John Sentamu’s career, indeed his life, makes for interesting reading. Never afraid of saying what he believes, Andrew Brown of the Guardian sums up his public standpoint as ‘[saying] unpopular things often, and popular things as often as he can’. Ugandan born, he fled his homeland after suffering persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Idi Amin, settling in London in 1974. Cambridge educated, he was ordained at Ridley Hall in 1979 and served in various positions before moving to become Bishop of Stepney in 1996. He came to York, as the 97th Archbishop of York and the most senior ethnic minority in the Church of England, enthroned at the Feast of St. Andrew’s to a mix African drumming and contemporary music. Yet, despite what people and the press might expect of such a modern Archbishop, he has espoused the tenets of classical British conservatism. A lover of tradition, formal or otherwise, he has flown in the face of expectation by pronouncing: ‘We shouldn’t be shy about saying how great our country is. We should be proud. England is known the world over for her universal language, her sense of fair play and decency, the virtue of hope and her sense of hospitality’. His England is one of strength in diversity, where we shouldn’t be ashamed or uncomfortable to celebrate our cultural heritage. He is, in effect, more English than the English. And yet.
As someone who normally likes to stir, hold radical opinions for the sake of annoying other people and perhaps most of all test the strength of belief by eternally playing Devil’s Advocate, I was most disappointed writing this article. When I read into Sentamu and found, despite his opinions of Gay Marriage, a mixture of other stands he has made, radical or otherwise, it became clear that this is a man which defies characterisation. He cannot be simplified, as some of his fellow church have done – calling his style ‘African’. He is, despite the efforts of the media, not a single issue pony. His stand against the Mugabe regime, cutting up his dog collar live on Television and refusing to wear it again until the dictator was deposed showed someone unafraid to make his international and political opinions known. In fact he has had something to say on almost every political situation which has appeared since he became archbishop: the financial crisis, the McCanns, Alan Johnston’s kidnapping, the Kenyan crisis and William and Kate’s supposed pre-marital sex. However, something which problematises all this is the basic question: should Sentamu be politicising the church, should he be using his election to archbishop as a mandate for openly discussing and furthering his political or social opinions?
The view that Sentamu is simply a victim of bad press is not an easy one to hold. His former aide suggested he was a victim of a’racist whispering campaign’ and reports came in of racist abuse after this comments on gay marriage late last year. These comments themselves have been source for discussion, though they were potentially homophobic the press spin attempted to represent Sentamu himself as a homophobe, a kind of backward dictatorial clergyman. Rather foolishly for someone used to the public eye, he suggested that laws about gay marriage would be like a dictatorship imposing laws upon its people. In fact it is unlikely that any such law would be imposed on anyone in Britain and, as many commentators pointed out, there is no dictatorship in the world today which does not hold a strong criminalised opinion of homosexuality. Of course, these comments were pounced upon as evidence of the hateful and pious church in England and, whilst everyone forgot the phone hacking scandal and the British press got a chance to redirect emotion elsewhere, Sentamu’s real point was lost. He explained in an article in the Guardian that was he was trying to ensure that the Christian institution of marriage between a man and woman was not lost or diminished through government redefinition.
But Sentamu’s comments, and his potential to become archbishop of Canterbury, reveal something else about the Church of England. His attempt to discredit secularism in British politics and ensure that religion has a strong role to play in the work place is worrying, it shows the teetering and wobbling nature of organised and institutionalised christianity in Britain. After all as a modern and developed nation we should accept that religion has no place in politics or work. The ‘aggressive atheism’ which Sentamu is worried about is in fact the face of progress, of the advance of secular liberalism as opposed to religiose authoritarianism which masks itself as freedom of religious expression. Sentamu’s fears that, without constantly reasserting the christian message, churches will turn into a ‘social services industry’ are pertinent. As he is tipped to become the next leader of the Church of England his ideas about religion in the 21st century need to be directed towards this sort of vague effort at reform, reasserting roles that perhaps no longer exist and making the church more about politics, as the once large social and cultural role within communities has vanished through the generations. It is difficult to tell, as with another man who knows how to play the crowds and is tipped for the top, how much he is manufacturing controversy to ensure visibility in the final months of Rowan Williams’ time as archbishop of Canterbury.
One thing which remains clear amongst the smoke and mirror of public relations is that John Sentamu is going to be an increasingly important figure in British political life. One should not forget that his full title includes the ‘Right Honourable’ as he sits in the House of Lords. He also writes for a tabloid newspaper and is a visiting columnist for various media outlets, increasingly he has become the face of the patriotic and educated ethnic minority – spurning the New Labour multiculturalism years as ‘seeming to imply, wrongly for me, “let other cultures be allowed to express themselves but do not let the majority culture at all tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains”‘. He is at once a populist and one of the outspoken minority, a man who has learnt to exploit his position within the church and who claims that he wants to see a return to tradition christian values. Whatever John Sentamu will do and become in the next few months, it is likely to be as, if not more, unpredictable and interesting as his life so far.