IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Church of England installs 1st black archbishop

John Sentamu was enthroned the first black archbishop in the Church of England on Wednesday.
Dr. John Sentamu, the new archbishop of York, dances with an African band on Wednesday after his enthronement service at York Minster, in northern England.Phil Noble / Pool / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

To the beat of African drums, a son of Uganda took his throne Wednesday as the first black archbishop in the Church of England, declaring his hope of inspiring the shrinking church with the confident faith of his homeland.

John Sentamu recalled that one of his predecessors had dreamed of a black’s taking the church’s second-highest position and told an applauding congregation in York: “Well, here I am!”

Sentamu, who moved to Britain in 1974 after clashing with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, was installed as the 97th archbishop of York in a ceremony featuring dancers in leopard skin-print outfits, their heads covered in feathers, performing a dance of rejoicing and thanksgiving.

The 56-year-old Sentamu — who wore a bright blue and yellow cope and miter — joined drummers to beat time to “Siyahamba,” a favorite African hymn, after traveling by boat along the River Ouse from his official residence.

In his sermon, Sentamu recalled that a predecessor, Michael Ramsey, spoke in the 1960s of longing for the church to “learn the faith afresh from Christians of Africa and Asia.”

He quoted Ramsey as saying: “I should love to think of a black archbishop of York holding a mission here, and telling a future generation of the scandal and the glory of the church.”

Anglicans rising in strength
Anglicans are a growing force in Africa, and their leaders have been in the forefront of battles in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and the correct interpretation of Scripture. Those arguments also burn within the Church of England, the nation’s official but increasingly poorly supported church.

Wednesday’s enthronement at York Minster in northern England — Sentamu’s official welcome after his confirmation as archbishop on Oct. 10 — drew a packed congregation of 3,500.

His elevation makes Sentamu a candidate to one day succeed Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican communion.

Quoting again from Ramsey, Sentamu asked: “Why have we in England turned this glorious gospel of life in the spirit into a cumbersome organization that repels, and whose people are dull and complacent?”

The new archbishop added: “And I would urge people who are judgmental and moralizing as followers of the Prince of Peace, the friend of the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable — I bid you, by the mercies of God, to go and find friends among them, among the young, among older people, and those in society who are demonized and dehumanized and stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”

Sentamu, who had been a barrister and a judge in Uganda, was studying in England when his friend Archbishop Janani Luwum was murdered by Amin’s agents in 1977.

A challenge to Idi Amin
In deciding to become ordained, Sentamu said he had vowed, “You kill my friend; I take his place.”

Sentamu served as a parish priest in Cambridge and London and suffragan bishop of Stepney in London, before being appointed three years ago as bishop of Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city.

Working at Tulse Hill in London in the 1980s, Sentamu said he faced racism and his home was targeted by arsonists.

Yet in 13 years, Sentamu increased the congregation tenfold.

In later years, he advised a commission that investigated the killing of a black British teenager, Stephen Lawrence, by white youths. The commission denounced the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist.”

Stopped on the street, repeatedly
He has spoken drily of one of the eight times he was stopped by London police.

“He asked me what I did and I said, ‘I’m the bishop of Stepney.’ He said, ‘Whoops!’ What annoyed me was the lack of reasonable grounds to suspect me of anything. Middle-aged bishops are rarely a danger to the public,” Sentamu said.

The last archbishop of York — the church’s second-highest cleric — to become archbishop of Canterbury was Donald Coggan, who held the position from 1974 to 1980.

In his work with Williams, Sentamu said he has no intention of being No. 2.

“People say to me, ‘Are you going to play second fiddle to the archbishop of Canterbury?’ That is not helpful,” Sentamu told The Times newspaper. “This is going to be a partnership.”