Monday, 2 August 2010

Praying for rain

Say what you like about Rowan Williams (and I do) you're unlikely to find him claiming that he can make it rain through the power of prayer. The 1662 Prayer Book, it is true, contains prayers beseeching Almighty "for such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour", but respectable religious leaders have long since stopped pretending that God exercises day-to-day control of the weather. Haven't they?

Perhaps not. In Russia, where there has been an "unprecedented" heatwave culminating in a series of devastating wildfires, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has responded by urging the faithful to get on their knees. "I call upon everyone to unite in a prayer for rain to descend on our earth," he said, during an elaborate ceremony at a monastery blanketed by smoke from nearby forest fires. A woman in the congregation agreed that the fires were "a punishment sent to us for our sins." Admittedly, that's what some environmentalists keep telling us, but they usually have in mind metaphorical sins like taking too many international flights.

As far as I can work out, there are two possible reasons why a prayer for rain might be effective. Either God is using the drought - as in the story of Noah he used floods - to punish mankind (or just the Russians) for their sins, in which case a bit of repentence might just do the trick. Or He somehow hasn't noticed the destruction that His weather systems have wrought, and the prayers are simply a way of bringing the matter to His attention. Neither paints God in a particularly good light.

It's also something of a high-risk strategy for the church. Of course, it might start raining - eventually, its bound to - in which case Kirill can take the credit. But what if it doesn't?