Sentamu's journey from jail cell to Canterbury hot favourite
Threatened by Amin's thugs, offered a role on Broadway, spat on by London fascists: what makes John Sentamu tick
THE MOMENT Rowan Williams announced this morning that he was to stand down in December after 10 years as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend the Right Honourable John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, the present Archbishop of York and number two in the Church of England hierarchy, was installed as the favourite to succeed him.
If Sentamu does become leader of the CoE and of the worldwide Anglican movement, it will be one of the most astonishing ascensions to the top of the British establishment tree there has ever been.
The 'Tory Party at prayer' – as the CoE has been dubbed – will be headed by a black Ugandan who years ago lay in a fetid cell believing that the monstrous Idi Amin would have him executed in the morning.
His elevation would be proof that God does, indeed, move in mysterious ways.
Sentamu has not only been threatened with death by Amin's thugs, but also, when a schoolboy actor, been offered a part in a Broadway musical; been a judge at the age of 25; been reviled and spat on in the streets; been stopped and harassed by the police on account of his race; and headed an inquiry into a controversial murder investigation.
When I met him in his palace outside York, shortly after his appointment there, he sat before a roaring log fire surrounded by the dignified and solemn portraits of his recent (all white) predecessors. His infectious laugh punctuated every utterance as he pledged to use his authority to restore Christianity to its central role in English (he made a careful distinction between England and the rest of the UK) life.
He guffawed – as he does at all simplicities – at the word 'modernisation', but he argued that the English have lost their way. Christianity shaped the English nation, fashioned its culture and inspired its values. But the spring had run dry, and in recent times those values have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Should he get the Canterbury position, he should find it easier to bridge the gap between the conservative worldwide Anglican communion and the CoE.
Rowan Williams, a reluctant primate who is departing aged 61 to become master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, was – despite his academic brilliance and sincere efforts to resolve such thorny issues as women bishops and gay clergy – regarded by many who fill the pews each Sunday as not quite the right man for the job. Even his ragged beard was held as evidence against his suitability.
At 62, Sentamu is one year older than Williams, but there is no reason why he, like Williams, should not have ten forceful years at the top. He is fit (he goes regularly to a gym), energetic (when he was Bishop of Birmingham, I once watched him cook singled-handed a meal for 30), and charismatic, given to actions like cutting up his dog collar on television and vowing not to wear it again until Robert Mugabe had been removed from power in Zimbabwe.
But for all his colourful differences from the stereotypical Anglican bishop, his values were fashioned by Empire. Sentamu was the sixth of 13 children born to a primary school headmaster and his home economics teacher wife. He was such a sickly baby that there were fears for his survival, and the missionary bishop was called to baptise him. He was educated by missionaries and brought up in a transplanted English culture.
His family crowded round a wireless to listen to the Queen's coronation, and sought out products 'Made in Britain'; his school and university exams were set in Cambridge. He was a musician, actor and his career options ranged from engineering and medicine to (his eventual choice) the law.
Ugandan parishes were huge, and clergy needed help, so, while still a teenager, Sentamu became a lay reader. That and his stage experience were good training for the pulpit. He is never nervous before delivering a sermon.
As a child, he seldom had new clothes, and, on occasion, even food was short. He tells how, after one meagre meal, his father asked him to give thanks. "Dear God," he said. "Thank you for the food. But we would have been more grateful if we had had more." To this day, Sentamu never beats about the bush. He tells it as he sees it, a trait that has endured and which troubles some (more circumspect) senior clerics.
He became a judge just as Idi Amin began his murderous regime, and stood up to the dictator in small matters and large, convicting an Amin cousin of rape (the man also broke several of his victim's limbs).
Amin himself rang the court and ordered Sentamu not to convict.
Sentamu replied: "I'm sorry, your excellency, the facts are very clear. We cannot manufacture evidence."
Shortly afterwards, a friend who had encouraged students to oppose Amin, fled Uganda, and Sentamu was suspected of having aided his escape. In fact, Sentamu and his wife, Margaret, were in church getting married at the very moment the man – who was due to be their best man - disappeared.
Nonetheless, Sentamu was arrested, beaten, kicked (causing injuries that stayed with him for years) and, from his cell, heard people being tortured to death. He believed he was next in line when the chief justice intervened.
After months of house arrest friends organised a scholarship for him to read theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Margaret and he left Uganda with what they could carry.
He had intended to return, but, when that became clearly impossible, he took holy orders, worked as a college and prison chaplain, a curate, and then a parish priest in south London. In 1996 he was made suffragan bishop of Stepney; he served as an assessor on the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence; and himself headed an inquiry into the killing of Damilola Taylor.
His south London home was fire-bombed by fascists – the kitchen was gutted, though a poster reading 'Never quit, never give up' survived. Leaving a church service, he was spat on and told "Nigger, go back". He said: "You have wasted your saliva. God bless you." Did he think to fight back? He laughs: "There were four of them: I didn't want a broken nose."
In short, Sentamu is a feisty apostle of the church, and, if the CoE is bold enough to elevate him to the See of Canterbury, life for both his flock and the rest of us will be more colourful.