John Sentamu: You ask the questions

The Archbishop of York answers your questions, such as 'Is Britain a Godless society?' and 'Do you still get stopped and searched?'
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The Independent Online

Presumably you know that there is a God. Show us the evidence? Stephen Brittain, Folkestone

Each week at churches throughout the country we affirm our faith using the Nicene Creed which begins 'We believe in God'. My belief, like that of other believers, is based on both intellectual enquiry and personal experience. There is a misconception and presumption that to believe you have to remove your brain and stop asking questions. Faith seeks understanding - it doesn't replace it. Faith is not leaning on a crutch. It is the very act of learning. Scientific empirical evidence won't prove God, neither will it disprove him. The demand for signs - or evidence - is not new, and the Gospels tell us even Jesus tired of it. God is the subject of our enquiry and never the object of it. The 'evidence' lies in our readiness to have our fixed assumptions questioned and judged by that which lies at the centre of my faith.

How best can we counter arguments against the existence of God, as presented by people like Richard Dawkins? Steve Lancaster by email

The Apostle Paul is a good guide. In the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is clear that it is not through mere talk or persuasion or debates that Christ is found. If you want to get to know someone, talking to them is far more preferable than talking about them, especially to people who may never have met or ecnountered them. Paul writes that it is through the Cross, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we find God and also through those who already know Him. Just as in Paul's time, so in ours, the Christians were despised, mocked and ridiculed for preaching the message of the Cross. Like them, we too are fools for Christ.

It is the intractable strangeness of the ground of belief that Professor Dawkins must allow to challenge the fixed assumptions of atheism. Sadly he fails to use scientific reasoning in his attack on those who believe in God, not least through a lack of detailed knowledge of that with which he disputes. His brilliant mind is wasted on a negative exercise. Without the world, God will be God. Without God the world would be naught.

In his own response on these pages a few weeks ago Professor Dawkins tried, as many have done before him, to reclaim Jesus for his own under the slogan of 'Atheists for Jesus'. Whilst praising Jesus as a radical thinker - and quoting approvingly from the Gospels as his evidence - Professor Dawkins discounted Jesus' own religious beliefs as nothing more than conditioning. Rather than adopting this kind of selectivity, trying to fit Jesus into our own belief system, I would advocate looking seriously at what Jesus has to say himself about who he is and his relationship with God.

Why does the Church continue to discriminate against women and gays? And why are you so afraid of secularism? Marilyn Mason, Kingston upon Thames

Statistically speaking the typical Anglican is a young black woman in her twenties. The worldwide communion is part of the Church's greatest strengths but it also presents challenges, such as on the issue of homosexuality and the ordination of women. In the Church of England I have ordained men and women as deacons and priests, whose lifestyle conforms to the Church's teaching. The debate about ordaining women as bishops is currently on the Church's formal agenda and I proposed the motion in favour at last year's General synod in York . My view is simple: Jesus Christ died for men and women, black and white, gay and straight, so that those who believe in him may no longer live for themselves but for the one who died for them. God's salvation does not discriminate, Jesus is the Saviour of the world.

I'm not afraid of secularism nor of secularists. However I am concerned that there are some aggressive secularists and intolerant atheists who are hell bent on erasing Christianity and Christian values from public life as a precursor to privatising or banning the public practise of religion. Sir John Mortimer, the playwright and atheist, wrote: 'Our whole history and culture in Europe is based on Christianity, whether you believe in it or not. Our culture is Christian; Shakespeare, Mozart- all that makes life worth living is part of the Christian tradition.' All I have been doing in my recent statements is to remind this great nation of Edmund Burke's warning who said in the House of Commons 'when ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us.'

Richard Dawkins famously held a debate with the previous Archbishop of York in which religion was deemed to have come off rather badly. Considering that your own 'celebrity status' is now beginning to rival his, would you ever consider a re-match? Craig Nelson, by email

'Celebrity' is certainly something I neither crave nor desire. There are other Oxford professors such as Alistair McGrath and Keith Ward who have written or are writing critiques of Professor Dawkins' views, which I would similarly take issue with. However I think there are more serious challenges and threats to religion in the West than Professor Dawkins. Materialism, idolatry, militarism and race-ism are the great evils of our modern society, not Richard Dawkins.

