Analysis: The energetic inspiration of Dr John Sentamu

Comment by Andrew Brown

The Church of England has seldom had a prelate as energetic as John Sentamu, who retires on Sunday after 15 years as Archbishop of York. He rose from a background about as far from the rest of the bench of bishops as is possible. As one of 13 children of a farmer in Uganda, his intelligence and energy made him a lawyer, arguing in front of the country’s supreme court by the age of 24.  Courage and Christian conviction made Dr Sentamu an opponent of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who made him first a prisoner and then a landless fugitive, which is how he reached England at the age of 25.

In England Dr Sentamu switched from theology and earned a Cambridge doctorate in theology. After ordination he worked first as a prison chaplain, then as a parish priest in south London, then an area bishop in the East End. As a result he holds the undisputed record among Anglican bishops for being stopped and searched by the police — eight times in three years.  From Stepney, he went to Birmingham and three years later to York. As Archbishop of York Sentamu has worked hard and successfully to establish himself as figure of local patriotism — a brewery named him Yorkshireman of the Year in 2008. He founded charities and school academies.  Anyone who wrote to Dr Sentamu, and there were hundreds of letters every week, would get a reply which he had read, approved, and signed, even if his staff did much of the drafting. “He had an extraordinary capacity for basic hard work. He didn’t cut corners,” said someone who worked with him.

As a parish priest in south London he had been successful, loved and admired by a diverse congregation and he retained the gift for a sudden phrase or gesture that would cut through the fluff of churchiness. Dr Sentamu camped for a week in the nave of York Minster to draw attention to the plight of refugees. He told the synod, his eager words tumbling over each other, that the church had “the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a juggernaut”.

But in 2012, when the time came to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury, he was not even interviewed for the post, which went to Justin Welby.

Dr Sentamu’s former spin doctor, the Rev Arun Arora, had suggested that a failure to translate him to Canterbury could only be the result of “a whispering campaign” that suggested “the naked racism which still bubbles under the surface in our society”. But although Dr Sentamu’s early career in the church was indelibly marked by the struggle against racism, by the time he was archbishop this was not the most prominent or controversial feature of his work.

The energy and the instinct for action that was central to his character did not fit well with the structures of the church. Those were the years when the Church of England was preoccupied with sex and gender and in those matters he was fiercely conservative. He was a consistent opponent of gay marriage but on social and economic questions he was radical and burned for justice. Dr Sentamu campaigned for the adoption of a living wage, and for the rights of asylum seekers. He denounced the regime of Robert Mugabe, famously cutting up his clerical collar while being interviewed by Andrew Marr on TV in 2008 and vowing not to wear it until Mugabe went. Years later, in a gesture just as characteristic, he prayed over Marr on live television when the presenter was recovering from a stroke.

Perhaps the best explanation for the paradoxes of his career has more to do with temperament and with culture than with either racism or lack of ability. Dr Sentamu was a man who liked to get things done working within an institution that does not. To be Archbishop of York is to have a great deal of prestige but very little actual power. If you want to get things done in such a position you have to persuade people to follow you.  Dr Sentamu’s style was one of inspiring, not persuasive, leadership but this century the damp spirits of the Church of England have sullenly resisted inspiration.