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ENGLAND: The Troubling Orthodoxy of John Sentamu, Archbiship of York


News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

When Ugandan born John Sentamu was appointed the 97th Archbishop of York late last year, this writer, along with many others, believed that a strong Evangelical voice would now be heard in the Church of England, a voice that would provide an alternative voice to the Affirming Catholicism of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.

The largely ineffectual but nice Anglo-Catholic David Hope had retired to the obscurity of a country parish, his place taken by a Global South African leader who would speak not only for his own brethren in the Two-Thirds world but for evangelicals everywhere in the Anglican Communion.

He looked to be a beacon of hope in a state church slowly sinking into the mire of civil partnerships, women bishops and much more.

At the time of his elevation I was inclined to sing his praises, but I received several warning notes from Evangelical leaders, and British theological college professors warning me, in Biblical terms, not to lay hands too suddenly on our new friend in York. Even though he professed a solid evangelicalism, he was not known in evangelical circles in England, had never been a part of NEAC or Reform and had stayed pretty much to himself, despite his solid evangelical roots in Uganda.

I heeded their warnings and reserved my jubilation, hoping that in time they might be proven wrong, and he would be the leader we, as evangelicals, were all looking for.

They were right. I was wrong.

A photograph in the Church Times of Archbishop Sentamu prostrating himself before a Sikh shrine in Leicester dashed any hopes that orthodox Anglicans would have a strong voice to speak for them. One could never imagine a John R. W. Stott or J. I. Packer to so prostrate themselves before such a shrine, or any shrine, and I have been with Stott as he has ministered the gospel in India.

The Archbishop of York is, as it is well documented, is a Ugandan by birth, a British trained barrister, theologically conservative but a social liberal. He was the ethnic appointment of Tony Blair and clearly his race card in a growing fractious society that is seeing the emergence of a militant Islam.

In his first address he said the Church of England was institutionally racist and got a postbag of hate mail from an irate public, known more for its tolerance. He told the Sunday Times that he has endured racial abuse and has received letters daubed with swastikas and containing excrement.

"I have been victim of all sorts of things," he said in an interview at Lambeth Palace. "I have had a lot of terrible racist hate mail even since my appointment as archbishop."

In 2002 such "virulent threats" turned to violence when he was attacked on his way home from a celebration at St Paul's Cathedral to mark the Queen's golden jubilee. He still believes British society is essentially tolerant. "The United Kingdom compared to the rest of Europe is trying desperately hard to be a loving, inclusive society," he said. "I feel at home.

In his first set-piece interview as archbishop last week, Sentamu spoke openly and accused the British of godlessness while defending Muslim schools and did not shy away from taking a hard look at the politics of Iraq and America's involvement in it.

He has warned that growing disregard for church and God risked alienating people of other faiths, especially Muslims.

"For the first time in human history Europe has suggested that it is possible to live without the concept of God," he said. "Muslims find that hard to understand. Islam may be posing questions we need to hear, and sometimes it is us who need to understand those asking the questions."

Despite his importance in the Church of England, the archbishop declared he is happy for Muslims to attend Anglican schools. More controversially he said it was acceptable for pupils to be educated in Muslim schools even where the intake is predominantly Christian.

His remarks infuriated Christians and secularists alike. When asked if he is troubled that Muslim schools might not treat girls equally, he replied: "Muslim schools I know of are very well run. They invite me to talk about God because under the national curriculum religious education classes must include the teaching of comparative religion. So you have fantastic dialogue. In the long run I want to say to people, 'Could we be slightly more relaxed?' "

According to the Sunday Times his father was a priest in a remote village and his family of 13 children was very poor.

"Those who think walking around in sandals takes them close to Jesus, well it doesn't. The heart of the gospel is not where I live but what I do with it." He is short, smiley and outgoing, and he is not afraid to make his political feelings plain. When asked if Blair is good for Britain, he said: "Certainly on social inclusion, the need to improve our health services, the need to get the schools running again, the agenda that there isn't a conflict between money and a caring community, I think he and Gordon Brown have been good for Britain."

However, opposed the war in Iraq and disclosed he wrote to Blair begging him not to invade. "I urged him, 'If you really want to disarm Saddam Hussein you need weapons inspectors there much longer'. I am surprised he believed that dodgy intelligence. I also wrote to George Bush, but I never had a reply."

It was mooted at the time that Sentamu could become a bridge to conservative African churches breaking away from the Church of England over gay priests and he draws a parallel between celibate homosexuals - who could be tolerated - and heterosexuals who might lust after women but did not commit adultery. "Jesus said anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart; that is the standard," he said. So far the bridge has proved elusive.

He supports women bishops ("I love ordaining women") and indicated he finds a solution attributed to the Archbishop of Canterbury - whereby Williams would avoid ordaining women bishops by asking other bishops to stand in for him - too clever by half. But in the next breath he declared he would agree not to ordain women bishops if that is what the church wanted, according to the Times.

"I would rather be in a church that is quite fuzzy sometimes, but the core message is Christ," he said. He refused to accept that the church faces inexorable decline, but he is frustrated by faithlessness.

He has condemned Bush over Guantanamo Bay declaring "This is not an anomaly. By 'declaring war on terror' President Bush is perversely applying the rules of engagement which apply in a war situation," and he as likened the situation to his home country of Uganda when Idi Amin was present who did something similar." This is a breach of international law and a blight on the conscience of America."

But despite being in office for more than a year he has not excited Global South evangelicals as their savior from post-modernism in the western portion of the Anglican Communion. Neither Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola nor Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi have spoken up for him, nor have they rallied around him as a benign but loyal opposition to the present Archbishop of Canterbury

When he came to the Episcopal church's General convention in Columbus, Ohio, he did so at the invitation of PB Frank Griswold, and not as an emissary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, that was made abundantly clear by James Rosenthal Communications Director for the Anglican Communion News service.

