Gilding the Lily

The Way We Live Now

August 1999

WHY IS IT THAT the mere mention of religious advertising makes hearts sink and hackles rise?

In my case it has at least something to do with the remembrance of things past: the forlorn Methodist Chapels of my youth with their excruciating billboards plastered with limp puns: 'What on earth are you doing for heaven's sake?'; 'Carpenter seeks joiners'. To whom were they addressed? And did they inspire in anyone, anything - save a weak smile or an inward groan?

As a recent visit to old West Riding haunts reminded me, those ample pulpits, whose ardent oratory once rose triumphant to the expectant galleries above, are silent now. It is hard to say what part the puns played in that sad demise; but, as likely as not, it was the product not the packaging which the consumers rejected.

The Churches' Advertising Network (CAN) has appeared in these pages before. The sequence of pratfalls, which has now resulted in the withdrawal from the enterprise of the Roman Catholic Church, is a classic of its kind. 'Bad Hair Day' - a tasteless trivialisation of the event and so of the doctrine of the Incarnation - was almost universally panned. The recent Che Guevara poster, issued at a time when Christians were agonising about the use of violence in the Balkans, had equally few friends.

Now through the letter-box of every clergyperson - as a sort of first fruits of the new Archbishops' Council - has come a pair of posters for the ordained ministry of the Church of England which can expect little more sympathy. Evangelicals (see Reform Update, p29) are sensitive about the 'catholic' image of the priesthood which they seem to convey; all dog collars and no bibles. The feminists, as various postings on the internet witness, are enraged about the portrayal of the woman priest in what is criticised as a motherly rather than a professional role; and wonder why the posters are colour coded (blue for a boy and pink (cerise?) for a girl. Liberals are uneasy about the 'churchy' setting in which the male priest appears. And people like me have no intention at all of displaying a poster about women in the priesthood. Poor Dr Beaver, the long suffering Communications Officer of the Archbishops' Council! He has been reduced to making pleading telephone calls to journalists asking them to treat the posters gently, and more forcefully 'to get off his back'!

A number of things are clear. The first is that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. The Church of England, as Aidan Nichols usefully pointed out in The Panther and the Hind, is not one Church but at least three. The present situation, in which Parliament has legislated for private judgement in the matter of the orders conferred on women, is merely a symptom of a long and debilitating disease. Anglicans have fundamental disagreements with each other about almost everything - about ecclesiology, soteriology, sacramental theology, and biblical exegesis. And they are certainly not agreed about the sacred ministry. Bishops may talk (as indeed they do) about the duty of seminaries to prepare people for 'the priesthood of the whole church'; but theirs is a forlorn hope. Somewhere on the road between Walsingham and Geneva everyone has a stopping point.

So with the best will (and all the communications skills) in the world, any such posters would be bound to make the enemies they have. Merely to undertake the task is to provoke an aviary of ruffled feathers.

But there is another and perhaps more important factor: which is the unease many Christians feel about advertising the faith, or any of its adjuncts, at all. Two apparently opposing and yet strangely complementary aspects of modern advertising feed this unease: the disjunction between advertisement and product on the one hand, and the distorting effect of advertising on the nature of the product on the other. The disjunction is evident in much motor car advertising, where glamour and sex are used to sell a means of locomotion; the distortion is apparent with products like Coca Cola and New Labour, where market research and 'focus groups' result in a radical revision of the product to suit the market.

It is hard to think of a single aspect of church life (much less of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ itself), which is amenable to either approach. Sex, status and self-esteem - which can sell a range of products from perfume to petroleum - are, for Christians, the snares of this world from which the Gospel sets us free. And a Faith which is of necessity 'the same yesterday, today and forever' rejects the very product volatility which a certain kind of advertising demands. There is, in consequence, a not unreasonable suspicion that advertisements for the ordained ministry will have succumbed to both errors equally: that they will portray the priesthood as a career opportunity alongside civil engineering and merchant banking; and that (in the event that the outcome of the exercise does not match the extent of the investment) the advertisers will conclude it is time to revamp the priesthood itself. In short there is a fear that the very medium contradicts the essential apostolic imperative: 'be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom 12.2).

It seems, then, that the enthusiastic ecclesiastical advertisers (whether CAN or Dr Beaver and his associates) are on a hiding to nothing. If they are successful it will surely be because they have adopted the very techniques of the trade which are perceived to be inimical to the Gospel; and if they avoid those pitfalls, they are unlikely to be more effective than the 'wayside pulpits' of my youth. Sniped at from every side and ultimately condemned to ignominious failure, theirs is an unhappy lot.

Rejoice then that The Way We Live Now, my own modest 'Wayside Pulpit', has a consoling text even for them: Matthew 6:28 'Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say to you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.'

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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