Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu on faith, Advent and his love for the people of Yorkshire

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Dr John Sentamu turns and points to a large oil painting on the wall behind him of one of his predecessors.

“In 1962, that man over there, Michael Ramsey, said ‘we are looking forward to the day when a black African will come to this country and tell us of the wonders of God.’ So when I was inaugurated I quoted him and said ‘and here I am...’”

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu lighting candles at Bishopthorpe Palace, in York.

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu lighting candles at Bishopthorpe Palace, in York.

That was 14 years ago, during which time the Ugandan-born cleric has endeared himself to the British public and become an adopted Yorkshireman like no other. And when it was announced last year that he was retiring in June 2020, the news prompted a wave of heartfelt tributes.

Since his enthronement in 2005, Dr Sentamu has immersed himself in his work – from a six-month pilgrimage to every corner of the Diocese of York, to using his influence to drive forward the One Yorkshire devolution campaign.

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Unconventional and informal at times, the archbishop has that uncanny knack of being able to reflect the emotions of ordinary people (what today’s politicians wouldn’t give for some of his stardust).

Today, he’s sitting in the Drawing Room at Bishopthorpe Palace, the Archbishop of York’s official residence, to discuss his new book – Wake Up to Advent! It’s the first time he’s written his own Advent book having endorsed others previously. “I reached the stage where I said ‘this is going to be my last advent’ (as archbishop) and thought it’s high time I put pen to paper,” he says.

Dr Sentamu has been archbishop since 2005.

Dr Sentamu has been archbishop since 2005.

The book is characterised by readings and personal stories from his own remarkable life. “Whether someone is a churchgoer or not I hope there is still a message that they need to wake up to the world as we’ve got it. There’s a lot of mess, not only in the world but in our own lives, and there’s a possibility to feed on things that will help us to be truly human. We need to grow our friendships and relationships and our inter-dependence, so the message of the book I hope is for everybody.”

And Dr Sentamu believes this message still has relevance in the modern world. “When we see tragedies happening all over the world the first thing people do, particularly in this country, is go to church and light a candle. And I love that statement that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

For the archbishop, the chief role of religion is to be “a signpost to the love of God”. “If you saw every person as your brother or your sister you would treat them very differently. It’s treating people as totally different that causes all the trouble we bring into our world.”

North needs more than empty words - Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu
As well as propagating this idea, Dr Sentamu is interested in how we as individuals, and society in general, behave towards one another. “We hear the slogan ‘we must take back control.’ But control of what? There must be greater substance than just slogans and phrases and soundbites. If we forget that we are interdependent and need to support each other, we will not be able to create a society at ease with itself. So this book is trying to say to people, wake up to the world as it is at the moment and what it could be.”

Dr Sentamu speaking at The Great Northern Conference 2019 in Leeds.

Dr Sentamu speaking at The Great Northern Conference 2019 in Leeds.

This, in turn, prompts a little anecdote. “I love the story of the Rabbi who asked his students, ‘tell me, how do you know that night has ended and day has dawned?’ So they asked him ‘is it when you can distinguish an apple tree from a mango tree?’ He said, ‘no.’ ‘Is it you look in the distance and you can tell the difference between a dog and a goat? ‘No’. They pressed him, what is it then? He said, ‘when you look in the face of a man or a woman and you cannot see that he or she is your brother or sister. It doesn’t matter what day it is, it is still night.’”

Dr Sentamu traces his religious faith to his childhood growing up in Uganda, where he was the sixth of thirteen children. “I was born at three o’clock in the morning weighing only 4lbs and the doctor thought I wouldn’t make it, so he walked up the hill next to this mission hospital and woke up the bishop to come an baptise me.”

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He survived, but spent time in and out of hospital. “The doctor said to my father, ‘if he reaches 10 you can be sure he will live. So when I turned 10 my dad knew I would be all right.”

The family later held a party to give thanks. “The missionary came to my party and told me, ‘the thing about Jesus is he came to make us his friends. It’s about friendship and you can encounter him.’ And I said ‘how do I do that?’ And he said you say, ‘Jesus, I thank you for being there and I want you to be my friend.’ And in the morning I felt something had changed in me.’”

Initially, though, he studied law in Kampala before moving to England in 1974. “I was enjoying my law practice in Uganda and then I got in trouble with Idi Amin and I had to leave the country and come here.”

He read theology at Selwyn College Cambridge and considered returning to the legal profession but decided to get ordained becoming a chaplain in 1979. “I didn’t have big flashing lights,” he says, of his religious calling, “it was just a natural progression for my own life.”

His work has taken him to London, Birmingham and, of course, Yorkshire. “When people voted me to be Yorkshireman of the year in 2007 it surprised everybody, because normally they tend to only vote for Yorkshire people. But when I was getting my award, cheekily I reminded people that they had given me this because I was actually a Yorkshireman. I said one of my middle names was Mugabi, and my parents gave me this Yorkshire name. Unfortunately the people of Yorkshire don’t know how to pronounce it properly because said backwards it’s ey by gum,” he says, laughing.

“The people of Yorkshire have been ever so generous and I just feel at home with people here. Their love and affection is extraordinary. When I had prostate cancer the number of cards and good wishes I had when I came out of hospital was incredible. That was seven years ago and people still ask me if I’m all right.”

Today, at the age of 70, he possesses a kind of beatific energy. “Every morning when I wake up the first words that pass my lips are to thank God that he watched over me in the night and I say ‘I hope you, too, have a good day today.’

“I then say my prayers and think about the world, about my youth trusts, the hungry, those in prison, some of who are there for daring to be good, and I pray that our world will become softer in its treatment of the people we disagree with.

“If you imagine the world was full of Sentamus and nothing else, I think that would be a very boring world.”

Wake Up to Advent!, published by SPCK Publishing, is out now.