3 August, David Woolford of DCM emailed Reverend Arun Arora – the Church's Director of Communications – and said "Mate, I'm afraid I've got some bad news, it looks like we're going to be unable to carry your ad in our cinemas." The casual language used perhaps points to the fact that Woolford, an Agency Assistant, was a relatively junior member of staff and not able to make the deal on entirely on his own. He refers to negotiating the terms of the proposed deal with his own boss.

He continues: "We initially thought it would be fine as long as the BBFC and CAA approved the copy (which would be more than likely). However, after our exhibition team spoke to our exhibitors themselves, Vue, Odeon and Cineworld have told us that they can't carry any ads of a religious nature. It's similar to the rules about political advertising- basically the exhibitors can't be seen to have any manifesto or motive of their own, be it political or religious."

Extensive emails have been published by the Anglican blog Archbishop Cranmer – who says our response is "typically cynical" – but the Church's presentation of events seem to raise more questions with every day that passes.

When the story broke the Church said it was "bewildered" and baffled by the decision almost as if they had just heard about it. On 21 November – the day before the embargo on the story expired, Reverend Arora tweeted "Going to be an exciting day tomorrow #justpray". This is because the launch of the 'Just Pray' website was due on 22 November, the day the Church chose to make public its claims about the prayer advert being 'banned'. The BBC initially reported the story as a "ban", but acknowledging that the decision was not in fact a "ban" the wording in their headline was subsequently changed to "snub". The Church later even raised the prospect of legal action against DCM under the Equality Act (legislation from which there are religious exemptions).

Perhaps overstating his reaction, the Mail on Sunday reported that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby "reacted with fury" to the 'ban' – despite the Church knowing many months in advance what the situation with the advert was, but adding to the impression in the media that the 'ban' was a shocking and recent development.

The Church clearly had a legitimate grievance if it had produced an advert, and was then told in the "last couple of weeks" that cinemas would not air it. The NSS said as much on BBC One's Sunday Morning Live and in subsequent radio interviews.

But it then came to light that one scene from the advert – the wedding – had not taken place until October. On the 'Just Pray' website it says "Kameo and Enrico tied the knot in the beautiful St Stephen's Church, Lindley, Huddersfield in October". We also noticed that the opening sequence of Justin Welby had been shot in a garden with autumnal leaves. Perhaps also significant is that the film obviously includes the website URL, but this was not registered until 19 October.

So the Church was told initially on 3 August that cinemas would not screen the advert. The Church was then told definitively on 16 September by Paul Maloney, DCM's Finance and Operations Director (presumably a far more senior member of staff than the Church's initial email contact) that "we will be unable to take forward the proposed Church of England advertising campaign." Despite this, in October, the Church was still filming at least one scene for the advert (the wedding), registering the website URL and possibly even shooting the opening scene in the full knowledge that the advert would not be screened in cinemas – they clearly had other plans for it.

Archbishop Cranmer complains, "Digital Cinema Media have every right to decline an advertisement which fails to comply with their company policies, but it is not unreasonable to assume: i) that conditions would be pre-disclosed; and ii) that DCM employees would be familiar with those conditions and make them clear to their prospective clients." But if the advert was still being filmed in October (whether or not any of it had even been filmed before then) and if the Church still needed to "make some final decisions about the ad in terms of funding" as of 14 September (per an email from Reverend Arora) and if they had been told in August of the policy via email, surely the conditions were therefore "pre-disclosed"?

So we ask: how much of the advert did the Church film after learning cinemas would not take it? When was it completed? How much of the advert did it film in the knowledge that it would not be shown in cinemas?

We have no objection to or interest in religious groups producing adverts, nor have we ever suggested the film is offensive; but we do have a strong objection to contrived controversy being used to manufacture a false narrative that Christians are being persecuted.

We energetically defend freedom of expression, including for street preachers making statements we find distasteful. But that this has been presented as a restriction of the Church's freedom of speech is so preposterous it is almost comical. It has complete freedom to say or publish whatever it wishes within the law and probably more media outlets willing to broadcast its messages uncritically than practically any other body.

The supposedly victimised Church even used its privileged membership of the House of Lords to elicit sympathy from the Government. It was also mentioned on Thought for the Day on 1 December, an uncontended opinion slot to which we have no equivalent right of reply.

The Church should almost be congratulated on engineering such massive coverage of its campaign and promotion of its prayer site through its implication of Christian victimhood. The Mail on Sunday predictably and dutifully toed the Church's line, reporting on 29 November: "Britain's biggest cinema chains are facing an investigation by the Government's discrimination watchdog for banning the Church of England's Lord's Prayer film."

The EHRC waded into the controversy – seemingly taking the Church's side but perhaps without having thought of the wider ramifications – by asserting it was "concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups". The UK Human Rights Blog has since published an opinion dismissing claims about discrimination, noting that "a challenge to DCM's decision is likely to be unsuccessful. DCM, by refusing to air adverts they reasonably regard as 'Political or Religious Advertising' would be treating all religious organisations the same way and therefore not discriminating on the basis of religion or belief." In other words there would be no discrimination. It argues that the Church has no "right to buy" commercial advertising space in cinemas and have the adverts accepted.

