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An archbishop led by the Spirit  

05 June 2020

John Barton, a former adviser, writes a personal tribute to Dr Sentamu, as he retires


Dr Sentamu next to his tent in St John’s Chapel, York Minster, during a seven-day fast and prayer vigil for peace in the Middle East, in 2006

Dr Sentamu next to his tent in St John’s Chapel, York Minster, during a seven-day fast and prayer vigil for peace in the Middle East, in 2006

ON TRINITY Sunday, BBC local radio stations will broadcast a service conducted by the Revd Grace Sentamu, with prayers led by the Revd Margaret Sentamu, and a sermon preached by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu. He will retire the next day, just before his 71st birthday (News, 1 October 2018).

His faith was formed in Uganda, where the East African Revival had planted a Western renewal movement in African soil. Before escaping the Amin regime, in 1974, Dr Sentamu had been a judge in Uganda. His legal training and experience were utilised when, as Bishop of Stepney, he was appointed an adviser to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. He later chaired the Damilola Taylor review.

As a priest, bishop, and archbishop, Dr Sentamu could be unpredictable, which was disconcerting to those who wanted the future mapped out. His staff, who are fiercely loyal to him, were at times breathless because they didn’t know what he would do next. He was aware of this, explaining that he tried to heed the Holy Spirit, who could not be second-guessed.

When he was Bishop of Birmingham, the city’s Rover car factory was on the brink of closure, and a whole community was about to lose its livelihood. Dr Sentamu joined them on the picket line, and then bought a Rover car out of his own pocket, as an act of defiance and hope — like the prophet Jeremiah, who invested in a field in his home country, knowing that it was about to be overrun.

Later, when invited to comment on a particularly alarming development in the Middle East, he said “Words, words — what can they achieve?” He cancelled a week’s holiday, shaved his head, and pitched a tent inside York Minster, in an Ezekiel-like symbolic action. He fasted for a week, and led prayers on the hour. During that time, visitor numbers shot up. One of the canons said that he had had more conversations about God that week than at any other time.

In 2007, at the height of the crisis in Zimbabwe, Dr Sentamu was invited to review the newspapers on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. He had secreted a pair of scissors to cut up his clerical collar. This was his identity, he told Mr Marr, and he was destroying it in solidarity with Zimbabweans, black and white, who were losing their identity under the repressive and racist regime of President Mugabe. The plan had come to him at five o’clock that morning. Ten years later, when Mugabe was deposed, he put his collar back on.

These demonstrations were dismissed as publicity-seeking by a few who thought the proper impact to be made by an archbishop was by means of a nuanced speech in the House of Lords or the General Synod. As a member of that Synod, he famously said that the Church of England had the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a juggernaut.

His time in Birmingham had been short but incisive. That secular city, which knew little of the Establishment, couldn’t get enough of him. He designated the diocese “Middle Earth”, much to the delight of Brummies, who were fed up with being disparaged by snooty southerners. On a visit to the Central Mosque, he said: “I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ — to you, a prophet, but, for me, my Lord and Saviour.”


HIS appointment as Archbishop of York was widely welcomed. There was a tidal wave of correspondence, which took months to clear. Soon, he was named Yorkshireman of the Year. There were a few detractors elsewhere, one of whom, knowing nothing about him, asked: “Couldn’t they find a white man?”

He walked the length and breadth of the diocese, stopping to visit schools and workplaces (including a racing stable), say prayers in churches, and hand out prayer cards and beads. He corralled the northern bishops into joining him on evangelistic missions, and was in demand as a speaker and columnist.

Dr Sentamu believes that God called him to be an evangelist who also has a passion for social justice. We await the final report of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission, which he chairs (News, 15 November 2019). Oil companies in that part of the Niger Delta are exploiting irreplaceable resources, ravaging the land, and flouting human rights.

He also chaired the independent Living Wage Commission, which successfully campaigned to replace the “minimum” wage with the recognition that family incomes should be enough to live on. Today, he says that paying NHS and care workers a living wage would be the best recognition of their dedicated service.

His lifelong commitment to young people led him to start the Archbishop of York’s Youth Trust, which, working with schools and communities, inspires young people to develop their leadership potential. He also founded the charity ACTS 435, which brings together online benefactors and people who need small grants to get them out of difficulties.


AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whethered that could be true for them, too.


The Ven. John Barton is a retired Archdeacon of Aston, in Birmingham diocese. On his way to York, the Archbishop brought him out of retirement, first to handle communications, then as his Principal Adviser.

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