Archbishop John Sentamu on why politicians are like men arguing at a urinal

The Archbishop of York on immigration, poverty and persecution

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

‘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.’

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  • Sean Grainger

    Ms Harman I love you dearly and indeed you could blame the subs but men don’t argue round urinals. What he, the subs and you were trying to say was ‘Like men having a pissing contest’ which is not remotely the same. Even still although it was used in management badinage at EDS to the best of my knowledge and belief it’s metaphoric. There was a notable — fictional — scene in one of those thick American Second World War epics when the Top Sergeant says ‘I could piss a quart’ and goes on to prove it but er … that’s it. Jonas Cord of course in The Carpetbaggers insisted on holding board meetings standing up in the hotel lavatory. A lot of local goverment would be the better for the format.

  • Stephen Milroy

    Said it before I will say it again. I like the Church of England when it is a church, and a lot less when it is a liberal conclave. I like Sentamu as well,but I wish he would tackle the fact that we are run by an anti Christian government and take Cameron et al to task over their general harrying of Christians in the public sphere, and not just left wing issues like immigration and low pay.

    • IainRMuir

      “I like Sentamu as well”

      I had far more time for Michael Nazir-Ali in Rochester, but he’s not there any more. I wonder why?

      • Richard Baranov

        He was kicked into the long grass, as it were, because he was from Pakistan and had nothing flattering to say about the Religion of Peace which he knew intimately. I was actually going to work for him but that got blown because he resigned. Truly one of the great disappointments of my life. It is a sad reflection on the C of E. that it disposes of people who want to tell the truth because it will upset the P.C. applecart.

        • Mike Donnellan

          As both an RC and a British Citizen I’m actually a little hung up on the C of E having two masters, the Father of Jesus Christ and the British Government. This situation is of course covered in Matthew 6.24 (“No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other or he will hold to the one, and despise the other”).

          I have no arguments about their G*d – albeit He’s being a Protestant one – but with the political system having so much influence of the running of the C of E; firstly in way of the PM having the ‘final’ say in the choice of Archbishop of Canterbury (Would the supposed actual final rubber stamp ever be withheld by HM?); and secondly having the Prime Minister and five other ‘Ministers of State’ including the Chancellor of the Exchequer among the Church Commissioners; can anyone dispute that the Church actually defers first to the wishes of the British Government?

          I submit their hate/spite of “the other” is evidenced by their kow-towing to government backed demands for the
          introduction of gay marriage, women clergy and the turning of a blind eye to the horrors of abortion etc etc. I believe this cancer of politicians at the heart of the Church needs to be cauterized and destroyed if the Church is truly to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and retain any of its remaining threadbare credibility.

          What do you think?

          • Richard Baranov

            If you check you will find that the Prime Minister chooses the Archbishop of Canterbury (A of C) on recommendation by Churchmen and C of E. Laity in committee. It is therefore misleading to think that the P.M. actually chooses
            the A of C. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2403/outline-of-procedures-for-the-appointment-of-an-archbishop-of-canterbury
            So, your quote, from the Bible doesn’t apply and your assumption that it is political in nature is incorrect. Since the Vatican is a sovereign state there is far more of a valid argument for asserting that the pope is a political appointee.
            Asserting that he is appointed via the Holy Spirit wouldn’t hack it as a trump card, as it were, because the C.of E could argue the same, and does, concerning the appointment of the A of C.

            The C of E is a Catholic church, not Protestant and it is recognized as such by the Orthodox and the Roman Church. That is why C of E priests do not require
            re-ordination if they become Catholic. Catholic, in this sense, means that they all have a valid chain of transmission in the ordination of Bishops. It is, therefore, no more valid, for Catholics to accuse the C of E of being Protestant than it is for the Orthodox to accuse Catholics of being Protestant. In fact you will find that the Orthodox regard Catholics and Protestants as being two sides of the same coin.
            Now, it seems to me, that by allowing the ordination of women the C of E has thrown a spanner into the works, as it were. It seems to me now, that if a woman bishop was involved in the ordination of a priest then on conversion to the R.C Church that priest would have to start again as a layman. In short, the C of E is not being helpful when it prattles on about unification ad then does things that will make that unification impossible.

