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What happens when the police stop and search a bishop?

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

I’m not surprised that black people are still eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police, despite the less frequent use of those powers. It happened to me regularly in the 1990s. One rainy night I was driving through the City of London in one of the cars loaned to bishops for their work, when a constable flagged me down. It was winter and a scarf covered my dog collar. I asked him repeatedly why I had been stopped. He replied repeatedly and with increasing agitation, ‘Just open the boot.’ Then he asked me what I did. When I said, ‘I’m the Bishop for Stepney’, and I removed the scarf from around my neck and he saw my collar, he nervously gasped, ‘Whoops.’ I felt a bit sorry for him and the small world he lived in. Black man with nice car? Black man a bishop? They didn’t fit his stereotypes. I would like to think that experience enlarged his outlook — at least a bit.

It is 25 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a London suburb, solely because he was black. The subsequent Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, chaired by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, which I helped to compile, uncovered in this particular case, ‘institutional racism’ in the Metropolitan Police. That carefully chosen wording has been misquoted ever since. We did not say that police were institutionally racist, as if it were official police policy to stigmatise black people. It was — and clearly still is — more subtle. Institutional racism is the product of unwitting prejudice, ignorance, carelessness, stereotyping and a reluctance to change. That aggregates to a festering prejudice. And it’s widespread. Try this Q&A test. Q: How many Anglicans are people of colour? A: Most of them. Whoops!

Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, has given us a pithy and perceptive account of today’s USA in his book If Only They Didn’t Speak English.  He described the mood there in 2016 as ‘fearful, angry and impatient for change’. It was the year when Donald Trump was going to be elected to the world’s most powerful position. Could something similar also explain the unpredicted swings in European elections and across the world? If so, does it mean that people are so fed up with the status quo that they will opt for anything contrary? The oft-quoted aphorism from G.K. Chesterton comes to mind: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.’


An instinctive yearning for something different isn’t necessarily bad. It is what has driven explorers, inventors and researchers from earliest times to discover and develop every improvement we now enjoy. While I would hesitate to claim impatience as a virtue, my heart is lifted when I see young people knocking hard at the door of opportunity because they are thinking positively. Belly-aching is something else. Malcontents can be wooed by any political Pied Piper who promises to deliver a non-existent utopia. I am reminded of William Penn’s warning that we must be governed by God or we will be ruled by tyrants. Penn was the English Quaker who founded Pennsylvania.

Today’s Americans are extraordinarily twee about religion. On the one hand they print ‘In God We Trust’ on banknotes, insist their leaders have a religious belief, and cite ‘the Creator’ as granting the rights of the Constitution — at least 50 per cent say religion is very important to them, compared with 17 per cent in the UK. On the other hand, when it comes to Christmas, they row back. ‘Happy Holidays’ is the only acceptable greeting. Anything more specific might be judged offensive, intrusive, coercive. Jon Sopel, himself of Jewish stock, spotted a banner in Dulles airport, reading: ‘We hope you like our holiday trees.’ They were Christmas trees. ‘Don’t mention the baby Jesus, whatever you do,’ he wrote with amusement.

By contrast, in the UK, Christmas arrives as a commercial onslaught late in October until the name is engulfed by a festival of hedonism, far removed from the discomfort of the Nativity stories. Both as a baby and as an adult, Jesus was a political threat. Three days into Christmas-time each year, the Church’s calendar recalls the massacre of young boys in the area around Bethlehem, dispatched because wise men from a distant land had enquired about a new king who had been born, who would establish a Rule of Justice. Jesus escaped to Egypt, but was later to be executed for exactly the same reason. That should not surprise us. Mixing religion with politics was as unpopular then as it is now. He taught extensively about a new kingdom (inescapably a political term) that was open to all but demanded wholehearted commitment. It would inevitably brook opposition. He saw his own death as a sacrificial self-giving love to effect a new deal between God and humanity.

Until recently, we believed the human capacity for reason and ingenuity was our guarantee of greater and greater progress. The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras had encapsulated this optimism in the saying ‘Man is the measure of all things’; much later the European Enlightenment built upon it. Revolutions and political ideologies followed but failed to produce the perfect state. Meanwhile, the Almighty offers us an alternative: to share in His work of re-creation. With infinite patience, like that of a caring parent with an erring child, he awaits our response. The great North African theologian St Augustine of Hippo described Christ’s mission thus: ‘The only Son of God, having become the son of Man, makes many sons of men the sons of God.’

That’s the Christmas message. So with love and joy in my heart, I wish you a Holy and Blessed Christmas.

John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.


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