Dr John Sentamu: A pilgrim’s progress

Dr John Sentamu
Dr John Sentamu
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The Archbishop of York is a man of hope – and charisma. Tom Richmond spent a day shadowing Dr John Sentamu.

A CHARISMATIC John Sentamu has already endeared himself to a classroom of children by promising a short speech because he does not “want to stand between someone and their lunch.”

The assurance – this is already an assembly like no other – grabs their attention before he offers two memorable and inspirational quotations from Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass. “Inspire, not have more, but to be more,” the Archbishop of York tells those gathered at Withernsea High School for the official opening of the impressive Holderness Learning Centre.

There’s a brief pause before he reveals the inscription on the cross elegantly adorning his neck: “Peace will flower when love and justice pervade our environment.”

They are words that embody his mission of hope that contrasts with his contemporaries who are quick to criticise without offering practical advice. His young audience is captivated. In his unique style, he re-enforces the point by singling out one sixth-former and telling her that she will achieve her dreams because they are “gorgeous, talented and beautiful” before asking another to recount one of the Romero quotations.

The first struggles, but her friend succeeds. Mission accomplished. Lunch can begin. John Sentamu beams with pride.

The learning centre’s blessing – he used his crozier to depict the sign of the cross – was just one of a series of engagements across the East Riding, one of three archdeaconries on his patch.

It is a frenetic 14-hour visit, one of many undertaken each month, which began at dawn on the day when the Crown Nominations Commission was considering who should lead the Church of England as Archbishop of Canterbury when Dr Rowan Williams retires shortly; the plain-speaking Dr Sentamu is said to be a leading, but unconfirmed contender.

Dr Sentamu’s day always begins with private prayer and contemplation. The Yorkshire Regiment, missing York chef Claudia Lawrence and Madeleine McCann, who vanished in Portugal in 2007 and whose picture adorns the palace walls, are regularly in his thoughts.

“You’ll struggle to keep up,” I’m told by an aide in the moments before the Archbishop emerges shortly after 8am. His aides, politely and respectfully, refer to him as “The Boss”.

He checks that his trademark black flat cap, a simple Marks & Spencer purchase, has been packed – it is one of two that he bought on moving to York in 2005. The other, he laments, was stolen, a continuing source of regret.

The one-hour journey to Hull affords time to read the newspapers and go through his correspondence boxes – each letter or authorisation is a signed off with a cross and then “Sentamu Ebor”.

First stop is Associated British Ports’ office for a presentation on ambitious plans to transform Hull’s docks with a factory that will be the heartbeat of offshore wind power.

Dr Sentamu is studious, his face resting against his left hand, before touring the site by car. Only then does he comprehend the scale of the opportunity as he returns to ABP to meet Labour peer Chris Haskins who heads the Humber’s Local Enterprise Partnership. “What they are trying to do is incredible. It is good energy,” he booms.

There is a political edge to the subsequent one-hour discussion about whether Government support will be forthcoming.

When he’s told that Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, is a climate change sceptic, the Archbishop is singularly unimpressed: “I’ll put him in my basement for a few days.” It emerges that Dr Sentamu spent the previous night in his waders inspecting flood damage at Bishopthorpe Palace.

He then speaks about how electricity in his native Uganda is sourced by the river Nile – energy security is key – and whether the turbine plan, spearheaded by German giant Siemens, will create local jobs. “The British Empire had a very good effect on the world. What is happening? What is going wrong? Where is the innovation and technology? My dad has a Morris Minor 100. It is still going. It is still going.”

He’s not afraid to speak up for British jobs. He’s addressed as Archbishop – anyone who uses the correct, but formal term “Your Grace” is likely to be called “Your Majesty” by way of response.

The meeting ends with Dr Sentamu promising to pray for Hull’s much-vaunted green port and to ask the relevant questions in the House of Lords. He later says that he was struck by a particularly memorable phrase by Lord Haskins: “A plan without delivery is not a plan.”

This is a can-do Archbishop. The Olympics and Paralympics, he says, “blew apart the celebrity culture,” showed Britain at its very best and proved everyone has gifts that can make a difference – a theme that underpins his day.

It is why the line of dignitaries outside Withernsea High have to briefly wait while there is a detour to shake the hand of the parking attendant. It also explains, after the more formal events at the early learning centre, that he disappears into a side room where some pupils are playing chess while others are working on school projects.

He peers over the shoulders of 12-year-olds Harry Peck and Jamie Martin as they attempt to write a cycling policy for the school. “He’s funny. He told us to keep the rules,” says Jamie. There is an unspoken irony here – Britain’s most popular and publicly-recognisable bishop rarely sticks to the protocol when meeting his people.

