Dr John Sentamu: The Archbishop of the People and his spiritual journey

To mark a decade since becoming Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu is visiting every parish in his diocese. Tom Richmond joined him as he walked from Tickton to Beverley.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, takes part in his pilgrimage across the county, as he walks from Tickton to Beverley. (Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe).

THE softly-spoken words came straight from the heart at the climax of another day on the Archbishop of York’s six-month pilgrimage of prayer, witness and blessing.

“I have just had the privilege of meeting a couple who have fostered 140 children,” Dr John Sentamu told his hushed audience with impromptu spontaneity. “My wife and I fostered two children many years ago – it makes you feel that you should have done more.”

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As this uniquely-blessed Archbishop of the People begins an informal prayer session in East Riding Council’s civic seat of power with staff who look after troubled children, this anecdote encapsulates why the much-travelled Dr Sentamu has embarked upon another spiritual journey of lifetime.

Dr Sentamu talking to children at Tickton C of E Primary School.

A decade after being enthroned as Archbishop of York, the Ugandan-born 66-year-old – the Church of England’s second most senior clergyman – is reaffirming his Christian values by visiting every parish in the Diocese of York, often on foot, to celebrate the unsung heroes of local communities while spreading Christ’s teachings in his unorthodox style.

Three months after leaving Whitby at the start of Advent, he’s already walked 620 miles as he arrives at the quaint St Paul’s Church in Tickton for prayers with 20 parishioners.

There’s no fanfare or ceremonial robes as he arrives and places a purple scapular over his hiking attire before a prayer session which becomes deeply personal and poignant when he blesses a pensioner whose wife is terminally ill.

It’s just one of many unexpected encounters on a pilgrimage that has already seen him trek in a near monsoon to The Gare, his Diocese’s most northerly point. There the driver of a BMW described the Archbishop as ‘nuts’ after declining the offer of a lift. His focus is self-evident in his eyes, and the profound meaning of his words. Yet, if he accepted such offers, he would not have had the chance to baptise a young child in a river later in this trip.

Dr Sentamu talking to children at Tickton C of E Primary School.

As he walks to Tickton C of E Primary School to join 200 pupils for morning assembly, he begins a Q&A session by telling youngsters: “I’m having the time of my life.” When a youngster asks how he became Archbishop, he invites her forward and explains how he had to get down on both knees in front of the Queen and grasp the Monarch’s hands. As he encourages the girl to do likewise, he proclaims: “You are now Archbishop of York!”

A question about role models prompts a thoughtful response that Jesus is “the greatest inspiration” because he transcends the fame afforded to shortlived celebrities.

“As I have prayed and waited on God, I have been inspired by the great Northern Saints, such as Aidan, Cuthbert, and Hilda who took to the road to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ,” he said as he explained his mission. “We are a Church on the road in mission ready to make Christ known in word and deed.” He hands out specially-commissioned bookmarks with four short prayers and is heartened by the school work linked to his visit.

Leaving the school Dr Sentamu begins the three-mile walk to Beverley on foot – assisted by two walking poles - and heads straight into a snow storm. A chance to gather his thoughts in quiet contemplation, the pace is a jaunty one. It would have been brisker, he said, if the weather had been kinder.

Lunch is spent at Toll Gavel Methodist Church where volunteers provide meals for the elderly and needy. The elderly are driven to the venue by Beverley Community Lift, another organisation run by selfless helpers who are acutely aware of issues allied to social isolation and loneliness.

“This has been an amazing experience which has taught me that the Church is very much alive and living,” Dr Sentamu tells The Yorkshire Post. “We ordered 10,000 prayer beads and we ran out three weeks ago. That tells you how many people have come to pray. If the Church went on holiday for a week and everything shut, there would be an outcry. We have got to shout more about the good things happening in our community.”

He means it. His views are equally forceful on education - and the unsung work of teachers. Though the Tickton visit is still vivid, he recalls one school on his pilgrimage where teachers were undaunted by children from 30 countries.

“There need to be smaller class sizes in areas of difficulty and leave the teachers to get on with the job,” he pleads. “The people who run down teachers, shut up. You’re not helping.”

Given the Archbishop had to seek the Queen’s blessing for this extended leave of absence from Church duties, he is determined to stay out of domestic politics until his odyssey ends in York on May 22. When he does return to the fray, he hopes to use his encounters to shape the policy debate.

He clearly hopes this experience will shape his future teachings, none more so than a visit to East Riding Council to meet the local authority’s fostering team and whose priceless work is rarely recognised. His brow is furrowed as he sits and hears officials discuss heart-rending cases as staff look to find foster parents for children from troubled backgrounds. Some have suffered harrowing abuse.

Though the council has 140 foster families looking after 170 children, they need more couples like Helen and Paul Rawdon of Beverley. For 25 years, they have cared for 140 children. “It’s lovely to be recognised by him,” says Mrs Rawdon after an emotional embrace with the Archbishop. “A truly remarkable couple,” he says before hearing of the love and devotion provided by other foster families and young people now working with the council to raise awareness about the issue.

The Archbishop’s empathy is profound - he and his wife fostered two children, George and Davina, after he gave his word to a dying parishioner in London that he would look after her two youngsters. He’s a man of his word and his prayer session in County Hall asks for “wisdom and love” for those council staff trying to make a difference in difficult circumstances.

As he takes his leave, he says his whole pilgrimage will have been worthwhile if just one more volunteer comes forward to help care for a child in need - even if it’s a short-term stay to offer respite to full-time foster parents.

Even now, the Archbishop of York’s day is not at an end. A short break for personal reflection is followed by a prayer service in Beverley Minster.

There is none of the formality associated with official visits. Quite the opposite. Informality is the order of the day as Dr Sentamu reaches out to his people - and they reciprocate with a warmth that offers him renewed hope about the Church’s importance to society.

It will if his parishioners follow the Archbishop’s desire to do more and heed this call: “It’s high time those who believe in Him do a lot more than simply say ‘God’s own county’.”

The Archbishop’s spiritual journey

Dr Sentamu drew inspiration for his expedition from his experience in Birmingham in 2005 when he toured the West Midlands diocese on foot to mark its centenary.

This is a far greater proposition as he follows in the footsteps of the great saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Hilda whose example has clearly had a profound effect on the archbishop who is staying in the homes of widows and widowers so he can offer them friendship and faith.

For six days a week for six months, the archbishop is undertaking a pilgrimage unparalleled in contemporary times. By the journey’s end in May, he expects to have walked around 2,000 miles.

Follow the Archbishop of York’s journey via pilgrimage.archbishopofyork.org