How Yorkshire people strengthened my faith – Archbishop of York’s farewell interview

DR John Sentamu retires this weekend after nearly 15 years as the Archbishop of York and Church of England’s second most senior figure. In an exclusive interview with Tom Richmond, he speaks about his time in Yorkshire and his renewed hopes for the Church.

THERE IS an irony that the indefatigable Dr John Sentamu has never been busier ahead of his final weekend as the 97th – and most charismatic – Archbishop of York.

“Me, relaxed?” he says quizzically as he takes a final walk through the idyllic grounds of Bishopthorpe Palace that has been his family’s home for the past 15 years. “You must be joking.”

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And then a long, thoughtful pause – the only sound is one of joyous birdsong on this clear blue day – before the Ugandan-born churchman turns, with great sincerity, and confesses: “I’m going to miss the people.”

The Archbisohp of York in the Desmond Tutu garden at Bishopthorpe Palace. Photo: Simon Hulme.

Momentarily, he is then lost for words for just about the only time since his historic enthronement at York Minster in November 2005 to the cacophonous beat of African drums to mark the symbolism of his life-affirming appointment.

Having delayed his retirement to the last possible day in Church rules – the Archbishop turns 71 on Wednesday – the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown means that there will be no valedictory celebration in the Minster.

It was going to be so big that he didn’t know where everyone was going to sit. Now he, and his wife Margaret, will be alone with their thoughts tomorrow when the Archbishop places his crozier on the high altar for a final act.

It will, he says, be “very private”. “It is the sign you have handed over the spiritualities of the cathedral to the Queen which will be picked up by my successor when they go to pay homage to Her Majesty,” he explains.

Dr John Sentamu in the grounds of Bishopthorpe Palace. Photo: John Sentamu.

And it’s why the lockdown has been particularly challenging for a very public figure who is at his happiest when he’s celebrating God’s work and the Church’s mission with others.

“Total lockdown,” he exclaims to The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark his retirement.

“If you remember I have had some major operations, starting in 2008 when I had salmonella poisoning coming back from Ghana. Terrible, terrible, nearly finished me off.

“Then my appendix burst in 2011 and, for a long time, the doctors thought it was food poisoning. It wasn’t. I was pretty bad. None of the antibiotics would work at all so they had to manufacture some in the lab. I was very, very ill.

The Archbishop of York during his interview with Tom Richmond, Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. Photo: Simon Hulme.

“Then, of course, prostate cancer. You’ve got to, because you’ve had those major operations – the last was in 2013 – you’ve got to look after yourself.”

He’s been using his rowing machine. He’s “perambulated” in the Palace grounds, as he puts it, and enjoyed quiet contemplation in his Desmond Tutu garden – “a little bit of Africa” in honour of his friend and anti-apartheid campaigner.

He’s still to tame the pigeons defacing the garden furniture. “They should know. ‘Don’t mess things up’,” he says as he tells them off in his inimitable way.

But, while his wife walked to the Palace gates each Thursday to ring her bell as part of the nationwide Clap for Carers celebration, he’s done so from the front door in order to comply with lockdown rules.

Dr John Sentamu retires this weekend as Archbishop of York. Photo: Simon Hulme.

Alone in his thoughts praying for front line workers and thinking about how the greatest crisis of the post-war period has presented opportunities to reinvigorate the Church and wider society.

“The office has been closed but the work has still needed doing,” said the Archbishop who will be celebrated in the Church’s national online service tomorrow that is being led by his daughter the Rev Grace Sentamu-Baverstock.

“There were two weeks which were far, far busier than normal. The amount of stuff you had to deal with, and everything had to be done by Zoom.

“When you’ve been on it for two hours, it’s actually very exhausting. Zoom is exhausting, but there are more people that are watching streamed services – everywhere.

“It’s almost as if the place has come alive about God. All the streamed services are watched in such unbelievable numbers.”

He believes the “strength of the prayers at home” – even amongst lapsed church-goers – has “sustained a lot of people” and needs to be sustained by clergy with phone calls to parishioners or home visits where they peer through a window to signal their support.

