Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Looking to the Anglicans for Model Bishops. Again.

This morning, John Sentamu, a Uganda-born lawyer who fled the regime of Idi Amin, was enthroned as the archbishop of York and second-ranking prelate in the Church of England.

Here are some snips of an interview he gave the other day in the pages of The Independent

Since his appointment was announced five months ago, he has spent much of his time responding personally to some 4,000 letters from well-wishers. There have, he said recently, been "a few nasties" in the postbag too - by which he means a handful of racist hate mail, some of it smeared with excrement.

"You ask yourself, 'Why has a person who has never met me done this?' And because it is anonymous, I can't write back or invite them for a cup of tea." Instead, he prays for them. "Jesus said you should pray for people who persecute you. Persecution is a bit strong here, but he meant those who don't like you. You can't be angry with a person you are praying for."

It's not his first encounter with Britain's uglier, racist face. The very first time he took a funeral, the son of the deceased asked: "What has my father done to be buried by a black monkey?" In the 1980s, the National Front tried to burn down his house. When he lived in London, he was stopped by the Metropolitan Police six times in eight years under their stop-and-search policy....

Compared with his inauguration in Birmingham, where he became bishop in 2002, this is tame stuff. Then, he arrived at the Cathedral on foot, via the Metro, and circled the Cathedral with a troupe of children and African drummers before entering the building. He declared himself "Bishop for Birmingham" rather than "Bishop of Birmingham", and set about winning the hearts of the entire city, whether or not they were interested in the Church. The delighted local media dubbed him the "rocking bishop"....

"The trouble in this country is that there is no balanced view of leadership, and we don't recognise that the Government will get some things right and some things wrong. It would be a good thing if our MPs could think, 'How could we improve education, health, policing?' without shouting at each other from opposite sides of the House. These are not party political but national issues. Why is it always wrong to have consensus? Why pretend they would do it differently, especially when they are all fighting over the centre ground? That's urinal diplomacy and it must stop."

He is convinced that the Church retains an important role in public life. "We may be a bit thin on the ground, but we are still one of the biggest voluntary organisations in Britain, if you take all the faith communities together.

"If we pulled out of all the help-your-neighbour schemes, the country would be in a mess. There are old people's lunches, urban projects, mother-and-toddler groups, the Mothers' Union giving tea to prison visitors - I could go on and on. The Church needs to be there in the pressure areas, where no one else will go. We must practise our presence. That presence is not about people becoming Christians, but about nurturing friendships, creating neighbourliness and a sense of belonging."

The Church is uniquely placed to hear the voice of the poor, he says. "My predecessor Archbishop William Temple went to the East End with William Beveridge to make friends with people. He said that the poverty was visible and smellable and intractable, and something had to be done. Out of that came the welfare state.

"The Church today has got to find the poor, the disaffected and disadvantaged and make friends with them. The trouble is, we don't like listening. My mother used to say, 'John, God gave you one mouth, two eyes and two ears. Use them in proportion.' So I try to listen twice as much as I speak."

People are still drawn to the Church in times of need, he says. "When Diana died, and after the Soham murders, people ran to churches to burn candles. Where else in modern Britain would you have held that service in St Paul's [for the victims of 7 July]? In a football stadium? A mosque? St Paul's Cathedral offered a very clear public service when people were in pain."

None the less, he knows that the Church has sometimes fallen short. "Something about our language of hope has not come through. Instead, there's been something more moralising and judgemental. Our divisions don't help."

He has never been afraid to criticise the Church of England, for being "too monochrome" and for getting bogged down in bureaucracy. "When the last trumpet shall sound, a commission will be set up on the significance of the trumpet, the financial implications of that trumpet, and for a report to come back in three years' time," he once said.

I wonder if Cormac was there....

PHOTO: REUTERS/Darren Staples