ROBBIE LOW: The Interview
When Richard Chartres vacated Stepney to become Bishop of London, the 30 Days column of this magazine tipped John Sentamu to replace him. Undeterred by this prescience from such an unlikely quarter, Bishop Chartres duly appointed him last month and I was delighted. The reasons for this were two-fold. One is that a couple of years back I had written to Sentamu, after a speech he made in Synod, saying that I hoped one day that his honesty, integrity and gospel passion would be exercised in a bishop’s ministry. The second reason was that, on the basis of the 30 Days tip, I had taken a punt and asked him to be my interviewee for this month!
John Sentamu and I first met twenty years ago in the Rank Room of Wesley Hall, Cambridge. He was in his final year at Ridley and I had just started at Westcott. The “induction” course of co-counselling and psycho-babble was in its second day. The pair of social inadequates contracted as “enablers” were already well into the kind of brainwashing and manipulative techniques that only twelve months previously, I had been investigating and exposing in major cults, and I was beginning to wonder if this could possibly be the church of God.
“Take a partner and sit staring into each other's eyes. Now stop pretending you like each other and acknowledge the deep anger and hatred you feel for each other” etc, etc.
Marvellous therapy for General Synod, may be - not much to do with new bugs training.
Suddenly from the other side of the hall came a loud and outraged African voice:
“How dare you tell me I hate my brother ..... lies.... dishonesty.... manipulation etc.”
Sentamu hit them all round the boundary. During the awkward silence that followed I crossed the hall, shook his hand, introduced myself and said I was glad there was at least one other sane man in the building.
We left the room together as the dominant partner in the enabling team wrestled with the ultimate liberal nightmare... how to tell an angry black man that he is wrong.
“We’re glad you felt you could share that with us....” So was I.
Since then Sentamu has carved out a long and faithful career as a parish priest and become a major figure on General Synod. His fine mind (First in Law, First in theology) is often at work behind the scenes, and his passionate speeches are listened to with respect. You will go a long way to find even the most determined theological opponents who are not personally fond of him.
We were to meet in the Dean’s Yard foyer of Church House - he was coming straight from a meeting at Lambeth after being up half the night drafting “Turnbull”. It’s a long story but by the time he had absent-mindedly got into his car and set off for home and I had inadvertently found myself in a Church House seminar (“Tackling violence and oppression against lesbians and gay men”) - we were an hour late settling down over a coffee in his wife’s office. (Margaret is an ABM secretary - that day selecting in God’s own country in Truro.)
Where did you begin?
“Mengo Mission Hospital, Kampala, 10th June 1949. My Dad was Headmaster of a church primary school. My Mum trained in the health service, helping people in primary health care. And she was a good cook. I’m number six of thirteen children so she was quite busy!”
To which tribe did you belong ?
“The Baganda tribe from the central region. You’ve heard of King Freddie? My family are Buffalo clan and they have a two fold role. They carry the King on their shoulders at the coronation and major public appearances. Also they light and maintain the fire for the new King. When a King dies we never say, “The King is dead”, but “The fire has gone out!” This “eternal” flame burns for the whole of the King’s life and we maintain the huge log fire.
When I was ordained deacon at Selwyn the flames of the martyrs at Pentecost on my stall had great significance for me.
My Mum’s clan is the fish clan, they are believed not to be ambitious so they are the King’s guardians.”
I thought you said the Buffaloes carry the king?
“Correct. But Buffaloes are very ambitious so they carry the King, while the fishes carry the spears. It’s a very shrewd arrangement!
I see my priestly vocation in the two clans - the one to keep the flame burning and lift up the King, the other to guard the tradition!”
What did you enjoy at school?
“Singing and cooking.”
(At the age of 6, Sentamu wrote a prize winning song about the killer mosquito, performed it at the competition with his group and picked up £30 in change that rattled onto the stage from an appreciative audience. He still remembers every word and, with a little prompting, sang it to me. It was a darned sight better than most of the Eurovision entries.)