Should cinemas really be forced (provided they do not discriminate) to screen adverts on religious attitudes to homosexuality or abortion or a five minute film on the Trinity? Cinemas have every right to make commercial decisions for themselves and the Church's threats to compel companies to show adverts they don't want to show are the only aspect of this saga with implications for free speech.

The story was framed in the media as though the Church had produced the advert and only found out in the last "couple of weeks" that it could not go ahead – gaining the sympathy even of the 'cynical' National Secular Society. However the emails released from over the summer show clearly that the Church had advance notice, and even knew before they completed the film.

It now appears as though the Church waited patiently for months before telling anyone about the advert decision until the video, website and media campaign were ready for launch and then executed a carefully constructed press campaign – with the support of a sympathetic media who delivered the advert to a far larger audience and created much greater public interest than would otherwise have been the case (and did it all for free).

They even managed to draw the PM into the debacle, a masterstroke. He described the so-called "ban" as "ridiculous", although he didn't deal with the substance of the issue.

It seems highly likely that this charade will have been counter-productive. That even the supposedly cuddly CofE is willing to reach for its lawyers over this will have led responsible advertising executives the length of the country to conclude that the best way of avoiding discrimination claims is not to accept any religious advertising for fear of litigation from others, including those with a less palatable message but with very long pockets.

National occasions need not be dominated by religion – as France’s commemoration ceremony so poignantly demonstrated

National occasions need not be dominated by religion – as France’s commemoration ceremony so poignantly demonstrated

Opinion | Tue, 01 Dec 2015

France's recent ceremony for those killed in the Paris attacks was a moving demonstration that religiously neutral ceremonies are a powerful way to unite people regardless of faith or politics; it is something the UK could emulate for our own public ceremonies, writes Keith Porteous Wood.

No one could fail to be moved by the ceremony to honour the 130 people who lost their lives in Paris's second Islamist atrocity this year.

The ceremony was also notable for its dignity; President Hollande united the whole grieving country and allies abroad, regardless of politics or religion: indeed this was at the heart of its haunting success. Everyone was included and equally engaged. And that included Muslims, some also mourning relatives and friends.

Nowhere did I see any criticism of the ceremony, yet it was one that could never have occurred in the UK. Only the Independent drew attention to the ceremony, in line with France's secular constitution, having no religious involvement. It was none the worse for that, and I maintain it was so much better because this enabled complete inclusivity. That there was no formal religious element did not prevent anyone who wished to from expressing their own religious thoughts privately.

Predictably, both the BBC and Sky – and the Daily Mirror – referred to it solely as a "service", as if they could not conceive of such a ceremony without religious involvement. Or does their lexicon just have no suitable word? Or were they at pains not to draw attention to such an engaging ceremony being anything other than religious?

In marked contrast, The Guardian, ITV, Associated Press and the American CNN and FoxNews described it solely, and correctly, as a ceremony.

Less than 5% of those in England and Wales attend church on a normal Sunday, and even that small percentage is dropping rapidly as the churches are largely deserted by the young, while the proportion of those belonging to minority religions is rising significantly. It is well past time that we consider afresh how important civic occasions should be organised. The default, with such events being the prerogative of the Christian church, is no longer fit for purpose.

Those seeking to justify the continuation of such rites suggest they are benign and ask what harm is caused. Remembrance Day is the obvious example. The local ceremonies I have seen tend to have the older people praying, with the younger contingent mainly being those required to attend by virtue of their membership of, for example, the Scouts, Girlguides or Cadets.

We could do so much better and make it more inclusive if it were a secular ceremony. I have witnessed a remembrance ceremony in rural France, led by local civic dignitaries and with members of the emergency and armed services in attendance. It too was deeply moving.

And how many know that the cenotaph is a secular monument, with no religious insignia? It was so designed, far-sightedly and respectfully, to also honour the many non-Christians who gave their lives in WWI. The Church has tried since the Cenotaph's inauguration to take centre stage itself, but an attempt to relocate the ceremony to Westminster Abbey was, wisely, rebuffed.

Were such a monument to be built now, the Church would do all in its power to ensure it was Christian. Yet, despite our much greater religious diversity today, I am not confident that any Government now (particularly ones that continue to insist that "this is a Christian country"), would show the foresight and sensitivity exhibited by their forebears a century ago.

This is a plea for inclusivity over the domination of any particular religion. We may technically still have a "national church" but the French example illustrates how outmoded such an approach to public ceremonies is in these religiously diverse and dangerous times.

Having seen how well they work, let us have secular ceremonies too.

Religious education reform: mistakes of the past must be avoided

Religious education reform: mistakes of the past must be avoided

Opinion | Fri, 04 Dec 2015

Despite many RE teachers doing their best under difficult circumstances, a growing consensus now recognises that religious education in schools needs a rethink. Alastair Lichten looks at the latest report calling for reform.

