David Behrens: A revelatory Archbishop '“ and Church's chance for a leap of faith by appointing female bishop to succeed Dr John Sentamu

JOHN Sentamu has given the Church of England nearly two years to get its house in order before, three days shy of his 71st birthday, he finally leaves office. But he will nevertheless be a hard act to follow.

Few others in Yorkshire, outside 
the sporting arena, have enjoyed 
such a conspicuous profile and fewer still in public office are able to command attention through the sheer force of their personality.

So Dr Sentamu’s announcement this week that he will step down as Archbishop of York in 2020 brings to a close a blessed chapter in the county’s life.

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We must hope that it is not allowed to become merely an unconventional punctuation mark in an otherwise dull liturgical text.

Archbishop John Sentamu

How many, I wonder, could name his predecessor at Bishopthorpe Palace. Someone on Twitter went so far as to admit that he had no prior knowledge that York even had an Archbishop.

That’s the unfortunate legacy of David Hope, who held the position for the previous 10 years, and indeed of John Habgood, who was in office for the 12 years before that.

Dr Sentamu was the first black archbishop in the history of the Church of England, and his enthronement was alive with drums and dancers.

Yet he stood out not because of who he was but through what he said and did. As Bishop of Stepney, he advised the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. He chaired a review of the police investigation into the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, in south London. And in Birmingham, his diocese before York, he campaigned to root out the black gun gangs who shot two teenage girls outside a hair salon.

Once in York, he campaigned on poverty and inequality, challenging Ministers as recently as last week, in this newspaper, to make a lasting commitment that the nation’s new benefits system would allow people to afford proper food.

Most famously, on national TV, he cut his dog collar into pieces in protest at Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. Such grandstanding has rarely been the province of the church.

Dr Sentamu has also proved himself a priest for the people, popping up on Chris Evans’ TV show to warn the cast that any of them using bad language would have to answer not to the Almighty, but to him.

There is a saying in showbusiness, when an act has torn the roof off the place, that you couldn’t follow it even with the Hallé Orchestra. But in the case of the Archbishop of York, there are 17 people waiting in the wings.

They are the female bishops whom the Church has appointed since 2014, when the law was finally changed to allow the consecration of women. Their number includes the new Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally.

The first was Libby Lane, who was made Bishop of Stockport at York Minster, at the beginning of 2015. Dr Sentamu conducted the service, and said he had been “praying and working for this day”. Women, he added, had often been the backbone of the Church.

Of that there is no doubt, and the vacancy now to be filled at Bishopthorpe Palace – the second most senior clerical post in the Church – is an opportunity it really should use to carry forward the process of modernisation that it began with the enthronement of Dr Sentamu.

But let’s take a reality check. The clergy is still overwhelmingly white and male, and the proportion of clerics who are neither is way below that of the population in general. Many will find it hard to reconcile those numbers.

Even the campaign group, Women and the Church, thinks it unlikely that one of the 17 will be appointed Dr Sentamu’s successor. The expectation is that the job will go to someone who has been a diocesan bishop for longer.

It will fall to the Church’s Crown Nominations Commission to scan the pool of available bishops and to draw up a shortlist. Its members are mostly, though not exclusively male. Their recommendation will go eventually before the Prime Minister, who is, at the time of writing, a woman.

But the likely outcome should not detract from the achievements of Dr Sentamu, who has been an evangelist for Yorkshire, and for the Church, in a way it perhaps does not fully appreciate. I hope his departure is accompanied by drums, dancers and the entire Hallé Orchestra.