            I do not think that: “… the introduction of gay marriage, women clergy and the turning of a blind eye to the horrors of abortion etc etc…” Have anything to do with: “…hate/spite of “the other”. It is caused by the C of E trying to be all things to all men and satisfying no one as a result. This is leading to its disintegration as will such a position because it is built, as it were, on shifting sands.

            I frankly think that hate/spite of “the other”, is a characteristic of Theism so I’m the wrong person to ask if you want agreement on that score. That I’m sympathetic to certain Christian teachings does not mean that I approve of Christianity. Its record of tolerance to “the other” is abominable and, frankly, continues to be so. It is just the nature of that hostility that has changed. I was for very
            many years involved in interfaith dialogue and frankly, I came to the conclusion after a great deal of trying to persist in that endeavor that Christians were not sincere. Interfaith for them was an exercise in at best self-deceit on
            their part or, at worst, ‘the smile on the face of a tiger’ because the motivation was not sincere dialogue but was always done with ‘a view to conversion’. Simply put Christianity lacks respect or tolerance for others.

            In my tradition one does not accept conversion easily. You must persist and ask at least three times before you will be accepted. Then, if you are accepted you are taught to respect your former religion and to continue to support it
            because ‘amity is good but conflict is not.’ The absoluteness of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not allow for ‘the other’ or for the equality of the other. The other must always be subordinate and in that are the seeds of disrespect and violence. I do not believe, and neither do my co-religionists,
            believe there is an absolute, personal or otherwise. The absolute is purely a construct of the human mind, a projection, an effort to make ego supreme but, since ego
            doesn’t exist in the first place, it’s projection, God, must always be maintained by violence in one way or another. Because it is, in fact, a neurotic condition used for the maintenance of ego, the tribe/country/nationalism
            etc., ego write large – God is a totem – but that is the nature of theism, it is always about how those who maintain that belief think they are more special than the ‘other’. It is therefore an inherently violent belief even if those
            who adhere to it don’t see it. Christianity teaches Love but it doesn’t believe it because that Love is conditional. If you believe in Jesus Christ…if you convert…if you obey the Church, etc. etc, etc. Christianity bounds love about
            with conditional clauses and therefore simply doesn’t believe in love or the goodness of human beings, they are corrupt unless saved. This is a perversion of Love
            and it is the reason, or one of them, that Theism in all its forms becomes synonymous with violence

            So, that is what I think.

  • Brigantian

    This nauseating article proves that the archbishops were 100% correct. Politicians in Westminster and their friends in the MSM like Ms Hardman do not care and do not want to know about the real divisions in our society. After all, Margaret Thatcher said that society does not exist so why should they bother their pretty heads trying to understand it?

    • tjamesjones

      I can’t see how anybody could disagree with you here. I also can’t see how anybody could agree with you, I have no idea what you mean.

    • kazdix

      No she said, “there is no such thing as a society” ie not some amorphous blob but people individuals who make up families, neighbourhoods and towns” In other words its easy to blame “society” for all ills but its just a word and a meaningless one when you analyse it.

  • littleted

    However reluctantly, I now see no long term future for the Church of England. It has been the agent of its own destruction.

    The time for thunder from the pulpit was the 1960s. Instead the church hierarchy joined in the orchestrated liberal license that was deliberately architected to separate the British people from their culture and heritage. Now the hinges of the stable door have rusted through, the stable door is in a bramble patch, and the horse – once bolted – is dead.

    Children have not been brought up in the Christian faith for generations. Consequently most people simply have no idea what the churches – any churches – are banging on about. The Lord’s prayer has to be printed on orders of service, because people were not taught it as children. Church rituals are laughed at as amusing irrelevances at weddings and funerals.

    Trying to reverse matters now is pointless. That bird has long flown.

