The Archbishop in his Tent


Todd posted on the public prayer and fast of the Anglican Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, below. You can read an Anglican Communion News Service story here. Stephen Bates, the religion reporter of the Guardian, has interviewed Dr Sentamu for a story in today’s paper. He notes that the Archbishop’s dramatic actions have likely “discomfited” his fellow bishops in the Church of England, only one of whom has commended him. Of course, very few human actions – even fasting and prayer – can ever be free from a degree of confusion, ambiguity, and sinfulness. This is especially true when they are entangled with politics. I do not mean to except Dr Sentamu from critique. But, before we respond, we must honestly try to face the real question about what the Archbishop is doing: Does this point to Christ?

Here are a couple of excerpts from Mr Bates’ article:

It was the stream of stories coming out of Lebanon in the past few weeks that inspired his week in the tent, says the archbishop.

“Early in the war, I was watching BBC television news and Jeremy Bowen came on in a hospital in Lebanon and there was an eight-year-old girl who had lost her right eye and he said her parents had been killed and she hadn’t been told yet. It was like a bayonet went into my heart. It just got to me.

“Then, a week or two later, there was Jeremy Bowen again in a village wrecked by rocket fire and there was an old woman, 85 years old. Most people had left and only the elderly and infirm remained behind. She could have been my mother. I found myself so devastated. My prayers were just crying out to God. This was atrocious. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

“People were asking me what they could do and I was giving them the usual glib answers like prayer, but my prayers were getting quite difficult. I knew I wouldn’t achieve much writing to the prime minister. My feeling of helplessness was getting to me. I was becoming numb and I thought I had to pray. The question was where?”

When you are the archbishop with an ancient minster church, the answer may seem obvious, but it took a couple of days to arrange. His wife went off abroad without him, and after the morning service last Sunday, the archbishop settled down in his own cathedral for his week of prayer and fasting. His head has been shaved in symbolic atonement for the dead and he is eating no food, merely drinking water, occasionally laced with glucose: “I am not here to be a martyr or to prove how tough I am.”


Sentamu’s days in the tent follow a steady routine. As night falls and the minster falls silent and empty, he says his prayers and retires to bed in his tent, getting up at 3am for more prayers and a quick power walk – 10 times fast around the building – to get his circulation moving. At 5am, he is back up for more prayers and to get dressed, and half an hour later the cleaners arrive to prepare the building for another day.

“I think this has taught me to listen and not to grumble,” he says. “We as a church are preoccupied with sexual morality, but there is a more important morality in terms of poverty, justice and equality. This has been helpful. One drop of water cannot turn a water wheel but many drops can.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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