“I love cooking. Cooked for the family at 11 and never looked back. I’d like to write a recipe book one day.”
What about secondary school?
“The studies I found easy but the journey was hard! Twelve miles each way every day. Then the English teacher John Morris, brought me a bike, a Raleigh. It was the greatest bike ever - the envy of the whole family. Then, as moves to independence came, the government started levying heavy fees and after year three our money ran out.”
“I used to garden for Dr Shepherd, now Professor of Surgery in Tasmania, and he paid to see me through school.”
Why did you choose to study law?
“I didn’t. I wanted to study medicine but because of the prescribed double maths, I had to change and ended up doing law. After my degree I got a job as an assistant to the Chief Justice re-drafting the Ugandan penal code. Very exciting. We had to get rid of this very English problem of “intention” and get back to the central question. Did he do it or not?
I only beat my wife because the devil made me do it”, is not a Ugandan defence!”
Were your family committed Christians?
“We all went to church. My grandma was RC - a real woman of prayer and a great inspiration. As a child I remember asking her why she prayed differently. She told me, “Your faith came to Uganda via England, mine came via Rome.”
Anglicans looked down on RCs and RCs thought that Anglicans would never make it. Yet in 1887 they were both burned together! The Ugandan martyrs were united in persecution. I often think of Kizito, the young boy burnt with the others, not crying but joining in the singing. “Daily, daily we praise the city of the living God”. We are marching towards that city.
You know when I visited the shrine of the Martyrs I heard them singing.”
When did you give your life to Christ?
“I was baptised on the day I was born. Full term and only four pounds. A neighbour said I was smaller than a little rat. They rushed the local bishop in because they didn’t expect me to survive.
Then when I was 10, a preacher asked me if I knew God personally. I’d always wanted to so I prayed, “God, if it is possible, be real to me.” The man told me God held a party in heaven to rejoice. This was great stuff.”
“I got up in the morning and apologised to my Mum for being rude and unhelpful. I went and confessed to my Dad that I had stolen and sold four exercise books in order to buy banana pancakes. He hauled me in front of the whole school and caned me!
In one night God had made me penitent, ready to put things right and unafraid of the truth. Some people think honesty is too dangerous but God knows everything so what’s the point in pretending.”
(He was careful to assure me, on further questioning that he didn’t extend his father's pastoral practice to his own penitents.)
By the mid 1970s the dark shadow of Idi Amin was stalking the land. Sentamu had sentenced some of his soldiers for atrocities in civil court and was acting Chancellor for, the soon to be martyred, Janani Luwum.
He had been preaching and teaching in local churches and wanted to study theology. He was sent to England, a decision which probably saved his life.
Why have you stayed?
“I never intended to, but the time has never been right to return and I got involved!
How did you meet Margaret?
“It was 1969, I was speaking in schools and we were in the same bible study group. I watched her for many months and prayed and then I said simply, “I love you”. She said, “I like you - it may develop”. So I said, “Go away and decide”. In our culture you don’t have boyfriends and girlfriends. You don’t go out with a woman unless you are to marry.
Six months later Margaret said it was right. Parents and friends were surprised because she’s a different tribe but, in the end, they were more concerned that this was the right woman and a Christian!”
(They were married in 1973 and have two children. Grace, 21, is in her final year of law and politics and Geoffrey, 16, is in the throes of the dreaded GCSE’s.)
Did you encounter much racism when you came to England?
“Not in Cambridge. People were very supportive and encouraging. But in my first curacy, at Ham, a man asked me at my first funeral, “What did my father do to be buried by a black monkey?”
While I was there I did some prison chaplaincy - the first black on the other side of the bars. They were all wondering whose side I’d be on!
It was wonderful. We had 60 prisoners confirmed and youngsters returning home to lead honest lives. One youngster, classified as a “mental case” now holds down a good job in the city.
