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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June 2005, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
The Archbishop with 'street cred'
By Alex Kirby
Religious affairs analyst

John Sentamu, Margaret Sentamu
New Archbishop John Sentamu and his wife Margaret
John Sentamu, the new archbishop of York, is a mould-breaker in more ways than one.

Not only is he the Church of England's first black primate; he is also seen as possessing street cred.

He is a trusted adviser to the government on race and the inner cities, yet does not shrink from criticising it.

And he speaks the sort of language most of us use, without taking refuge in ecclesiastical gobbledygook.

Dr Sentamu worked on inquiries into the 1993 racist killing of Stephen Lawrence and the stabbing in 2000 of the Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor.

He has said the Church of England contains institutional racism, as a room full of smokers contains smoke.

Former judge

He knows plenty about racism. He's been on the receiving end of it often enough.

During his six years as bishop of Stepney in east London he was stopped and searched eight times by the police.

What upset him most was the sudden change in the officers' behaviour when they realised his identity.

He said: "When they discovered who I was, the way I was then treated was very different. They should treat everybody with respect, with dignity."

Another time, he recalls, four young white men spat at him and said: "Nigger, go back."

He replied: "You have wasted your saliva."

When he moved from Stepney to the West Midlands Dr Sentamu said he wanted to be known as the Bishop for Birmingham, not of it.

His work there to support the MG Rover car workers and against gun crime shows what he meant.

When the Criminal Justice Bill proposed longer prison sentences, the former Ugandan high court judge retorted: "Do our politicians seriously believe that increasing the severity of sentences would put an end to the shootings?"

Common touch

In some respects Dr Sentamu conforms to the perception of Anglican bishops as left-leaning liberals.

He opposed the Iraq war, and urged President Bush to apologise for the torturing of prisoners of war by US troops.

Yet he has praised the UK government for its controversial plans to hold asylum seekers and educate their children in special centres before their cases are decided.

John Sentamu is his own man, following his own agenda and no-one else's.

There must be a chance that Dr Sentamu will one day lead the Church of England

So he may prove a surprise during his time as the church's second most senior bishop.

Archbishops of York sometimes make the transition to Canterbury, though by no means always.

There must be a chance that Dr Sentamu will one day lead the Church of England.

In the meantime his appointment will hearten the many black Anglican parishioners (and few black clergy) in England, and could help to ease the tensions between the English church and some African bishops over sexuality.

A politically astute appointment, then? Yes. But it owes at least as much to the qualities of the man as to calculations of statecraft.

And John Sentamu does have the common touch.

The British, he once said, got very excited watching cricket and football: "So I say to myself, why can't they put a bit of that into the church?"

The Archbishop designate of York reacts to his appointment

New Archbishop of York appointed
17 Jun 05 |  England
Ex-archbishop installed as priest
02 Mar 05 |  Bradford
Bishop leads war protest
15 Feb 03 |  England
New bishop walks with the people
16 Nov 02 |  England


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