George Austin on Archbishop John Sentamu’s enthronement

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have to admit my imagination led me astray. As details emerged of the plans for Archbishop John Sentamu’s inauguration – bongo drums and African dancing, balloons and doves released as a finale, the new man anointed by Rowan Cantuar before being placed on the throne – I decided it was going to be a cross between a pantomime and a royal coronation. I could not have been more wrong.

His voyage by open-topped boat from Bishopthorpe Palace to York I had pictured with him in cope and mitre waving royally to mystified dog-walkers on a morning stroll by the river, but his black cloak and large beret were far from episcopal and his excited wave unkinglike.

Not a theatrical gesture

After he had knocked three times on the great west door and been greeted by the great and the good, he went at once to pray at the tiny altar of the nearly chapel of St Cuthbert. And that for me was when the mood changed. With some bishops it would have appeared no more than a theatrical gesture, a way of saying, ‘See what a holy man am I!’ But somehow with John Sentamu it seemed to reflected a genuine reluctance, alongside an awesome wonder that God should be demanding so much of him.

That impression continued as he prayed himself through the service. Here was not a man determined to scramble up the greasy pole of promotion whatever the cost to his integrity, but rather one who had sat in the house of bishops watching the aspirants and wondering which of them would get the prize. Rather he was one who had been prepared to face death at the hands of a cruel dictator rather than compromise that which he knew to be right, and he was hardly likely to change now.

For me it culminated in one of these moments that will forever remain in the memory – his anointing by Archbishop Rowan as a deacon to serve the Church and to work with all to care for those in need; as a priest to be a shepherd to the people and to proclaim the gospel; and as a bishop to lead the Church to ‘further its unity, to uphold its discipline, to guard its faith and to interpret the gospel of Christ.’ Then as I watched a close-up of his face on the closed circuit television screen there was a tear running down his cheek and I knew God had made an extraordinary choice for York.

A man for this time

That is not to say that a holy man is new to York – Ramsey, Blanch, Habgood, Hope were all men of prayer and great integrity. But Sentamu is surely a man for this time, and this came out in his sermon. Too often an enthronement sermon is when the new bishop seeks to set out his wares, what he hopes to do for the diocese, rather in the way that the two Davids, Cameron and Davies, set up their shop windows.

Sentamu did not tell us what he was going to do but rather what God can do though us. A sermon entirely about God? Whatever is happening in the Church of England? Any good parish priest knows that the good ideas he has for the work of the Gospel in his parish are only good if they are not his but God’s, and this we have instinctively in Sentamu for the whole Church.

That was the solemnity. But there was amazing lightness too, not least because it was a service in which the young were involved right into its structure. This was too the obvious warm delight of the new archbishop, who showed his enthusiasm by beating the drums for the African dance troupe.

It was an unforgettable day. And perhaps for a church which has wallowed for so long in discord, doubt, secularism and bureaucracy, it is God’s sign that we can start once more marching in the light of God, living in the love of God and moving in the power of God.