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Church's 'provocative' poster begets almighty row

It was supposed to be challenging and provocative, but an Anglican church in Auckland over-estimated the tolerance of local Christians. A billboard depicting a dejected Joseph lying in bed with Mary, accompanied by the slogan "Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow", was defaced yesterday within hours of being erected.

The vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican church, Archdeacon Glynn Cardy, said he had hoped to get people talking about the Christmas story.

"We're trying to get people to think more about what Christmas is all about," he told the New Zealand Press Association. "Is it about a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born, or is it about the power of love in our midst, as seen in Jesus?"

St Matthew's calls itself a progressive Christian church, and Mr Cardy said the billboard was lampooning the literal interpretation of Jesus's conception. However, local Christians were not amused. The church's website was flooded with critical comments, and by yesterday afternoon the fresco-style image of a downcast Joseph and an anguished Mary gazing heavenwards had been daubed with brown paint, obscuring the faces.

Leading the chorus of condemnation was the Family First group, which champions traditional values. Its national director, Bob McCoskrie, said any debate about the Virgin birth should be confined to inside the church. "To confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary," he said. Lyndsay Freer, a spokeswoman for Auckland Catholic Diocese, was equally crushing, telling New Zealand's National Radio that the image of Joseph and Mary in bed together was inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive to Christians. It could be used, she said, "by an anti-Christian group to poke fun at the divinity of Christ". Mr Cardy said that, judging by calls and emails received by the church reactions were evenly divided, with just one person threatening to rip the billboard down. "About 50 per cent said they loved it, and about 50 per cent said it was terribly offensive. But that's out of about 20 responses – this is New Zealand."

New Zealand is one of the world's most secular societies, with nearly one-third of people professing in the last census, in 2006, to have no religion.