BACK in 2014, the Church of England issued a prayer for the England football team playing in the World Cup in Brazil. It was a familiar prayer written by Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, which has been on the lips of every England football fan for generations and ran to two words and three dots: “Oh God …”.

In last week’s column I wrote about the potential relegation of Aston Villa from the Premier League and how I found a faith in something more important than even the beautiful game with the visit of the evangelist Billy Graham to Villa Park. In the seven days since I have found myself uttering that prayer a number of times, not least on Sunday afternoon when Villa’s chances of survival were hanging by a thread. Friends and colleagues have since joked that God must have been on Villa’s side, something that would have come as a surprise to the faithful praying for Bournemouth and Watford.

The comments have reminded me about the story told by Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, and George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Both men had just been selected to take up their posts and someone discovered they were both diehard Arsenal fans. Both men were invited to have their first ecumenical gathering in a box at Arsenal’s home ground. The Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop enthusiastically agreed. Before the start of the match they were taken out onto the pitch where they presented a cheque to charity. The public address system announced who they were, and a buzz went around the ground. Whichever way you played the theological wager, that night Arsenal had friends in high places. They could not possibly lose.

That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in more than 60 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national newspaper reported the story and said, if the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi between them couldn’t bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist? The Chief Rabbi’s reply was simple. To the contrary, he said, it proves that God exists. It’s just that he supports Manchester United.

I have told that story to my friends this week to remind them that in matters of sport, God is not partisan and that of course there are bigger things to be praying for, not least in the middle of a continuing pandemic. But the past week has been a ready reminder that at its heart, prayer is about expressing our desires honestly and having our vision of God, the world and one another changed by our praying. Prayer is not some kind of contractual bartering process with God as a cosmic vending machine, dispensing selected solutions to our particular woes.

Rather it is the honest opening up of ourselves, those parts we show and those parts we keep hidden, in a way that leaves us open to being with God and accepting the divine invitation to walk with him. God doesn’t promise a free pass from suffering of difficulty but does promise to be with us in the disappointment and hurt, as well as alongside us in the joy and relief. No wonder Nick Baines’ prayer is so familiar to us all.

  • Arun Arora is vicar of St Nicholas Church, Durham.