‘I shoot further than you, I am the biggest of the men!’ says John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. He is talking about the way politicians conduct themselves in the immigration debate. ‘We have got to be more grown up about it and not be like people who are screaming at each other across banks of a river,’ he says. ‘They mustn’t do what some people call male diplomacy which is always around the urinal… that kind of argument, it doesn’t work!’
Sentamu prefers a still small voice of calm from politicians, even if his own voice is booming and indomitable. His is never more than a few words away from a chuckle or a joke. This week sees the publication of a collection of essays called On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future — a 21st-century follow-up to the Church of England’s ‘Faith and the City’ report that so irritated Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Sentamu has written a chapter, as has the Arch-bishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Dedicated to ‘hard-pressed families on poverty wages’, the book contains some lines that could rile politicians as much as ‘Faith and the City’ did in the 1980s. Welby writes of cities in ‘what appear to be lose-lose situations’ and that ‘as the south-east grows, many cities are left feeling abandoned and hopeless’ and are in a ‘vicious circle of decline’.
Sentamu says he wanted to edit this book after being struck by ‘absolute poverty’ in his diocese. He is strident about the problems of the welfare system, arguing that the current set-up places too little emphasis on contribution: ‘It was supposed to be a safety net so that no citizen in this country really could be driven into poverty because they haven’t got a job or they’ve come across some circumstances that are really very difficult to survive as people. But it was never intended, it seems to me, to be a constant delivery of services to a particular group of people.’
Yet the ‘real demon’, he says, isn’t welfare but low pay. He points out that people in work are turning to food banks, and he attacks Baroness Jenkin for her unfortunate remarks about poor people not being able to cook: ‘She’s not understood what the problem is!’
But sometimes the Archbishop’s own diagnoses and his prescriptions don’t quite match up, either. He speaks of his sadness at finding children underachieving at school — and says this was nothing to do with the school not working hard enough. Then, in almost the same breath, he begins to describe the difference a local school-turned-academy, named after him, has made to the prospects of its pupils. It can’t be the school and not the school, can it?
It is difficult to pin Sentamu down on many matters, and that’s not just because he is so garrulous. He is concerned by issues that some might see as traditionally of the left, from low pay to his belief that businesses will not leave the United Kingdom if taxes go up: ‘I don’t believe it — just like I never believed last time by the way when the minimum wage was introduced we had them squealing, “This will produce unemployment… the businesses will go.” They didn’t, you know.’ His advice to politicians as they discuss immigration in the election campaign is ‘to recognise first and foremost this has been a country of immigrants, really’.
But why should politicians listen to an archbishop anyway when congregations are declining? Church turnout makes attendance at the ballot box look spectacular, after all. ‘Well, if you say so!’ he replies. ‘But if only you’d been here at Christmas and I’ll tell you the figures. In the York Minster, the first carol service was 2,500.’ He then reels off a list of attendance numbers for Christmas services. But those are Christmas services. Everyone loves a good carol, don’t they? What about February? He never really gives an answer but insists that ‘churches will tell you that actually we are beginning to see signs of new life emerging’ and that churches are focusing more on helping the community and welcoming the poor.
I wonder whether Sentamu’s definition of ‘welcoming’ extends to the church conducting weddings for homosexual couples — which it is currently protected by law from having to do — and ordaining gay bishops. The case for doing both is increasingly being advanced within the church, with public figures such as Vicky Beeching and some of Sentamu’s colleagues such as the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, arguing that the C of E should be far more welcoming to gay people. But while the Archbishop says he is ‘not persuaded’ that doing so would encourage more people to come to church, he adds that ‘the Church of England would say if they are in an active sexual relationship of the same sex, clergy, bishops, the answer at the moment is no’. That ‘at the moment’ suggests things could change.
The sexuality debate upsets many within the church, who feel their views have been marginalised by mainstream society. Some even claim Christians are being persecuted. Does Sentamu agree? Silence falls for the first time. ‘Well,’ he says, finally. ‘I lived in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin … and our archbishop was murdered by Idi Amin. I had to get out of Uganda because I had opposed Amin on a number of things which I didn’t think were ethically right… I know what persecution looks like. What is happening at the moment in England, it ain’t persecution.’