    Apart from young parents blackmailed into temporarily attending church so their children can escape state education by attending a church school (an indictment of state education, rather than an acclamation of the church, or church schools) congregations are dying out – literally – and in the next decade or so and the church will essentially vanish.

    The bishops have spotted it far too late. They cannot save themselves without a mass indoctrination of children in the schools, with the pigs fed and ready for flying.

  • alfredo

    Alleviating poverty through generosity has always been PART of the Church’s mission, firmly resting on the teachings of the Gospel, but it isn’t the central part, which is – sorry to be quaintly old-fashioned – the salvation of souls. But I understand that these essays, as reported, strongly suggest that there is a particular policy, supposedly in line with the Gospel – the compulsory redistribution of income, in effect – which the Church should advocate for the whole of society (the majority of whom are not its members). This is pure politics. And it’s pretty clear from the Gospels that Jesus rejected any political panacea for the problems of mankind.
    Further: for someone who has the ear of the public because he has been appointed to an office in an entirely different sphere, to use that office to promote his own political views is dishonest, unfair, and undemocratic, exactly equivalent to a teacher using the opportunity of addressing a class to promote views irrelevant to his subject. The idea that there is only one correct Christian approach to various political issues and all we need to do is discover it, promoted, among others, by those performing Gramsci’s march through the institutions, is a betrayal of the Church’s mission, and it will not be surprising if the Almighty finds the CoE unfit for purpose.

    • Kugelschreiber


      I strongly disagree with your assertion that the Church should not take an interest in political affairs. For POLITICS is about LIFE , and RELIGION is also about LIFE and about how we treat others etc.

      • PouringForth

        Christian teaching has absolutely nothing to do with Human well-being, as you’re trying to suggest.

        • rtj1211

          Maybe that’s why it’s lost its popularity a bit?? Human well-being is not after all human wealth, nor is it human status. It is human health, human contentment and human happiness and, equally as important, the ability to handle challenge, stress, conflict, danger and threat.

      • alfredo

        Of course Christians should take an interest in political affairs, but not because they are Christians, but as responsible citizens, and that applies to citizens of all religions and none.
        Politics is about a PART of life, to do with society’s ‘housekeeping’ of its material concerns. When it is made to extend to the whole of life, as it is in some quarters today, it becomes totalitarianism, a substitute for religion, and a very sinister thing.
        To say religion is about life is so general as to be meaningless.
        The Christian religion, which we are exclusively referring to, is concerned, as presented in the New Testament, with a specific relationship of the individual – and that must be stressed – with God made possible through a specific historical figure, and with a relationship with one’s neighbour stemming from and subordinate to that with God. Making the world a better place is not a primary interest of the Gospel, though it is an ultimate ‘side-effect’ of it. Plenty of Christians have in fact made the world a better place, but that isn’t what defined them as Christians; their relationship with God did.
        So when Anglican bishops – or the Pope – urge upon us their plans for making the world a better place, they are presenting us with the ‘doctrines of men’, because the Gospel says nothing about societies, communities, politics, or their organisation, so their views deserve as much or as little respect, on their merits as pure politics, as mine or yours.
        The issue is not a new one. It so happens that it was a predecessor of Dr Sentamu as Archbishop of York who told John Wesley that he would be better off teaching the morality of Socrates rather than ‘canting about the new life’.
        I think history has judged which of the two was the authentic preacher of the Christian Gospel.

        • rtj1211

          I tend to disagree with a bit here: if your primary role on this earth is really with God, you will become a monk or a nun and live in a priory, an abbey or whatever, and commune with God without really taking part in society.

          If you are a vicar, a priest in the community, in fact your primary role is actually not preaching on Sunday, but ensuring that your way of life is intrinsically part of the community. Churches organise coffee mornings for older folks as a way to bind communities and respect senior citizens. The vicar/priest visit parishioners in hospital etc etc etc.

          Each officer of a church has a set of choices to make about how they represent their God on earth. They don’t all choose the same route…….

