Dr John Sentamu: Next stop Canterbury?

This Easter, all Anglican eyes will be on the outspoken Archbishop of York in a year when he could reach the pinnacle of his denomination

Aha, thought the policeman, that's a nice-looking little motor for a dodgy little black man to be driving. I'll pull him over. What's all this then, the officer said. Get out of the car. Why? asked the driver, looking at the rain. Just open the boot, said the copper. Who do you think you are? I'm the Bishop of Stepney, replied the black man, removing the scarf from his neck. I've done it now, thought the policeman, spotting the dog collar.

Race and confrontation have been constants in the life of John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, the man the bookies have as their favourite to succeed Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Born in Uganda in 1949 and educated by English missionaries, Dr Sentamu trained as a lawyer but fled his native land in 1974 when, after practising as a barrister and judge, he was detained by the despot Idi Amin for 90 days and beaten terribly by police thugs.

He came to Britain and trained for the priesthood. In 17 years as a vicar in Brixton and other parts of south London he experienced the casual racism of the time. "I took one funeral," he later said, "and at the end a man said to me, 'Why did my father deserve to be buried by a black monkey?' We received letters with excrement in."

The bishop came to national prominence as the only black member of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence – the judicial inquiry that concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist. Dr Sentamu later queried in the House of Lords the police interpretation of "reasonable grounds to suspect" when stopping black people in the street.

Two years later, in 2002, he chaired the official review into the police's bungled investigation of the black-on-black killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in Peckham.

Even as the Archbishop of York – the second most senior bishop in the Church of England – Dr Sentamu has received racist emails over his opposition to gay marriage.

For all this John Sentamu has become one of the most popular, charismatic and outspoken clerics in the grey identikit ranks of the Church of England. Indeed, he is probably the only senior Anglican, apart from Rowan Williams, whose name the bookmakers knew before the Canterbury post became open.

He has cut quite a figure on the national stage, playing the bongos at his enthronement at York Minster in 2005, showing the common touch on radio and television, and issuing one outspoken statement after another.

A child needs a father, he said during an Embryology Bill. The BBC is frightened of criticising Islam. City traders who practised short selling were "clearly bank robbers". Secularists were engaging in "an attack of unusual and sustained ferocity" against church schools. The decision of Prince William and Kate Middleton to live together before their wedding was, despite the church's official disapproval of pre-marital sex, just them testing "whether the milk is good before they buy the cow".

Perhaps most famously he was runner-up in Channel 4's annual search for "the most inspiring political figure of the year" when, during a live television interview with Andrew Marr, he tore off his clerical collar and cut it up with a convenient pair of scissors, saying he would never wear another one until the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was overthrown.

Yet if this outspokenness has made him a colourful character in the eyes of the public, it has proved too much for many in the sedate ranks of the Church where an Anybody but York movement has begun to try to block his translation from Ebor to Cantuar. He is seen by his opponents as too loud and ambitious. And his public pronouncements have been questioned in the press for their intellectual coherence, consistency and judgement. His showmanship in cutting up his dog collar has been contrasted on one prominent church blog as "playing to the crowd on live TV" while "Rowan Williams travelled to Harare, met Mugabe face to face, and handed him a dossier of human rights abuses perpetrated by government thugs".

Behind the scenes, Dr Sentamu was accused of overstating his case against gay marriage when he accused David Cameron of dictatorial intent in forcing the measure through Parliament. In Rupert Murdoch's new Sun on Sunday he began a weekly column with the words: "What a fantastic honour to be given the opportunity to write a column in the first ever Sunday Sun." Dr Sentamu sought to justify his involvement by saying that a religion of forgiveness means giving people second chances. But many senior clerics feel his involvement with a news organisation so tainted by the phone-hacking scandal was "a serious misjudgement".

"He was very, very effective as Bishop of Stepney," said another senior priest. "He learned how to support clergy and he ate up the work. And he loved the multicultural pluralism of Birmingham when he was bishop there. But York's more traditional and, because he sees himself as a national figure, many aspects of diocesan life have been neglected by him."

But the Archbishop of York is a national figure. One of his titles is Primate of England. (Canterbury is Primate of All-England.) "He has a very good nose for a story," said one religious affairs newspaperman of long standing. "But it's highly choreographed. His people tell you before he does an interview that he won't answer questions on this or that." Even so, many see him as a breath of fresh air in a moribund institution.

The big question is whether his style is suited to coping with the polarised camps in the Church. "He's established a court at Bishopthorpe," said one senior insider. "He's trebled the staff, which has caused unease among senior churchmen at the amount of money he's spending. But he lacks the diplomatic skills to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He's autocratic and doesn't like to be contradicted. He has a temper. His senior staff of bishops and archdeacons in the Diocese of York haven't found him an easy man to work with, or for. He'd be a disaster managing Anglicanism's factions."

All that has not been lost on the powers at Lambeth Palace, which is run more like a chief exec's office in a major corporation. There the Archbishop of Canterbury has so much in his diary set by the formularies of diocese, nation and international Anglican Communion that the incumbent has nowhere near the scope to follow his own agenda as York does. Lambeth officials have been leaking their fear of a Dr Sentamu succession.

There is another problem. The Anglican Communion gathers every 10 years at the Lambeth Conference. At the next, in 2018, John Sentamu will be just months from compulsory retirement at age 70 and unable to implement the programme the decennial conference decides. But the younger generation – Stephen Cottrell, Nick Baines, Stephen Croft and Stephen Conway, bishops of Chelmsford, Bradford, Sheffield and Ely respectively – are not seen as quite ready, according to someone with close contacts inside the Crown Nominations Commission which makes the decision.

That said, all bishops under the age of 66 have been told to get their CVs up to date and send them off to the CNC. Insiders there are tipping James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, as a more judicious option than the volatile Dr Sentamu. But it is the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James – "very competent and a safe pair of hands" – who is the real favourite.

At the moment Dr Sentamu, as Archbishop of York, has an automatic seat on the Crown Nominations Commission. If he wants the top job he will first have to resign from that. He has yet to do so. If he does, those on the commission will have to decide whether the reservations of those who run the Church outweigh his undoubted talent as a charismatic common-touch communicator which has so endeared him to the public.

A Life In Brief

Born: John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, June 10 1949, near Kampala, Uganda.

Family: The sixth of 13 children. Married in 1973, he and his wife Margaret have a daughter and a son.

Education: Read theology up to PhD level at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Career: Practised law in the High Court of Uganda before fleeing to Britain in 1974. He was ordained in 1979 and appointed as Bishop of Stepney in 1996. He advised on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and chaired the Damilola Taylor review in 2002. In 2005 he was appointed Archbishop of York.

He says: "The Church has always stood out – Jesus actually was the odd man out."

They say: "He is a person of whom all people, not necessarily just the church, will say, 'He says it how it is.'" Very Rev Keith Jones, Dean of York

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