Slightly smaller in stature than expected, his strength of character and personality lights up every venue. It is why, at the adjacent Withernsea Primary, that he qukicly changes into his cope and mitre; he’s been asked to give a 10-minute talk and the school have asked that he wears his full robes over his purple cassock and black cape. He does not disappoint. Nor is there any orthodoxy to his lesson – with hundreds of children seated on the floor, in parallel lines, he begins with a simple question: “How many of you like sweets?”

Every hand goes up. He delves into a carrier bag from the Co-op and starts to throw some fruit gums at those sat by the front. Those at the back of the hall miss out. It is quite deliberate – the lesson is one about the importance of sharing, before a young child, Bailey-Kai Lewis, is invited to play the djembe drum that the Archbishop has brought with him.

The Bishop of Hull, the Right Rev Richard Frith and the Archbishop’s chauffeur for the day, says the visit’s legacy will be a lasting one – it should make it easier for the local clergy to forge links with schools in an area that is often neglected by policy-makers because of its perceived inaccessibility. A barrier has been broken.

There is time to make a brief stop-off to two local churches, one earmarked for closure, before a private pastoral visit and a dash back to Hull to visit Age UK’s Healthy Living Centre.

With no fanfare, he sits, after a brief tour, at a table and enjoys a cream tea while talking to senior citizens who benefit from the centre’s love and support.

And then loud laughter as he meets Jean Bishop, the remarkable 90-year-old who has raised £90,000 for Age UK and who was given the honour of carrying the Olympic flame in Hull. His pride in her achievements is palpable. “She’s raised £90,000 and she will start again when she reaches £100,000. I have said someone of that age should start again at one. Age is only a number.”

There’s a car analogy as he presents a bouquet to the centre’s outgoing chief officer Sally Gould. “They are not retiring; they are being re-tyred,” he says with passion – and amusement.

As the small entourage leaves, a senior citizen remarks of Dr Sentamu and Hull’s bishop: “They are just normal.” It is a recurring impression.

By now, it is 5pm – but there’s no let-up in Dr Sentamu’s tour. There’s a meeting with Bishop Richard to discuss church matters in the region, a brief bite to eat – and then time to prepare for his evening speaking engagement in front of 200 people at Hornsea’s Floral Hall.

He slips unobtrusively into the room – but is immediately drawn to the young drummers from Scisset School near Holmfirth. It is fortunate that the Rev Richard Carew, the Archbishop’s domestic chaplain, has come prepared – his job title should be “drum-carrier in chief” as Dr Sentamu joins the young musicians and starts, in perfect harmony, to play his own djembe. They visibly grow as the music becomes even more vibrant; the Archbishop’s face becoming even more animated as the beat becomes even more rhythmical.

His audience is spell-bound as he recounts his remarkable life story. While Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, plays the buffoon to make his point, humour is the Archbishop’s secret weapon.

Then a moment of sombreness about his birth 63 years ago. “I wasn’t a fully developed young little boy. They did not expect me to survive the night. They baptised me because they didn’t think I would make it in the morning. I am the proof that it works.”

His spiritual awareness, he says, began when he was 10; a missionary bought him a bicycle so he could ride 12 miles a day to school; he was becoming a lawyer, and a particularly effective one, before he had to flee Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda.

His flow is briefly broken by a mobile phone going off. He tells the embarrassed lady: “Can you answer God quickly and then we can get on?” More laughter.

Dr Sentamu returns to his theme – his theology studies at Cambridge and how he never expected to make Britain his permanent home. “Don’t go to the Home Secretary.” Then his rise through the Church of England. “I am a born optimist. Hope is one of those things that captivates your life.”

There is pride when he outlines how he helped to influence changes to the law 
and policing following the murders in London of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor when he was Bishop of Stepney, and how he would disguise himself when visiting Birmingham’s gang-riddled estates after the murders of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in 2005, shortly before he took up his posting in York. “God has been gracious to me and the love of Jesus continues. To be a Christian is one of the greatest things that anyone can do on earth.”

At each appearance throughout the day, there are questions about whether he will wear his dog collar after it was torn up on live television five years ago in protest at Robert Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe.

The answer is an emphatic and passionate one: this protest will continue until Mugabe no longer has any influence over his people, or has shown to repent.

The one subject off limits is the likelihood of Dr John Sentamu becoming the first black Archbishop of Canterbury.

“What is the future for me? To continue serving Jesus Christ; to continue to be committed about social justice and to work for a fairer society, halting the difference between those who have something and those who have nothing.”

He’d be a good poker player. It was indicative of society’s changing attitudes that he was not asked once about the colour of his skin.

His drive back to York as 10pm approaches is a swift one, but his work is unfinished. His itinerary for the following days is even more frenetic, including a tribute to Britain’s fallen police officers.

Today was just routine, he says. He’s concerned that the CoE is regarded by some as irrelevant. “We in the Church have not made the message of Jesus attractive enough... we have got to do our job a bit better.”

He’s certainly leading by example.