          • alfredo

            Interesting you should mention the monastic life. Throughout the Christian centuries this was seen not only as an authentic way of living the the Christian life, but at some times as the IDEAL one. At any rate, it’s clear that Christian tradition has never regarded ‘taking part in society’ (except for praying for it – very important) as essential for following the Gospel.
            The role you describe in your second paragraph is certainly a vocation for some Christian people. But ‘vicars’ and ‘priests’ are ordained to be ministers of the Word and sacraments; anything else they do is secondary.
            If they wish to be social workers, they can get a degree in Marxism (aka sociology) from some former polytechnic and get on with it. If they wish to be politicians, they can put themselves up for election and descend into the marketplace of the exchange of views, democracy, and accountability.

    • Bob Hutton

      You are absolutely correct. Jesus lived during a period of huge social injustice but there is NO record of His having campaigned against it.

    • I believe in the Church of England, but I think they should teach the gospel first. A churchman or woman may have the right or the wrong political views – on no acccount should they be regarded as having especial significance. The Pope has just made a fool of himself by saying violence is a good response to insulting religion – that is a very grave error, considering his remarks could be seen as making apologies for Islamic fanatics who have been killing Christians in their thousands; it shows that if church people primarily concentrate on politics they always make fools of themselves.

    • Richard Baranov

      I think, perhaps, in that people are abandoning the C of E in droves, God has already decided that it is not fit for purpose.

  • trace9

    There was a Man from Uganda
    Who was a Grrreat Undastanda
    Each way the wind blow
    It showed him to know
    The lie of the Media Landa.

  • Popular Front

    He sounds like a sensible man.

    One point though: this ‘gay bishop ordination’ thing. If you’re in the church and gay, then it is no-one’s business but your own (unless you’re a real flamer) so keep it to yourself. Are we supposed to ordain you bishop BECAUSE you’re gay? Is that it? If so that means your ordination is a result of your sexuality and not your piety and hardly grounds for advancement. If not then we’re back to the first point of keeping it your own business and not shoving your sexual preference into people’s faces.

  • Hippograd

    ‘I shoot further than you, I am the biggest of the men!’ says John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. He is…

    Seeking publicity for himself again. I would call him a posturing buffoon of distinctly limited intelligence, but he’s a member of a vibrant community, so such a comment will no doubt soon be made illegal.

    A non-posturing non-buffoon seeks publicity for himself in 2008

  • wycombewanderer

    How much of both churches enormous wealth is invested outside of London?

    • Richard Baranov

      A lot, aren’t they the second largest landlords in Britain?

  • Seat of Mars

    “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’.”

    This old canard has to die.

    “Between 1066 and 1945 Britain actually had very few waves of immigration… Almost all immigrant groups never managed to reach 1 per cent of the population. Immigration today adds 1 per cent to Britain’s population every two years, or more than 5 per cent every decade….In 1950, Britain’s ethnic population amounted to just over 1 per cent of the total. By 2001, that figure was 8 per cent. On present trends, by 2073, the majority population of this country will either have migrated here, or be the child or grandchild of parents who did so. No past wave of immigration has ever come anywhere near having that kind of consequence.”


  • Kugelschreiber

    I did not know that Uganda’s archbishop had been murdered by Idi Amin. I’m not that knowledgable about foreign affairs, partly probably because my brain’s not quite big enough to span it all but it is always interesting and enlightening to hear the account of places and happennings abroad by an INTELLIGENT eyewitness like Sentamu

    I say this because sometimes I have come across SOME people who say

    “Oh, I LIVED there, so I KNOW what it is really like”

    but you doubt and mistrust them because generally they do not sound like intelligent, balanced and sensitive people.

  • Bob Hutton

    I find myself wishing that the Bishops would concentrate on preaching the Gospel viz. “Christ died for our sins and rose again” ( 1st Corinthians 15 v 1-4) not gwtting involved in politics and social “injustice”.

  • Richard Baranov

    I respect and admire the Orthodox Church because they aren’t wishy washy or ambiguous in their theology, when you ask you get a straightforward answer, no beating about the bush and they really do have truly spiritual people. Some older people here probably remember the impressive Archbishop Anthony Bloom on T.V., if you don’t there are some videos of him on You Tube. It’s interesting, the Orthodox go to church in droves precisely because their church dosen’t do waffle.