This is Dr John Sentamu in the grounds of Bishopthorpe Palace. Photo: Simon Hulme.

Still passionate about the common touch and value of personal interaction, this approach has defined Dr Sentamu since he used his inaugural address at his enthronement to challenge the Church to “reconnect imaginatively” with England.

Mission accomplished? “I think it has become more friendly,” says the Church of England’s second most senior figure before recalling his six-month pilgrimage of prayer throughout his diocese.

Not even inclement weather deterred him. “There has been a very clear connecting with England and the people of Yorkshire, because of their openness, they’re more connected now with the Church than before,” he goes on.

He cites his week-long prayer vigil in a tent that was pitched in York Minster when Israel and Lebanon were briefly at war in 2006. He cancelled a family holiday to Austria to pray on the hour – every hour – for seven days. “And on the Monday, the fighting ceased, stopped”.

Or when he cut up his dog collar on national television in disgust at Robert Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe. “What that actually did is show there’s a humanness about believing in God”.

Or his unadulterated joy when he consecrated Libby Lane as the country’s first female bishop – the culmination of a crusade that he began when he first joined the General Synod in 1985. “Extraordinary,” he says with long emphasis on the ‘ex’.

Such acts explain why he’s held vigils for missing youngster Madeleine McCann, who disappeared in 2007, and York chef Claudia Lawrence who vanished without trace in 2009.

He will never forget them, but his prayers – and public support – are indicative of a man who used the prestige of the role, the first person of colour to be appointed Archbishop of York, to reconnect the Church with the people.

It’s why he’s been using his last year in office to call for “national healing” over Brexit and all social care workers to be paid the National Living Wage of £10 per hour.

He’s greatly pained by this. “It is now evidenced, quite obvious, some of the great infection in the care homes was because some people were doing two or three jobs not knowing they were carrying Covid-19,” he says before challenging Boris Johnson to take advantage of historic low rates of borrowing and mocking 2017 General Election talk about “no magic money trees”.

“They are worthy of their wages but, at the moment, the worst paid people, believe it or not, are those who work in care homes.” He then shakes his head with despair.

Yet, while he’s been much travelled since his ordination over 40 years ago, it is Yorkshire – and the North – that he’s proud to call ‘home’.

It explains why he is moving to Northumberland for his retirement – and to ensure he doesn’t tread on the feet of his successor Stephen Cottrell.

There’s no need, he says, to counsel his replacement. “No, let him come and find out about the people of Yorkshire,” advises the Archbishop. “Every year for the last 12 years, I have been going to Holy Island for nine days for my retreat so I’ve grown to love the place. Incredible.

“I would have loved to stay in North Yorkshire. Can you imagine me retiring in North Yorkshire? I would still have continued to agitate about One Yorkshire and, to me, that is one great disappointment.”

So, too, his beloved York City. “They know how to disappoint sometimes,” says the lifelong sports fan before confirming that he intends to remain a season-ticket holder.

First, he plans a period of recuperation – he always advises clergy not to take on any work in their first six months of retirement – and time to put up bookshelves. That’s his first job. “And read,” he adds joyously.

The role of Archbishop, he says, opened many doors – and he says he won’t miss the job in this respect. But the burden of office had become a heavy one and he’s come to terms with retirement.

He will, forever, be strengthened by the affection that the people of Yorkshire have shown him and his family.

“Every time I’ve been in London, and I get to King’s Cross to catch a train back, I start breathing well, really. I feel there’s ‘yeah, I’m going back home, I’m really going back home’,” adds Dr Sentamu with characteristic passion and feeling for his adopted county.

“My faith has been so strengthened by being in Yorkshire. As the saying goes, if anybody who stands out in a crowd, they do so because they’re being carried on the shoulders of others. And I have been carried on the shoulders of giants.”

He says he’s been blessed. Yet, so, too, have the people of Yorkshire by the presence of a crusader, campaigner and clergyman like no other.

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