This week saw the launch of REforReal – the latest report advocating for fundamental reform of religious education. The report correctly identifies the problem of a "20th century settlement for a 21st century reality".

Calls for major changes in the approach to religion and belief in schools seem to be coming thick and fast, with the REforReal report coming hot on the heels of a Faith Debates report, which set out recommendations for a new settlement on religion and belief in Schools, and an Arts and Humanities Research Council review of collective worship and religious observance in schools. The RE Council has also announced that it is to undertake its own review of the policy and legal standing of RE. Whether the education secretary Nicky Morgan is listening to any of this is another matter.

The REforReal launch took place a day after the widely reported (and often misreported) High Court ruling that the Education Secretary had made an "error of law" by leaving non-religious views out of the GCSE syllabus. Perhaps with the exception of the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, everyone now seems to accept that an understanding of non-religious world views is essential for religious/belief literacy.

The National Secular Society has of course been active in the ongoing debate over the future of religion and belief education in schools and it's encouraging to see consensus moving in a broadly secular direction.

The report calls for a national panel to oversee a new national framework for RE. This offers the most achievable avenue for real reform and for establishing best practice at the national level. However this is also poses a real risk of repeating the mistakes of the past if it becomes little more than a national SACRE.

SACREs (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) are one of the biggest problems with our current approach to RE. One of the mistakes of the Education Reform Act 1988 was to increase the power and prominence of these local committees, who along with an Agreed Syllabus Conference (in many cases made up of the same SACRE members), are responsible for the syllabus and approach to RE within each local authority area. Such bodies give faith representatives disproportionate influence and their quality varies widely.

The SACRE approach is too often about satisfying the demands of competing special interest groups (with a non-voting humanist member sometimes thrown in to represent the views of the non-religious) rather than about providing the best quality education for pupils. The question of the knowledge and skills that good quality religion and belief education should aim to impart is a matter of curriculum design, not a theological debate.

Most contributors to the debate understand that RE has to move away from a biased presentation of specific beliefs to promoting religious (and belief) literacy. In areas of good practice this has largely happened.

In today's globalised world, an understanding of others' beliefs is clearly important. Living together successfully probably requires a certain degree of religion and belief literacy. However, the assumption by some within the RE community that religious illiteracy is demonstrated by or causal of society's growing disinterest or opposition to aspects of religion is entirely wrongheaded. The idea that people would embrace religion if only they understood it better is little more than wishful thinking, more than a little insulting and deeply ignorant of the lived religious and non-religious experiences of many citizens.

Many religious enthusiasts have jumped on the 'religious literacy' bandwagon seeing it as a suitable Trojan horse to promulgate favourable and positive views about religion – with a view to replacing the Christian indoctrination of the 1950's with a softer multi-faithism, with 'humanism' thrown in as a sop to the non-religious. Any trace of this needs to jumped on by anyone seeking to create a new serious academic subject out of the ashes of RE.

Any new subject must (as the report acknowledges) avoid the problems of overloading that has beset the subject in the past. RE can't be a dumping ground for everyone's personal hobby horse, or for issues that good schools can better address through citizenship education or PSHE.

The inclusion of topics should flow naturally from the agreed educational purpose(s) of the subject – whatever that may be. For me, it should be about enabling pupils to understand contemporary religion and belief issues; the importance and role of faith and belief to many people; and a space to explore the big questions through a host of philosophical approaches. I find it hard, therefore, to understand why we'd try to squeeze more theology into the subject. Latin may inform many modern European languages, but it would be hard to justify squeezing it into a French or German GCSE course.

Perhaps it might be better for theological studies to be offered as a separate GCSE or A-Level voluntary option. Although, if the REforReal report's comments on what young people and other stakeholders find useful/interesting about the subject is anything to go by, it's hard to imagine take up would be high.

The report's authors spent a great deal of effort in canvassing the views of young people, whose rights are often overlooked in the squabbling over RE reform. Given that young people in both faith and non-faith schools have been shown to have similar interests and ideas about what RE should do, any reform must address the discrepancies between the approach, assessment and apparent goals of RE in both faith and non-faith schools.

Almost everyone appears to agree that RE requires a name change, but it would be a mistake to view this as merely a cosmetic change or an opportunity to avoid the negative brand associations RE has amassed, rather than an opportunity for more fundamental reform. Yes, let's teach about religious beliefs, but let's also teach secular ethics and the philosophical approaches that inform the lives and actions of our fellow citizens. Then let students make their own choices.

Dishonest and harmful attacks on ‘extreme secularism’

Dishonest and harmful attacks on ‘extreme secularism’

After taking on "militant atheists" in their last publication, London School of Economics Director Craig Calhoun and University of Bristol Sociology Professor Tariq Modood have now found a new target for their quest against what they call the problem of "lack of religion in the public sphere". This time, it is "extreme secularism". Chris Moos tackles the arguments of the "anti-secular right".

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