An Archbishop who is always headline news

MICHAEL BROWN Michael Brown is the Yorkshire Post's Religious Affairs Correspondent.

WAS there ever an Archbishop of York as media-savvy as John Sentamu? Almost certainly not.

David Hope, Dr Sentamu's immediate predecessor at York, who is now in his final few months of semi-retirement at St Margaret's Church, Ilkley, though certainly always friendly and obliging to journalists and television folk, never went out of his way to woo them. And John Habgood, Dr Hope's predecessor, in full retirement in Malton, displayed such stiff indifference to newspapers and the like that many reporters judged him positively hostile.

Not the present second-in-command of the Church of England. John Sentamu knows all about the power of images and the use to which they can be put for the good, actual or potential, of Church and nation and for Britain's spiritually starved millions.

Just look at how, in office less than a year, he has provided the media with endless photo-opportunities. Following the full-immersion baptism outside York Minster last Easter, on television that night and in the newspapers the next morning, dramatic pictures appeared of a young woman gasping for air as she emerged, soaked, from the baptismal waters of the pool-sized font.

John Sentamu, 97th Lord Archbishop of York and Primate of England, had only done what Paulinus, York's first bishop, did centuries before. But where Paulinus had baptised in rivers – the Swale, near Catterick, and the Calder, in Dewsbury, among them – Dr Sentamu had the water brought to his cathedral. And the media were drawn to the spectacular event like moths to a baptismal candle.

Media awareness equals visual symbolism equals pictures, still and moving, going into millions of homes.

Then there was Dr Sentamu in Bradford, complete with hooded top, addressing and standing alongside – empathising with, as we say these days – youths who wear hoods much of the time and are therefore called hoodies and often the objects of suspicion, derision and discrimination.

More pictures on prime-time television, more column inches in the Yorkshire Post and elsewhere.

Then, only weeks ago, still more from this media-savvy prelate. And this time, it went on for days.

This time, Dr Sentamu entered a tent of a similar purple hue to his cassock. And the tent was pitched, not outside the Minster, but inside the glorious building, in the chapel of St John.

But first the Archbishop had his head shaved. In private? Not a bit of it. It was done in public, at the head of the great knave of the biggest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. He was also anointed. That was also carried out in full view.

More images. More symbolism. More slots on the TV news, more words, pictures and comment in the newspapers.

He slept rough in his little purple tent, on a hard floor, for seven nights. And he fasted, too, taking only water, strengthened, we were told, with a little glucose.

While he wasn't sleeping, he prayed for peace in the warring Middle East, the land of Christ's birth. He also prayed for community relations in strife-torn Britain. And when he wasn't praying, he talked, outside his tent, to people who, having read all about it in their newspapers or seen it on TV, felt they wanted to join him.

One who came was the imam of a local mosque, another was a diabetic, a third a man whose marriage had broken up. He had seen John Sentamu on television and thought: "He'll do for me."

Images, images, images. Oh, how being media-savvy was paying off.

No previous Archbishop of York had ever behaved in this way.

Even if such ideas had crossed the minds of any predecessor, they would have dismissed them for fear they would be labelled stunts, or dismissed as gimmicks, it may reasonably be suspected.

Yet nobody, it seems, has hurled such accusations at Dr Sentamu. In public, at least, this newish Archbishop of York, with the happy knack of grabbing the headlines, is being hailed by clergy and lay people alike – and by tens of thousands who want nothing to do with organised religion – as an inspired choice as a leader of the Church. His translation to York from Birmingham was, of course, widely hailed as an exciting one. But such moves are always hailed. Then the honeymoon ends and the indifference sets in, followed by a bit of sniping and eventually some downright ecclesiastical bitching.

If – and it must be considered a very big "if" indeed – this kind of rot sets in with Sentamu, there is not the faintest suggestion of it yet, and we are now not far away from the first anniversary of his dazzling enthronement.

It was this ceremony where it first became obvious that here was someone who could and would cause a stir on matters such as poverty and multi-culturalism, and do so not only with rousing words.

Here was someone who knew about the power of images. At the enthronement – or installation as Dr Sentamu preferred to call it – he pounded the bongos and stomped down the nave, flanked by bare-chested male drummers in loin-cloths and ululating women in feather head-dresses.

Images, images, images. At his installation and his baptism ceremony, in his appeal to hoodies and his public fast – and since by saying he wants to open up his palace at Bishopthorpe to young people – John Sentamu, Anglicanism's number two, has seriously upstaged the Church's number one, Rowan Williams, at Canterbury.

Not, of course, by design. But the two archbishops have different styles, different approaches, different temperaments.

Dr Williams speaks and writes in an often convoluted way which is sometimes so convoluted that what he is trying to say needs to be read half-a-dozen times by the hapless reporter struggling to squeeze a newsline out of it.

Not so Dr Sentamu. When the Archbishop of York says that innocent people are being branded as extremists because President Bush says the West is at war with "Islamic fascists", you only have to read it once. You know exactly what he is saying.

So would Dr Sentamu make a better Archbishop of Canterbury than Dr Williams? Probably. But it is unlikely to happen. Dr Sentamu is 57, Dr Williams 56.

Nor should it. John Sentamu needs to stay at York and not be sent to Canterbury, an archiepiscopal see of dubious seniority, anyway. He needs to stay at York because of the Lambeth Conference. This is a once-every-10-years get-together of all the archbishops and bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion and the next such shindig is in 2008.

It will, however, be almost entirely a waste of time and money, a squabble over various matters, particularly homosexuality and, more specifically, bishops with same-sex partners.

It will be an occasion when we shall witness an almighty, ungodly showdown between tradionalists and liberals. And it will probably lead to the final break-up of the Anglican Communion, already seriously fractured over the gay issue.

But just where does John Sentamu come into this? Well, mustering all his media savvy, he should announce that he's going to stay away from this Lambeth Conference. He should announce that he will boycott it.

And instead of going, he should pitch another tent, this time in the grounds of Bishopthorpe Palace. He should be shaven once more, anointed again and then begin another fast. He should say that this time he is fasting, and praying, for his brother archbishops and bishops that they might stop warring with each other.

He should pray, in other words, for peace to break out among

them – though that might take such a long time that he may need to be fortified with something a little stronger than water and glucose.

Just a suggestion, Your Grace.