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Profile The Rt Rev John Sentamu Harsh: critic of racism in CofE admits 'loitering with intent'.

It wasn't his father's death that bothered the mourner.

It was the curate who was conducting the service.

So he leaned over and said to him 'What did my father do to be buried by a black monkey?'

It was the first funeral service John Sentamu had ever conducted. But it was not the first time the young curate had encountered racism.

Today, nearly 20 years later, the Rt Rev John Sentamu, Bishop of Stepney, is expected to become the next Bishop of Birmingham - and the first black man to hold such a position.

Bishop Sentamu was born in the Mengo Mission Hospital, Kampala, in 1949, the sixth of 13 children born to a headmaster and his health care worker wife.

At birth he was 'smaller than a little rat' according to a neighbour, and his life expectancy was so doubtful the local bishop was rushed in to baptise him.

The young John had his first formal encounter with religion at the age of ten when a preacher asked him if he knew God personally. He prayed, he says, asking 'God, if it is possible, be real to me.'

The next morning he confessed to his father that he had stolen and sold four exercise books in order to pay for banana pancakes. For his trouble he was hauled in front of the whole school and caned.

'In one night God had made me penitent, ready to put things right and unafraid of the truth.

'Some people think honesty is too dangerous, but God knows everything, so what's the point in pretending?'

After studying law, he got a job as an assistant to the Chief Justice, re-drafting the Ugandan penal code. But the regime of Idi Amin was beginning to show its hand. Bishop Sentamu had sentenced some of Amin's soldiers in civil court for their atrocities, and was working on behalf of the soon to be martyred Janani Luwum.

Having preached in local churches, and finding he now wanted to study theology, Bishop Sentamu left for England. It was a decision which probably saved his life.

Already married by this time, to Margaret, John Sentamu left Uganda in 1974 to study at Cambridge.

He was ordained in 1979 after serving as Assistant Chaplain at Selwyn College, and then went on to become Chaplain at Latchmere Remand Centre.

In 1983 he became vicar at Tulse Hill, London.

In 1986 the National Front tried to burn down his house.

Nevertheless, he describes the parish, where he served for 14 years, as 'a microcosm of heaven'. From 1985-1996 Bishop Sentamu was a member of the General Synod, and was prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury between 1990 and 1996. In 1996 he was consecrated Bishop of Stepney.

In 1997 he became an adviser to the Stephen Lawrence Judicial Inquiry. During the course of the investigation he claimed that his house was burgled, his phone bugged and that someone may have hacked into his computer.

In 2000, the year after the Metropolitan police were branded 'institutionally racist' by the Lawrence inquiry, Bishop Sentamu himself was subjected to a stop and search while driving close to St Paul's Cathedral.

The scarf he was wearing obscured his dog collar. A few months later he criticised the Church of England for its racism. More recently, he has been appointed to head an inquiry into the failure of the Damilola Taylor case.

But most important to him is the spreading of God's word, regardless of colour.

Shortly after being appointed to Stepney, Sentamu said he wanted to be 'loitering with intent where human need and God's love meet.'

'Together we have to strive to know God, preach that life changing repentance, engage people in prayer and offer them God's love.

'After all, we're talking about Jesus Christ, the son of God - not some Ugandan bloke who crept out of nowhere.'


The Rt Rev John Sentamu: Criticised Church for racism
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 11, 2002
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