John Sentamu Announces His Retirement as Archbishop of York

All well-established Christian churches face roughly the same dilemma. How can they credibly live out their stated belief in solidarity with the wretched of the earth, when they have inherited so much tangible and intangible privilege, including magnificent buildings (colleges and clerical residences as well as places of worship) and guaranteed access to the high and mighty?

If that question has any answer at all, it might be found in individuals rather than abstract principles. One such individual is John Sentamu, the eccentric and rambunctious Ugandan-born cleric who this week announced that he would retire in 2020 as Archbishop of York, the second-highest position in the Church of England after the see of Canterbury.

To say the York job is prestigious would be an understatement. Its holder’s official abode is a magnificent, 18th-century stately home, Bishopthorpe Palace. The incumbent is one of three prelates with an automatic seat in the Privy Council, an inner circle of advisers to the Queen that also includes political leaders and top judges.

This is all quite a long way from the Ugandan village where the future prelate was born in 1949 as the sixth of 13 children of an indigent priest. Having excelled at law studies, Archbishop Sentamu became a judge in Uganda’s High Court and opposed the dictator Idi Amin; this landed him in jail where he was badly beaten. Only after moving to Britain in 1974 did he decide to follow his father’s calling.

He soon found that even in his new homeland, merit might bring professional rewards but it offered no protection against malicious violence. While acting as an adviser to the inquiry into the case of Stephen Lawrence, a black London teenager murdered in 1993, he received repeated, explicit death threats. And in 2002, as he was returning from a service at St Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen’s Jubilee, he was attacked in the underground by a racist abuser and thrown down an escalator. He needed hospital treatment for his wounds.

His term as Archbishop of York will be remembered for some unlikely vignettes. During a television interview in 2007, he waxed indignant about the tyrannical rule of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. To underline the point, he doffed his clerical collar and used scissors to chop it into pieces. Only when the despot was removed would he put a collar back on, he declared. That promise was kept last year, on the same television show, after Mr Mugabe finally left office. And in the summer of 2006 the recently elevated prelate spent his nights not in a palace but camping out on the street in a vigil calling for an end to the war in Lebanon.

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Source: The Economist