The reverend revolutionaries

They believe in the power of the word. And the word is advertising. Meet the men of cloth who want to convince you that the Son of Man is no `wimp'
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The Independent Culture
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. So said John. You know, the apostle who could really write. All of that was a few years ago, and these days he might need to update that sentence. In the beginning was the Brief and the Brief was with God and the Brief was God. It's the kind of thing that might resonate with the Churches Advertising Network, that band of misunderstood Christians who decided a few months ago that the brief for this spring's advertising campaign should be The Real Jesus. You know, the revolutionary who died on the cross. No, not the guy wearing a dishtowel for a dress, who is always surrounded by lambs and children. The guy with the crown of thorns. The guy who, in fact, looks remarkably like Che Guevara. You know, the Argentinian atheist and T-shirt icon.

The advertising campaign showing Jesus looking awfully like Che was launched this week. The red-and-black poster pictures the Son of God looking off into the distance, as revolutionaries in berets often do, with a slogan underneath that says "Meek. Mild. As If. Discover the real Jesus." The traditionalists are appalled. It is blasphemy. Che and Jesus! Really. The Bishop of Wakefield feared the adverts would "trivialise the mystery of the godhead". He added: "I am not sure it is the proper way of presenting the message of love and peace." The Bishop of St Albans, the Right Rev Christopher Herbert, said that young people might think that "As If" was a pop group. "The image is very Sixties," he said. "I cannot see how it will appeal to younger generations."

I ask a member of the Churches Advertising Network, the Rev Peter Owen- Jones, whether he thinks that young people might think that As If is a pop group, and it is his turn for a little outrage. "That demonstrates the problem rather than solves it. And you can quote me on that." Before he became a vicar in Haslingfield, Cambridge, three years ago, Rev Owen- Jones was an advertising copywriter, but he didn't anticipate that this campaign would be called blasphemous. He thinks the reality of church life does have a hard edge. It is not all white lambs and blue-eyed children. He says that the problem is that although the churches are part of the Establishment now, their founder simply was not. So there is bound to be tension between the two, even now. "It is uncomfortable for them," he says.

He blames the Victorians. They are the ones who created the sepia portrait we all have of Jesus, happy and smiling in dress and halo. This is Christ, our Saviour of the Comfy Slippers mentality. It is an extremely nice image but also, perhaps, rather ineffectual. And not that far from the way many people perceive the Church itself these days. The reality is far different. "As a vicar you deal with tragedy and the apparent senselessness of it all," says Rev Owen-Jones. "You deal with drug addiction and alcoholism and self-interest in the extreme. You deal with selfishness and greed. These are all things that every vicar would have to comfort and deal with in other people, as well as look at our own personal failings."

Meek and mild. As if. Rev Owen-Jones thinks that hard-edged and gritty is more like it. And revolutionary. "This campaign really is an honest attempt to try to deal with a part of the story which will not be unfamiliar to people who actually read the Bible. Jesus was anti-materialism and anti-greed. This is a revolutionary line, especially in our society today."

Tom Ambrose is a vicar and the director of communications in the Church of England diocese of Ely. He is also a member of the Network. "It's terrible that Christians want the picture of Jesus to be a sort of a wimp!" he says. "Jesus created an absolute revolution in the lives of the people who wrote the Gospels. That's why they wrote about it. You can read the story of feeding the 5,000 and it is about baskets and bread - or you can read it again and it's 5,000 men hiding away in companies of 50 and 100, drawn up like an army." In the end Jesus fled. He didn't want to be that kind of revolutionary. But that's what the people - those men and Herod et al - thought he was. "That's why he was crucified!"

The members of Churches Advertising Network are bound together by two things: they are Christians (though they belong to different denominations) and they believe in the power of advertising. They are controlled by no one. Every Christmas and Easter they work, with the creative team drawn from Christians in the media, to make a campaign. The members of the Network reject labels such as "modernist" and "radical", but that is what they are. Not particularly because they believe that the real Jesus was a revolutionary, but because they believe in advertising and its power to make people think. "We don't do wallpaper. We do advertising," says Rev Tom Ambrose. "Unless it makes you stop and think twice, then what's it for? Our adverts will be up in the High Street against everyone else's. We want ours to be stronger than that. Maybe we have succeeded."

Robert Ellis, communications director for the Church of England in Lichfield, helped found the network in 1991. I ask whom the Network serves. "There is a huge debate on that one. We exist to serve the Church, which to a large extent has not got a clue about advertising and marketing and public relations. The gap between the Church and the public is getting larger by the day. This is about closing that gap. It's an uphill struggle." He says that many in the Church do not even know what the scenery is. I don't either, so I ask. He means the scenery of advertising. "For them advertising is a puke-green or fluorescent orange piece of paper written on in felt tip behind a piece of cling film, flapping dejected in the wind." He says that the early Church did have a clue. They had mystery plays and John Wesley and his horse and "dear old St Paul in his boat".

All of this seems very far away from Che in his beret, however. But everyone - the vicars and the creatives - insist that this should not be taken that way. They have used Che as an icon, an image, an idea. Chas Bayfield is a member of Christians in Media and he is one of the "creatives" behind the campaign. He says that the revolutionary idea came quickly and he, for one, thinks it is perfect. He says that there is an image now of Jesus as "a bit of a poof". This is simply not appropriate. "We felt very strongly that Christ is misrepresented terribly. It's almost insulting. I want to be known as a follower of this amazing revolutionary man, not some effeminate fairy in a white dress. I'm a grown man. I can't believe in fairies!"

Nor does he particularly believe in Che Guevara. "I didn't really know much about him. In fact, I didn't even know he was a Communist. But he really is the Trivial Pursuit revolutionary, isn't he? He's the one everyone recognises. I mean, most people couldn't even name too many revolutionaries. If I were to say `Carlos the Jackal' to you, would you know what he looks like?" I say that, yes, I would. Square face and Michael Caine glasses. I'm not sure about the revolutionary bit, though. Mr Bayfield sighs. "Well, most wouldn't. My old granny wouldn't. Che really is the token revolutionary."

Somehow I don't think Che would agree. Judy Beishon, of the executive committee of the Socialist Party, says that she thinks the campaign is a bit strange. "If anything, it is probably a bit unfair to Che Guevara." But say we agree, just for the moment, that Che is just an icon and that Jesus is the real revolutionary. Does it mean anything deeper, really? The Churches Advertising Network would say yes. Rev Peter Owen-Jones believes there is a quiet revolution going on. The Church is changing. It has to change. "It is absolutely right that it is uncomfortable. It provokes change - and that is what Jesus did. Change is never easy. The Church is not comfortable with this image. It is more comfortable to have this meek, mild person bumbling around taking care of lost cats. But that's not the reality of it at all."