While at GC2006 he made respectful noises about the Episcopal Church, on the one hand extolling their virtues, on the other hand he repeated that failure to live up to the Windsor Report could prove fatal to The Episcopal Church.

In remarks to the Special Committee, Archbishop Sentamu said that Robinson's election and consecration was a crisis for relations in the Anglican Communion, but questioned whether the proposed resolutions under consideration at the hearing - which included those dealing with expressions of regret, future gay bishops and public same-sex union rites - were sufficient, and gave enough "space," to repair those "friendships." He asked the committee to consider if the proposals before them promote truth and unity, which he said are inseparable.

As Auburn Traycik, editor of the Christian challenge noted he said regret was the failure to consult, not for consecrating Robinson. In fact, Sentamu said that it is not the debate about homosexuality that is at the heart of the Windsor Report, but rather the issue of "communion and the process of how we make our decisions."

Asked by one reporter if he regretted the actual consecration of Robinson, he said no. "Our regret must turn on how we needed to get a wider consensus in the Communion. We cannot, and must not, 'take back' [Robinson's] election and consecration. Our regret is that we did not make the case to the rest of the Communion as to the biblical basis for what God is calling us to do."

The consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was a crisis for our friendship in the Anglican Communion but not an insurmountable one, said Sentamu.

One blogger reportedly overheard him say in an elevator that everything would turn out okay for ECUSA and the church shouldn't worry too much about the presenting issues.

Furthermore he did not meet privately with the Network bishops to offer them any hope and assurance of ecclesiastical cover as The Episcopal Church's revisionists ratchet up the pain on the orthodox. He was clearly there as a sop to Griswold who could then say, "Look we have Sentamu, he's an African, the No. 2 leader in the Anglican communion, see everything's okay." Griswold got as much mileage out of this as possible parading Sentamu at every opportunity he could, along with the Secretary general of the ACC Kenneth Kearon, another member of the liberal apparatik that keeps The Episcopal church at the Anglican table

And on a recent visit to Uganda by this reporter, I learned that before Sentamu was consecrated he came "home" and spent time with his brother who is pastor of Miracle Center, a Pentecostal church in Kampala. A reception was also held for him by the Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi, but at no time did the African Archbishop publicly declare anything more than the fact that Sentamu was born in Uganda and reiterate that he spent most of his adult life in England. There were no public accolades along the lines that now at last we have an Evangelical Anglican voice a mere heartbeat away from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The reception was decidedly cool.

To understand a little of the African mind one has to know that not saying something outright or merely given a half hearted endorsement is tantamount to a full rejection by western modes of thinking. We are much less nuanced, Africans are more nuanced. One has to listen carefully as to what they don't say to understand what they are really saying or affirming.

And sources in England have told VOL that he has not been widely or public embraced as an Evangelical that they can count on. He is not known in evangelical circles, and many evangelicals believe he is better thought of as a "broad churchman" than as an evangelical they can call their own.

His voice is strangely silent on such pressing issues as the hoped for "covenant", that could bind us altogether, or the "Panel of Reference" to bring relief to dioceses like Recife in Brazil and to parishes in Connecticut, or even the recent break by eight ECUSA dioceses from the Episcopal Church and the continued persecution of orthodox parish priests by revisionist bishops.

It is also very significant that no one has suggested, as Dr. Peter Moore, former TESM president and Dean wrote some months ago, that Sentamu could be the rallying point for evangelicals in the Anglican Communion and Dr. Williams the rallying point for the Anglican Communion's liberals.

In August of this year he instigated a piece of theatre when he had his head shorn and anointed with oil in preparation for a seven-day fast and prayer vigil for the Middle East. Following the service the Archbishop entered the tent which he pitched in St. John's Chapel inside the Minster where he slept for the next seven nights as part of his vigil. He asked people from all over the country to join him in heart and mind to pray every hour for peace in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and for good community relations in Britain.

David Phillips, General Secretary of Church Society told VOL that Sentamu does not seem to think of himself as particularly evangelical. "I am not aware of him having identified particularly with any evangelical groups, even broad ones. That said there were some (broad) evangelicals who were very keen to get him to York."

"I think he has a gospel heart and he has certainly sought to use his position to do good. His latest peace could be seen as an example of this but also earlier in the year he conducted an open-air baptism in the centre of York (outside St. Michael-le-Belfry which is next to the Minster) and this was widely reported particularly in Yorkshire allowing those baptized to give a strong testimony. It is good to see a Bishop getting positive headlines in this way," wrote Phillips.

"I don't think he is a great theologian and the press have been keen to catch him out on some of the things he says. I think he comes across as enthusiastic but not always well thought out. I would liken him therefore to George Carey, whereas Rowan Williams and David Hope both appear much more theologically astute (though wrong) and a bit dull."

But in recent days Sentamu has again emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He was praised for criticizing the BBC for an anti-Christian bias this month and for condemning the British Airways ban on employees wearing a cross, while Dr. Williams flew to Rome in BA business class to see the Pope.

His name has been dropped to replace the present Archbishop of Canterbury if Dr. Williams should decide to step down after Lambeth 2008. Whether or not that happens is entirely speculative at this point.

But one thing seems clear, the Most Rev. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York is not orthodox enough for Evangelicals in North America or in the UK for them to depend upon. His support of women priests makes him anathema to Anglo-Catholics. Nor is he an Affirming Catholic in the camp of Rowan Williams. It is clear he will make the compromises to keep the Anglican Communion together, but that, it would seem is a bridge too far. It is too little too late now for compromises.


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