Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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Does Archbishop Sentamu deserve a peerage?

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THE Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, says he is ‘disturbed’ because his predecessor John Sentamu has not been awarded an automatic peerage. I have my own reasons for being disturbed about Dr Sentamu.

When he was appointed Archbishop of York in 2005, I wrote in my column in the Northern Echo: ‘Today Dr John Sentamu will be enthroned as Archbishop of York in the great Minster. I sympathise with him because he will never escape the media tag “the first black archbishop”. But some of his recent protests suggest he is enjoying the cliché. He has complained that the Church of England is “institutionally racist”. That phrase is paranoid and meaningless and its absurdity is nowhere better demonstrated than by the fact that the new Archbishop of York is himself a black man. If the church is so colour-prejudiced, how come he gets to sit on one of its highest thrones today?

‘But then Bishop Sentamu has sat in the best school for learning political correctness. He was a member of the Macpherson Inquiry which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence. This is the inquiry which invented the ridiculous concepts “institutional racism” and “unconscious racism” and, when sceptics asked for a justification for these tendentious neologisms, declared loftily, “We do not pretend to produce a definition which will carry all argument before it.” In other words, we won’t answer your awkward questions. This was incoherence and bullying combined. Just like the secret police.

‘Worse, the Macpherson Report went on to define a racist incident as “any incident so described by the victim, or any other person”. This too is meaningless, but it is the catch-all, you’re-guilty-even-when-you’re-innocent terminology of the gulag. If anything can be legitimately described by anyone as a racist incident – the nonsense the new Archbishop put his name to – then when I ask you if you’d like a cup of tea, you can report me to the race relations authorities.

‘Dr Sentamu is wrong about the mood of the country too. People are not obsessed, as he is, with worries over the colour of bishops and priests. I know from my experience as an urban vicar, head of RE in a multiracial school, a country parson and now a city rector that there is a great hunger for spiritual teaching. Secularisation has failed. But the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Instead they see their new Archbishop deeply preoccupied with social engineering.’

A few days later, I received a letter of complaint from the Archbishop’s media officer, Archdeacon John Barton, who asked me to tell him ‘where and when is Dr Sentamu supposed to have complained that the Church of England is institutionally racist?’

This was to be the start of a lengthy and fruitless correspondence, copied to my editor and to my immediate superior the Rt Rev’d Richard Chartres, Bishop of London.

I supplied the Archdeacon with many examples from the national press and the BBC of Dr Sentamu’s remarks about racism in the church. For instance, as reported by the BBC in June 2005, Dr Sentamu had said: ‘The Church of England contains institutional racism as a room full of smokers contains smoke.’ Dr Sentamu’s allegation was reported in The Independent in October 2005. These reports have never been challenged by Dr Sentamu.

I noted that Dr Sentamu had applied the description ‘institutional racism’ to the Church of England in the foreword he had written to a book called Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection by Mukti Barton. In it he said: ‘Kinds of institutional racism are in society and so inevitably to some degree found in the churches, both in the Church of England and other churches.’ Although the statement was in print, the media officer insisted: ‘The foreword to the book certainly does not use those words.’ He also said: ‘If you decline to withdraw these unwarranted slurs, I shall have to raise the matter elsewhere.’

I wrote to Archbishop Sentamu himself asking why a member of his staff was attempting to blacken my name with my employer. This is part of his reply:

‘The difference between you and the Ven John Barton is over the use of two expressions. I have, as you know, used the expression “institutional racism” in the foreword of Dr Mukti Barton’s book, Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection.

‘The other expression is “institutionally racist”. This expression has not been used by me.

‘I trust you will ensure that you do not attribute the expression “institutionally racist” to me again in anything you write. If you have thought that I have said or written material which can be interpreted as such, then you are mistaken.

‘I am not prepared to devote more staff resources or incur fees to take legal advice on the matter. This correspondence between you, me and my office is now closed.

‘+Sentamu’                                        

Although Sentamu was not prepared to seek legal advice, the Northern Echo had already done so and its lawyers’ opinions showed perfectly clearly that the Archbishop didn’t have a case.

I wrote to my editor with a copy to the Archbishop. Part of my letter said:

‘Dr Sentamu’s vainglorious climb-down is not mitigated by its incoherence. He clearly inhabits realms so tenuous where there can be “institutional racism” without there being anyone who is “institutionally racist”. It is not possible, of course, for moral qualities or characteristics to exist independently of anyone to whom they can be attributed.’ I added that I reserved my right to take legal action against the archbishop and his team for defamation.

The Bishop of London’s office phoned in a hot flush: ‘The Bishop does so hope you will not sue Dr Sentamu.’ I didn’t. I let the matter drop. But years after these events I remain shocked that a very senior member of the Church of England refused to acknowledge the truth about his stated views and was prepared to resort to hair-splitting pedantry to wriggle out of a difficult situation.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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