Sunday, June 19, 2005

A Historic Appointment Considered

I was peddling hard on my exercise bike early on Friday morning and watching the news on BBC America, when it was announced that John Sentamu had been appointed the new Archbishop of York. Since then I have been keeping my eyes open for comment -- and have heard very little, especially in the American church where our fixation on sexuality is distressing, pathetic, and complete.

Sentamu's predecessor was the godly and gracious David Hope, one of the last of the pious old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic prelates of the Church of England -- a godly man deeply rooted in Word and Sacraments. Bishop Hope has returned to his first love, which is parish ministry, believing that his active years should end where they began.

Following Hope you might say with the Monty Pythons, "And now for something completely different..."

John Sentamu is in his mid-fifties and is the only Ugandan in the English House of Bishops. I met him ten years ago when he was vicar of a South London parish, introduced to him by our mutual friend, Cyril Okorocha, now Bishop of Owerri, Nigeria. Our meeting was brief, and I suspect Sentamu would not remember it, but he made an impression on me. Since then he has gone from parish ministry to the suffragan post of Stephney in the Diocese of London, to Bishop of Birmingham. And now he moves to York where he will lead the northern province of the Church of England.

While there have been a number of leaders in the history of the English church who were not born in England, I find myself wondering if it is unprecendented since the Reformation for both the archbishops of the church to have been born outside of England -- and never has there been an African in one of these posts. That, I think, is what makes the Sentamu appointment so fascinating, for it says something about the way in which a church planted by the C. of E. is now providing leadership for it.

At the press conference that followed the surprise announcement of John Sentamu's appointment to York, the archbishop-elect said that those missionaries who risked their lives to go to Uganda, "brought a gospel of God's forgiveness for the past, new life for the present, and, indeed, hope for the future... Like those missionaries and martyrs who brought the gospel to my native Uganda, encouraged by their prayers and example, I hope that we can create a Church and a culture which is more relaxed and open to take risks and be more creative, so that the Church of England is once again a spiritual home for all English men and women - as the Elizabethan Settlement actually had hoped."

This attitude is something that makes Sentamu's presence in York so fascinating. Not only does he break a certain inherited mold, but he also illustrates that the funny old Church of England is committed to upholding its global heritage as a mission-sending and -receiving church, and as part of the worldwide Communion. John Sentamu is an intelligent and highly able man, so it would be patronizing and diminishing to suggest that his appointment is symbolic. There is no doubt he is there because of grace and ability, but having said that it is highly significant that an African now presides over the second province of the Mother Church.

The Archbishop-elect is likely to become familiar with the angst of the Anglican province in North America, as he is a member of the Panel of Reference established to examine issues related to alternative episcopal oversight in the USA. While I suspect that he will be fair in that position, I also suspect that as a straight-talker with a passion for human dignity, he will not necessarily be a comfort to either side of this divisive issue.

What John Sentamu really seems to be energized by is evangelism, and that has me jumping up and down and throwing my hat in the air. I met him at a Communion-wide evangelism conference, and he was a member of the steering group for the Decade of Evangelism, as well as being a board member of the Archbishops' Springboard initiative for evangelism. Unless we take seriously the business of conversion then we may as well surrender the church to every force in this troubled world, so this is the kind of leadership that is to be applauded.

One man in his fifties is unlikely to be able make a colossal difference in 10-15 years, unless he is someone like John Paul II, but I suspect that the vision and passion of John Sentamu can do something significant to change the trajectory of the Church of England, and this will be a blessing to all of Anglicanism. The tragedy is, having read the recent vacuous statement of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and seen the unrepresentative melange of people he has taken with him to address the Anglican Consultative Council, that we totally lack such imaginative and Gospel-driven leadership in the USA.

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