Isn't it a little sinfully vain to allow your own image to be projected onto the side of York Minster? Henry Sitglitz, London

See above and my answer to 'celebrity status'. If it was being done to boost my ego then I'd be with you 100%, but that wasn't the purpose at all. This was done for the launch of the Church of England?s first ever on-line advent calendar which can be seen at: Behind each window is a picture of a person and what Christmas means to them - from taxi drivers to innkeepers, teachers to estateagents, footballers to Archbsihops, each gives a personal account of the meaning of Christmas. The launch was supposed to be lighthearted and fun, the opposite of an ego expanding exercise. I was behind the first window and as such it was my picture and my quote that were projected on to the side of the Minster. The format of the launch was not my idea, but I agreed to participate because I supported the CofE national advent calendar. There have been over 20,000 visits in two weeks and we are expecting 100,000 by the end of the year

Is reality television immoral and a malign influence? Kevin McAndrews by email

Not in and of itself. I think there have been some positive fly-on the-wall programmes such as The Monastery and I believe there is a forthcoming series on the work of Helen House in Oxford which I think is unlikely to be classed as either immoral or malign. I don't watch Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity. I lost no sleep at all turning down Celebrity Big Brother. I think that celebrity can be malign in that it becomes a form of idolatry and people live their lives vicariously through the rich and famous rather than attending to their own lives.

Modern scholars largely accept the Jesus story was a conflation of dozens of pre-existing stories of 'sons of God', born to virgins who turned water to wine and rose from the dead, etc. When will the church stop propagating their invented history as fact and admit they have no right or justification for the moral or religious high ground they try to impose upon society? Craig Green, London

The textual, historical and archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ is overwhelming. It is not only the Gospel writers who wrote of the life and existence of Jesus Christ. Roman and Jewish historians of the time, such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and Josephus, write of Jesus's life, crucifixion and of the existence of his followers at the time. Rather than denying Jesus, much modern scholarship rather asserts the historical pedigree of the New Testament documents. It is of course much easier to dismiss all the evidence and put it down as a fairy story, and more difficult to prod, investigate and evaluate all the evidence available if we only choose to look.

Is Britain a Godless society? Lucy Clement, Guidford

Not at all. Every week you will find more people worshipping at churches than at all football grounds, premiership, league and non-league combined. In the 2001 Census 71.6% of people in England and Wales marked themselves down as Christian. In the Labour Force Survey the following year the figure was 79.9 %. When figures for other religions are also included then it is clear that we have some way to go before becoming 'Godless', although these statistics are rarely reflected in the media, advertising or public policy making. Going back to football for a moment, the next time you go to a game just look at the adulation shown by the home fans towards their team. The capacity for worship is still alive and well, it's just the direction that needs work.

Given that Christians should be honest, what do you think of those that propagate lies about evolution in order to make Biblical creationism a part of mainstream education? Ian Kirwan, Worcestershire

I have no problem with the story of the creation found in the Bible being a part of mainstream education - it would be most odd for the RE syllabus not to include it as part of the Creation story common to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My own view is that facts and values belong together, and one without the other is an incomplete education. Religion and Science are not polar opposites, they are the different sides of a godly coin.

When you call for Christianity to regain its historical power in politics, are you not trying to force Christian values on people who have chosen different, often humanist approaches? David Pollock, Stoke Newington , London

I'm not aware of having made such a call, not least for the conclusion you rightly point to. I'm not advocating a theocracy, but I think it is important that the law is not divorced from the values and morals which should give birth to it and which it should seek to uphold. That is why I would defend the place of Bishops in the legislature. As Lord Denning said, 'if religion perishes in the land, morals and the law will also perish'. I have also argued that England needs to rediscover its spiritual roots and heritage as a country. For that to happen, the Church in England needs to once again be a beacon by which the people of England can orient themselves in an unknown ocean by offering them the Good News of God in Jesus Christ in a practical and relevant way to their daily lives.

Having shed an empire and its missionary zeal, has this great nation, and mother of parliamentary democracy, also lost a noble vision for the future? We are getting richer and richer as a nation, but less and less happy. I think there is a task for the Church in England to rediscover her self-confidence and self-esteem that first united and energised the English people many centuries ago when the disparate fighting groups embraced the gospel.

You lived under Idi Amin. What do you think the British Government should do about Zimbabwe? Irvin Oxford UK

I'm on record as saying that I think Mugabe is a racist dictator who needs to be removed for the good of the people of Zimbabwe and the good of the region. Since my making that statement precious little has changed with regard to Government policy, and the international community seem to be paralysed by South Africa's inability to act. I have slight regard for Mugabe's talk of Tony Blair and Colonialism. As Mugabe postures, the people of his country suffer oppression and starvation, yet our Government looks on. The greatest tragedy is that African political leaders are wringing their hands. Shame on them!

When Marks & Spencers started to lose market share they brought in new management. Why doesn?t the Church of England do the same? Paul Brazier, Wotton under Edge, Glos.

