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Britain’s first black archbishop speaks about his long struggle against injustice

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London, UK — John Sentamu tells the story of walking in to lead an assembly at a primary school in London when he was Bishop of Stepney: “As I entered the school hall, a child from the nursery class, who had never seen a bishop wearing a cope and mitre, piped up and said, ‘Is that God?’ His near neighbour angrily replied, ‘No, it’s Desmond Tutu!’

Today, the Church of England loses one of its most powerful, prophetic and joyous voices as Archbishop John Sentamu, the 97th Archbishop of York, retires on the week of his 71st birthday after 15 years as the C of E’s second in command. The journey from Uganda to York, via Cambridge, London and Birmingham, has been marked by an extraordinary contribution to the life and faith of both church and nation. 

In the midst of national debates on racism, inequality and brutality, few in the establishment can claim to have the experience of standing up to injustice and paying the price in the way Sentamu has done. As a high court judge in Uganda and opponent of the regime of Idi Amin, Sentamu refused to overlook the crimes of one of Amin’s family. Defying an order to deliver a not guilty verdict, he was arrested, and badly beaten in a prison cell, subsequently describing the experience as “being kicked around like human football”. He suffered severe internal injuries and received the last rites from Keith Sutton, an English priest and later Bishop of Lichfield, who arranged to smuggle Sentamu and his wife, Margaret, out of Uganda upon his release from prison in 1973. 

As an archbishop, Sentamu’s priorities have included the renewal of discipleship in the church, advocacy for the poor and the need for a living wage, investment in young people and equipping the church to rediscover its confidence in talking about Jesus. Combined with this have been public acts which have sought to draw attention to injustice and highlight its remedies. 

In church terms, Sentamu has been a moderniser whose relationship with the institution he has served so faithfully has not always been easy. In Birmingham, he reviewed staffing, clergy numbers and finances across the diocese, as well as streamlining both the diocesan administration and reducing the plethora of committees and councils that served the church. Whileother bishops were praised for similar acts, Sentamu was criticised by some “for behaving like an African chief”, revealing the racism with which he has had to contend.  There was a lady who didn’t want me to take her husband’s funeral because I was black. We received letters with excrement in Sentamu’s appointment to York – described by one broadsheet at the time as “political correctness gone gloriously sane” – gave a neat nod to the fact that, for the first time in its history, the Church of England would have a black archbishop. Sentamu played the race element down, responding to one journalist that “first I am a Christian, second I am a man, third I am black”. 

Yet as an adviser to the Macpherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and as chairman of the inquiry into the investigation into the murder of Damilola Taylor, Sentamu brought with him an intimate knowledge of the impacts of institutional racism underwritten by his own personal experience. During his time in London, he was stopped and searched by the police eight times. There were other incidents, too: “There was a lady who didn’t want me to take her husband’s funeral because I was black… We received letters with excrement in.”

But it is Sentamu’s strengths as an evangelist and his easy ability to connect with people that have propelled him through the hierarchy. A close attention to where he believes his faith is leading him, enabled through daily prayer, has led Sentamu to acts of public symbolism, most famously cutting up his dog collar live on air to highlight the abuses being carried out by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. He also set up a tent for a week in York Minster in order to fast and pray for peace in the Middle East.

As archbishop, he has gathered bishops from across the north to go out together on missions to towns and cities where Sentamu would engage with anyone from shoppers to schoolchildren to talk about God. Over the past five years Sentamu’s Northern Bishops’ Missions have taken place in Sheffield, Blackburn, Durham, Cumbria, Newcastle, Liverpool and Nottingham, with the final mission in York in March, just before the lockdown.

Two years after his appointment as archbishop, Sentamu led a mission to Oxford University. Standing in the Sheldonian theatre, he recalled the words of a former archbishop, Michael Ramsey, who during his own mission to Oxford in 1960 spoke of the missionary century that saw the spread of Christian faith in Africa and Asia and compared it to the spiritual decay in England. Ramsey ended his address by saying: “I should love to think of a black Archbishop of York holding a mission here and telling a future generation of the scandal and the glory of the church.”

There is little doubt that, even in his retirement, until his last breath, Sentamu will continue to advocate for the voiceless, speak out against injustice and tell of the glories of the Lord.

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