The Church of England (CoE) has warned of a “chilling” effect on free speech and threatened legal action after UK cinemas refused to show an advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.
The Church said that the refusal to show the 60-second film, which it had planned to show around the country ahead of the new Star Wars film, was “plain silly”.
But the Digital Cinema Media (DCM) agency, which handles cinema advertising, said that there were fears that the advert could offend non-Christians.
The advert, entitled ‘Just Pray’ features a range of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, police officers, weight lifters and school children.
It ends with the tagline: “Prayer is for everyone”.
The advert promotes the CoE’s new website, JustPray.uk, which was launched to create a place for prayer with advice on what prayer is and how to pray. The site also provides a "live prayer" feed of prayers being prayed across the globe via Twitter, Instagram and Vine.
But the UK’s three largest cinema chains Odeon, Cineworld and Vue - who control 80% of cinema screens around the country - have refused to show the advert because they believe it "carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences".
This is despite the film receiving clearance from both the Cinema Advertising Authority and British Board of Film Classification.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that the move was “extraordinary”.
He told the Mail on Sunday: "I find it extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
"Billions of people across the world pray this prayer on a daily basis. I think they would be astonished and deeply saddened by this decision, especially in the light of the terrorist attack in Paris where many people have found comfort and solace in prayer.
"This advert is about as 'offensive' as a carol service on Christmas Day."
According to the Press Association, the CoE has threatened legal action over the decision.
The Rev. Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church of England, said: "The prospect of a multi-generational cultural event offered by the release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" on 18 December - a week before Christmas Day - was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas.
"The Lord's Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries. Prayer permeates every aspect of our culture from pop songs and requiems to daily assemblies and national commemorations. For millions of people in the United Kingdom, prayer is a constant part of their lives whether as part thanksgiving and praise, or as a companion through their darkest hours.
"In one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly but the fact that they have insisted upon it makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech. There is still time for the cinemas to change their mind and we would certainly welcome that.
"In the meantime people should visit the site, see the film themselves and make up their own minds as to whether they are upset or offended by it."
According to the BBC, the DCM said it had a policy of not accepting political or religious content in adverts showing in its cinemas.