    My local C of E church has about 15 people in in on a good Sunday and it is the only church in the village. The C of E. doesn’t seem to get that people would prefer an honest unambiguous stand firmly within the Christian tradition not socialism. P.C. and evasion from the pulpit. Like most vicars, ours gives sermons that have the spiritual content of a left over lager, flat and tasteless.

    I happen to admire Christian teaching. I think it has some pretty amazing ideas but the church seems to have decided that it couldn’t be bothered. I suspect a full blooded Christian telling it like it is from the pulpit would actually get people into the church. It would be refreshing to hear uncompromising Christianity being preached and taught. I really wonder what Latimer, Cranmer, and Ridley would think of the present day C of E.

    • Dissenter

      You should find yourself either an Anglican church in the evangelical tradition or a Baptist church where you will get real Christian teaching and no compromise.

      • Richard Baranov

        No thank you, I’m not a Christian and never will be.

      • alfredo

        Great respect for your tradition, Dissenter, as far as biblical teaching goes, but see my post above.

        • Dissenter

          Alfredo I think we are on the same page but perhaps interpreting the text on that page in slightly different ways?

          • alfredo

            I would like to think so.

    • alfredo

      I share your admiration for Orthodoxy.
      Another reason why the hold they faithful is Liturgy, with its great emphasis on beauty and mystery. What the CoE had of that, it has largely wilfully lost, except in some Anglo-Catholic enclaves. The CoE has taken the Protestant path of late and feels that services should appeal only to the understanding. Orthodoxy involves in addition all the senses, and even the body, in ritual fasting and the enacted drama of its Liturgy.
      Some churches in the CoE evangelical tradition have gone so far as to have the bright idea of appealing to people whose lives are dominated by screens of varying sizes of removing the altar and choir and replacing them by a large … screen. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that people might look to the church to able to enter into ANOTHER world. And not to be entertained to secular claptrap from the pulpit which they can get every day of the week from the BBC.

      • Richard Baranov

        I cannot but do other than agree with you. In the unlikely event that I would become Christian it is to the Orthodox that I would repair. Anyone who reads their theology has to come to the conclusion, in my opinion, that they are the true Christian church of which the Catholic Church is a pale reflection and the Anglican so pale it may as well be a wraith!

  • Chris Hobson

    The church and religion is the most regressive of institutions as it opposed much scientific progress and contraception.

    • Richard Baranov

      Sic et Non by Abelard contradicts you. So would William of Occam. One of the things I have learnt, as a non Christian, is how little Christians or those who fancy themselves as post-Christian actually know about their own tradition and, as a result, make entirely inaccurate statements, such as yours. Oh, and Gregor Mendel would disagree with you too.

  • davidshort10

    What urinals does this foolish man frequent? In many decades as an adult male in the United Kingdom, I have seldom seen men even talk at a urinal never mind argue. We stand there, mute. I have never even seen or heard a man take a mobile phone call at the urinal, but that’s probably because we always use both hands to perform the rites of man.

  • davidshort10

    We have ‘urinal’ in this headline and ‘wank’ in Clarke’s headline. I know the Spectator is md-ed by Andrew Neill, who vulgarised the Sunday Times for the sake of being paid about fifty thousand by Rupert Murdoch, but why let the Spectator become so gross?

  • victor67

    Welcome to Tory Britain. With the tax payer subsidising big business paying poverty pay.
    Neo-Liberalism and trickle down economics doesn’t work. Tax the super rich on their wealth, and create a just society. This is what Christ would do.

  • black11hawk

    John Sentamu and Michael Nazir Ali are about the only CoE Bishops who don’t spout nonsense every time they open their mouths.

  • freddiethegreat

    As I read the comments below, I seemed to hear a ghostly chuckle. That couldn’t be Malcolm Muggeridge savouring the coming-to-pass of his predictions, could it?