Details are still emerging about this story - and that does kind of make me nervous about commentating. Usually stories like these grow and change as the various details seep out, and I suspect this is the case here.
The facts, as I understand them at least, are these. The Church of England has made an advert they wanted to show in cinemas before the new Star Wars film in the run up to Christmas, but the company that controls adverts in the majority of the UK's cinemas - Digital Cinema Media - have a policy against showing religious adverts.
Many within the church are crying foul - although this being the CofE they are wisely cautious about using the term persecution - with the CofE's director of communications saying he finds it "bewildering". The more vocal of the atheistic groups are voicing their support of DCM's policy, pointing out that the church doesn't have "an automatic right to foist its opinions" and so on. That said whilst Keith Porteous Wood supports the ban, Richard Dawkins, somewhat unexpectedly, doesn't, which places him, rather usunually, in the same camp as Giles Fraser.
All of which means it's probably just as well that the church didn't include a gay, cake-baker saying "give us today our daily bread", or else the internet make have imploded. Again.
A couple of observations at this point. Firstly, this isn't about free speech, it's about a business making business decisions. I don't think DCM will struggle to fill the pre-Star Wars slots, but at the same time they could probably sell them to the highest bidder and in this case one imagines the bidding could go quite high (which maybe raises the issue of why the church is seeking to spend absolutely top whack to fill an advertising slot for a not particularly outstanding quality video advert).
Secondly, at what point did the CofE become aware of the cinema's policy? I find it very hard to believe that the church didn't know about this in advance. In 2006 our local church tied to run some form of promotion at the cinema around the release of The Nativity Story. Despite, or quite possibly because of, a similar campaign around The Passion of The Christ (which competing churches turned into an undignified scrabble to grab the attention of the few cinemagoers to attend the film) we were told their policy was now, no religious adverts. And the UK environment has moved further in that direction ever since.
So if the church didn't discover it until after it had spent a significant amount of money creating the campaign and doing all the filming, then it suggests a level of incompetence which they should be beyond. But if they knew before then this looks even more like the church trying to gain some free publicity by creating a media storm around the issue and driving traffic to their website and that of the "Just Pray" campaign the advert is meant to promote.
DCM's defence will be that they have a policy so they can treat all religions equally. But people will counter there is a clear difference between the CofE and the Taliban and they should be able to tell. Perhaps, but at some point there will come a dividing line and I can understand why the company might wash its hands of the whole issue, even if it might hit its profits. But it will be interesting to see where this story goes. Were there discussions between the two parties in private or did the CofE just throw itself into a media storm in the spirit of "all publicity is good publicity"? Perhaps DCM had made encouraging noises and then got cold feet? It will be interesting to see where this story goes from here. Either way I think the CofE has found a far cheaper way to gain the attention of it's intended audience, even if it won't be in 3D Imax.