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A mischievous biblical bedroom billboard was defaced just over five hours after it was erected in downtown Auckland today.

The controversial billboard, erected by St Matthew-in-the-City Church about 11am, shows Joseph looking down dejectedly and Mary looking sad. Underneath is a caption, "Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow."

It was seen defaced with brown paint about 4.10pm, with both faces and the caption covered.

The church has said it erected the billboard to inspire people to talk about the Christmas story.

However, it has been called offensive and inappropriate by other Christian groups.

Earlier, the church's archdeacon said its mischievous biblical bedroom billboard had provoked support and disapproval in about equal measures.

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said the church had received emails and phone calls since it made the public aware of the billboard yesterday.

"About 50 per cent said they loved it, and about 50 per cent said it was terribly offensive," he told NZPA.

"But that's out of about 20 responses - this is New Zealand."

Archdeacon Cardy said one person had threatened to rip the billboard down but nothing worse had been offered up.

The billboard has already raised the wrath of the traditional values pressure group Family First.

"The church can have its debate on the Virgin birth and its spiritual significance inside the church building, but to confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary," Family First national director Bob McCoskrie said.

"The church has failed to recognise that public billboards are exposed to all of the public including children and families who may be offended by the material."

Catholic Church spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer said the image was inappropriate and disrespectful.

The archdeacon said the plan behind the billboard was to lampoon the literal interpretation of the Christmas conception story.

"What we're trying to do is to get people to think more about what Christmas is all about," he told NZPA.

"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?"

Archdeacon Cardy said the church had asked an advertising agency to come up with a few ideas in November, and that the billboard they chose wasn't the most radical one offered up to them.

"One of the options we turned down had a sperm coming down with the words `Joy To The World'."

He said the true importance of Christmas "is in the radical hospitality Jesus offered to the poor, the despised, women, children, and the sick, and says: 'this is the essence of God'. His death was a consequence of the offensive nature of that hospitality and his resurrection a symbolic vindication".

The archdeacon said St Matthew-in-the-City was at the progressive end of the Christian continuum, and that he believed God was "more like a force but not a being in any sense".

He said some fundamentalist groups and churches would not be strong supporters of theirs, but that there were those in the Christian community who supported him.

Last week a campaign by New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign raised $20,000 in public donations to fund bus ads which read "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

Those ads created a storm when they ran on the London Underground and British buses this year. Similar ads have run in the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain, Australia, Finland and Germany.