The Church isn't a business and as such business solutions aren't applicable. We are not competing directly with supermarkets and superstores, amusement arcades and parks; rather we are appealing for the hearts and minds of those who shop there to make sure that their shopping does not become their worship. Just as the Hebrew slaves from Egypt built the Golden Calf as the ultimate act of idolatry in the desert, so millions of British people are prostrating themselves before an altar of materialism. It's a big task in a country where Descartes' famous dictum 'Cogito Ergo Sum' (I think therefore I am) has been replaced with 'Tesco ergo sum' (?I shop therefore I Am?).

What is your explanation for the violent binge drinking, aggressive anti-social yobbish side of British culture so evident everywhere (including York ) on Saturday nights? Is it spiritual impoverishment? Fadima Marzouk, by email

Yes, but also a loss of identity and a guiding moral compass. Material poverty, moral and spiritual poverty engender different kinds of despair which are linked by the sense of hopelessness, insecurity and uncertainty which are manifested in binge drinking and general excess. There is also a lack of experience of God, for which Christians must take some responsibility in making Jesus so unattractive. Binge drinking is a poor contrast to the experience of being in the presence of God and being exposed to the joy and wonder of the infinite. What the birth of Jesus Christ is all about is forgiveness for past sins, new life for the present and hope for the future.

Aside from the Minster, what is your favourite thing about York? Bobby Bobson by email

The people. By Christmas I will have completed twenty two of twenty four Deanery visits taking me all over the Diocese of York. During those visits to the Deaneries that make up the diocese, I have been to cities, towns and suburbs; villages and farms; schools, hospitals and laboratories; community centres and hostels; prisons and gyms; people's homes and workplaces; on train rides, a minibus and a steam bus; to a lifeboat and a lighthouse, a veterinary hospital, a rocking horse shop, a soya-protein factory, a potash mine, several museums - and a host of churches large and small. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that he was a Christian with his community and a bishop for them. In my own ministry I have tried to model Augustine's words and over the past year I have appreciated the deep privilege of being a Christian with the people of North Yorkshire and an Archbishop for them.

Wouldn't it be better in a secular country if all religious symbols (veils, crosses etc) were kept out schools and workplaces? Sanjay Khan, London

I don't think so, not least because I don't believe Britain is a secular country. The Paris riots in November last year went some way to showing that the supposed integration which was to be achieved by banning religious symbols is illusory. It is no coincidence that when a tyrannical dictatorship seeks to establish itself one of the first targets is organised religion. In Nazi Germany, the USSR , North Korea and Communist China the Churches were shut down or usurped and perverted because they provided individuals with a message of freedom and hope at odds with that emanating from the uniform state.

Would you support the disestablishment of the Church of England? Jennifer Dickinson, Wiltshire

No. The link between the head of state and the Church is one I value, not least with the deep faith of our Queen who has displayed throughout her life both the meaning of service and the recognition that we are all ultimately accountable to God. I think the monarchy is one of the values that people from all faiths and none can unite around.

Do you despair of the lack of integrity and morality displayed by politicans? Susan Doyle, Dover

Not really. There are many politicians who enter public service in order to serve the public better in a genuine attempt to improve the common good. I don't think politicians are different from the rest of us in that they too face temptation and get it wrong from time to time.

All of us are in need of God's grace and forgiveness, to be liberated from guilt and to aim to respond to the love of God in Christ through a transformed life. Just as amongst wider society there are politicians who display higher levels of integrity and morality and those who get it wrong. My mother was right when she said, 'Sentamu, never point the finger at anyone. When you do, there are three others pointing right back at you.'

Can Bush or Blair justifiably call themselves Christians, preaching as they do a creed of war and aggression? Victor Hazel by email

I don't think either man would recognise that as an accurate description of what they do. I have criticised George Bush for many of his policies and I was firmly against the invasion of Iraq . I do not think Iraq qualifies as a 'just war' on the principles laid down by Thomas Aquinas, nor do I think it was legal under International Law. Ultimately, as Tony Blair himself as recognised, both men will be called to account for their actions and they will be judged, not by me, but by God. As for those Iraqi Salafi Jihadists who are hell bent on murdering their countrymen and women, they too will have to face the Great Judge for their atrocious acts of brutality.

Is it possible for a Christian to support Trident? Ray Towey Birmingham

I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury who recently said that ethical questions around the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons are no less grave now than in the days of the Cold War. Then, as now, these are weapons that are intrinsically indiscriminate in their lethal effects and their long-term impact on a whole physical environment would be horrendous. While there is evidently disagreement - among Christians as well as others - over whether the mere threat of use is morally acceptable, we should not lose sight of what the Government itself has called the 'terrifying power' of these weapons. Many will never be persuaded of the morality of a nuclear deterrent; many more will feel that the case needs to be very strongly made if we are to avoid the suspicion that this is about reinforcing national status, at a very high economic cost and potentially indefensible moral one. This is a clear case of ensuring that religion, morality and law are not separated from each other.