But racism goes on. The National Front tried to burn down our house in 1986."
(This is Tulse Hill, a category 1 UPA parish where the Sentamus have served for fourteen years. He describes it as a “microcosm of heaven” - there are 32 nationalities in his congregation and, on Pentecost they wear national dress. This year, in the £1.5 million refurbished church, there will be 12 adult baptisms and 34 confirmations.)
You surprised some old friends by supporting women priests.
“My Grandma had a very priestly ministry of intercessory prayer and love and I see no difference, as we are a kingdom of priests with one great high priest.
Also the Gregory Nazianzus argument that 'what is not assumed cannot be redeemed' is important to me.”
What about women bishops?
“That is a quite separate issue. It is not a ministry shared by all believers, only some. I don’t have a problem with it but I do want to maintain unity and the body has had a massive shock and it would not be wise to inflict another one now.”
(Sentamu has spoken in defence of the orthodox believers' position in the church in passionate speeches in General Synod, in spite of his own views.)
Why have you defended people like me?
“When people say that you cannot be spirit filled or orthodox, or you’re charismatic or Romish or nostalgic or some psychological twaddle about a mother fetish, I think we are in danger of creating another gospel.
I don’t want to assume I’ve got it right. I’ve much in common with “opponent” friends and, as a black man, I know a bit about being marginalised and misunderstood. When people say “We have bent over backwards to accommodate them” - who is this “we”? Or “it doesn’t really matter” if you’re not at the same communion table.
I don’t understand where they are coming from.
The church community must be more reconciled, more just or its ministry will be impoverished."
Are you an ambitious man?
“I have a zest for life! The church can’t be made up of clergy who look like clapped-out middle managers. Christ fires me up and it is good to have drive.”
What are your hopes for Stepney?
“I’ve written a prayer for Stepney. I want to be 'loitering with intent' where human need and God’s love meet. Together we have to strive to know God, preach that life changing repentance, engage people in prayer and offer them God’s love. After all we’re talking about Jesus Christ, the Son of God - not some Ugandan bloke who crept out of nowhere.
I will be loyal to my people, loyal to the gospel, loyal to my first love, Jesus Christ.”
How would you describe your churchmanship?
“Christian in an Anglican sort of way. Evangelical in preaching and catholic and charismatic in worship and the mysteries of God.”
How will you handle the homosexuals in your care?
“I want to differentiate between orientation and practice. But sexual relations are for marriage only. My mother always said, “Don’t point your finger because the other three are pointing back at you”.
When you find things that are not right you can either walk out, turn a blind eye or try to bring God’s love to that situation. I’m entering a new house, I shall treat people with love, integrity and respect but I shall not be increasing the furniture that is out of keeping with that house.”
Turnbull. Just a more ruthless variety of the same centralism that brought us to this crisis, isn’t it?
“No! We have lots of institutions and little or no co-ordination, accountability or responsibility. We are not set up for a missionary church. We need machinery that works and that releases the bishops to lead and work for a coherent vision.
We are in the situation of the old joke: When the last trumpet shall sound the church shall set up a working party to determine: 1. Did the trumpet sound? 2. Are there any financial implications? and 3. Report back in two years. That’s got to change.”
What can you say to encourage people in our constituency?
“I want to encourage an increase of catholic vocations. We must not lose you. Can we kneel at the altar in pain and penitence? We may have messed up but we must get on with it. Paul and Mark fell out but then, later on it was “Please send Mark”. You have a ministry to me. I don’t want to walk into heaven with part of my spirit lopped off.”
This may sound a ridiculous question but are you happy with the appointment system?
“God has not given up on the C of E. But remember: real prophets are never loved and those who appoint them risk ruining their own careers! Only big men can cope with appointing those who may disagree with them and there’s a danger of only choosing those who won’t rock the boat. I believe the gospel is revolutionary, so why worry? It’s Jesus's church.”
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Albans.
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