Abp. Sentamu’s Object Lesson

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You can take the man out of Africa but you will never get Africa out of him. When he was a rank and file General Synod member and a vicar in South London, John Sentamu developed a trademark style, ending speeches with a witty African tale or proverb.

Since his translation to York as the Church of England’s second-most senior bishop, the Ugandan-born Sentamu has cultivated the knack of drawing attention by symbolic actions. Following his enthronement, he presided over a picnic for 5,000 people. He once responded to media criticism of hoodies by being next seen in public wearing a hood over his head. He once shaved his head, camped in a tent at York Minster, and partook only of liquids in a seven-day vigil.

Most Episcopal statements are quickly forgotten, even when they are picked up by the media. Sentamu’s showmanship invariably makes global headlines. This weekend he resumed wearing his clerical collar just under a decade since he vowed not to wear it until Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe dictator, left office.

Sentamu cut up his collar on The Andrew Marr Show, BBC TV’s flagship Sunday current affairs program, in December 2007. Mugabe, he said, had taken people’s identity and “cut it to pieces.” His action was a complete surprise to his BBC host.

On Nov. 26 Marr presented Mugabe with the pieces of his collar and asked if he would start wearing his collar again with Mugabe’s resignation after 37 years. Marr had the kept the fragments safe in his desk all the while. Sentamu said that every time he buttoned his shirt without the clerical collar he was reminded of Zimbabwe’s plight.

He was quick to draw an object lesson. Trying to glue the pieces back together would create “a pretty ropey” collar. “I actually think the lesson for Zimbabwe is the same; they just can’t try and stitch it up. Something more radical, something new, needs to happen in terms of rule of law; allowing people to get jobs, because 90 percent of people are out of work, so they can’t just stitch it up,” he said.

Zimbabwe suffered many atrocities at the hands of Mugabe’s henchmen, particularly in the Matabeleland and Manicaland tribal areas. It needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as happened in South Africa after transfer from white minority rule.

Sentamu knows a tyrant when he sees one. His call to the ministry came with the murder of the Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum at the hands of the dictator Idi Amin. Luwum was a mentor to the young Sentamu, who was often in his office asking questions about the Christian faith. Later Sentamu, by then a high court judge, earned death threats from Amin when he sentenced one of the dictator’s relatives to prison. He fled to Britain.

“Mugabe needs to say at some point to Zimbabweans: ‘Forgive me.’ He’s a very, very intelligent man, and I think he is capable of doing it.”

John Martin


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