How do you reconcile the idea of a loving God with the existence of everlasting punishment? Sergio Jabur by email

By the concept of free will. We all have an opportunity to accept the message of God?s Love as presented by Jesus Christ or reject it. Consequence follows choice. If heaven is being in the presence of God, then hell is an eternal absence of God, the worst form of despair and hopelessness imaginable. The death and resurrection of Christ, who descended into hell, shows us a God who defeats the worst enemy, death, by his unconquerable love.

Do you still get stopped and searched? Ken Bishop (no relation), Hampstead

It hasn't happened since my time as Bishop of Birmingham. I should add that in those times I have worked closely with the police - with the Met. On Operation Trident and Chairing the review of the investigation into the Murder of Damilola Taylor and with the West Midlands police after the tragic murders of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare.

Should the church of England change centuries of tradition of calling God, Lord as the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested? David Ekpo by email

As far as I am aware the Archbishop hasn't made that suggestion. In October a national newspaper wrongly stated that the Church of England was thinking of dropping the use of 'He' or 'Lord' to refer to God. There has been no such proposal. The story was posited on a Church report Responding to Domestic Abuse which says that such masculine imagery can be, and is, misused by abusers to justify ill-treatment and violence by men against women. It did not suggest we stop calling God 'Lord'. Our liturgies speak of the Lordship of Christ. Is he the Lord of your life?

Can you remember when you first experienced a calling to the ministry? Adrian Smith, Cambridge

I started preaching at the age of 17. The first call to ministry came when I responded to Jesus' call to follow him. I was ten years old. Ministry comes out of our response to be a follower of Jesus.

How do you mediate the need for progress with the need for orthodoxy? How do you determine which doctrines are immovable, and which historically bound? Rebecca Shaeffer, Washington, DC

The Anglican approach is typified in the 'three legged stool' ascribed to Richard Hooker of: scripture, tradition and reason. I would add to that the need to take account of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is clear in John's Gospel that there is a role for the Holy Spirit in providing guidance for leading us all into truth. In our interpretation of scripture we need to be charitable and magnanimous with one another.

What is the worst sin you have committed in your life? Steve Prentice, Edinburgh

In the reformed tradition there are no degrees of sin. Sin is sin, is sin. Sin is love that tuirns in on itself; a tendency, like a weight in a bowling ball, to turn away from God. In the letter of James it is clear that if you break one command of God you fall short of the whole lot. Jesus summed up the law as loving God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength; love also your neighbour as yourself. Judged by God's ideal I am the Cheif sinner of all. Howver I am amazed and renewed by God's forgiveness which is his miracle in me. My path is open to God becuase Jesus Christ, who was without sin, died for my disconnectedness with God. He has set me free. I am forgiven.

There is nothing I can do to make God love me more and the there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. That is the amazing nature of grace. Jesus Christ shed his blood for me and therefore I don't need to shed my own or anyone else's.

You picked a Shirley Bassey record on Desert Island Discs. Any other guilty pleasures? Guy Eustace, London

Why is the song 'Thank you for the Years', written by a son for his mother diagnosed of cancer and not expected to live, but came through alive and well, a guilty pleasure?

I drink, smoke, take drugs and am gay. Have you any advice for me? Andrew Jones, Manchester

Over the Summer I conducted a vigil for Peace in the Middle East and slept in York Minster. A man came to me whose wife had left him and as a result he had turned to drink. He had not washed for days and was in pretty bad shape when he came to see me. I asked him to gaze around and then asked what he thought of the Minster. He said he thought it was a beautiful building. I asked what he would think if someone used it as a landfill and filled it from top to bottom with refuse and rubbish. He said such a thing would be an outrage. I told him he was worth a hundred Minsters, but that was exactly what he was doing to himself with his drinking. My advice to you Andrew would be the same. You are infinitely valuable and loved by God. Your life is a precious gift. Don't treat it too lightly.

My child is severely disabled and is clearly in pain and suffering for much of the time. What kind of God would permit this? Lesley Donovan, Manchester

Nothing I can say in this limited forum is going to provide an answer sufficient unto the pain you feel for your child and your child's pain. But I would want to affirm that God made your child in his own image, values their life and holds it to be be of infinite value. I would be honoured if we could arrange a time for a conversation. Please contact me at my office and let us all three meet.