(CNSNews.com) – A liberal Anglican church in New Zealand has denounced as “Christian intolerance” the defacing of a large billboard it erected outside its premises to mark the Christmas season. The billboard shows an apparently shocked Virgin Mary examining a home pregnancy test kit.
A Catholic activist damaged the billboard on Sunday, during a prayer protest by around 100 Catholics outside the St. Matthews-in-the-City Church, located on a busy intersection in downtown Auckland.
The man responsible for ripping the image, Arthur Skinner of the Catholic Action Group, said the church was welcome to have him arrested, and warned that if the provocative image was replaced he would damage it again.
“Even people who aren’t Catholics know instinctively you don’t attack the Blessed Virgin who gave us the savior of the world,” Skinner told New Zealand television. “To see this at this time is an absolute abomination.”
The pseudo-Renaissance style picture of Mary carried no tagline and the church leaders, vicar Glynn Cardy and associate priest Clay Nelson, invited people to offer their own thoughts.
“This billboard portrays Mary, Jesus’ mother, looking at a home pregnancy test kit revealing that she is pregnant,” they wrote when the billboard went up. “Regardless of any premonition, that discovery would have been shocking. Mary was unmarried, young, and poor. This pregnancy would shape her future. She was certainly not the first woman in this situation or the last.
“As in the past it is our intention to avoid the sentimental, trite and expected, to spark thought and conversation in the community. This year we hope to do so with an image and no words. We invite you to wonder what your caption might be.”
Unsurprisingly, as caption ideas were posted to the church’s Web site and Facebook page, they included lewd and profane suggestions.
Catholic Diocese of Auckland spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer on Monday provided a statement, saying that the St. Matthews’ initiative “ignores the gospel account of matters surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus, in which Mary is not a shocked solo mother, but a young woman who, despite any anxiety she may have had, has given her firm assent and trust to God, saying ‘Be it done to me according to your will.’”
Freer said the billboards erected by the church “do not promote constructive debate.”
Pointing to comments posted online and on talk radio, she said the billboards “provide a platform for the ridiculing of Christian beliefs on the one hand by people who are hostile to the Christian faith. And on the other hand they provoke extreme actions and abuse by certain Christian fundamentalist groups. Neither of these serve any useful purpose.”
Asked about Skinner’s response, Freer said the Catholic Action Group was not an official Catholic organization.
“In fact over the years he has been very critical of the initiatives of our bishops and of present-day Catholicism in general,” she added.
Responding to Skinner’s action, Cardy and Nelson said they would decline Skinner’s offer to be arrested.
“Frankly, we are tired of Christian intolerance – and embarrassed by it,” they said. “When will we recognize that none of us have the whole truth? When will we recognize that those who hold contrary opinions are not ‘of the devil’? When will we recognize that truth comes in many guises, often in unexpected ways?”
St. Matthews has a history of provoking outrage – or in its view, provoking engagement and discussion about Christian beliefs. A 2009 billboard depicted Mary and a dejected-looking Joseph lying in bed, with the tagline, “Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow.” That poster was defaced several times before being taken down.
Last year, the church put up a billboard reading, “For those who can’t make Mass this Christmas, we’ve blessed this billboard. (Go ahead, touch it).” Hundreds of people reportedly took up the invitation. After a shower, rainwater running off the billboard was bottled and auctioned online as “holy water,” to raise money for the church’s charity work.
The self-proclaimed “progressive” church offers same-sex civil union ceremonies and hosts a Sunday evening service of the “Community of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Straight People.” Partly visible behind the ripped Mary poster is an earlier one advertising these all-inclusive services.