Fancy that! Ecclesiastical infighting

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Archbishop Nazir Ali & Dr John Sentamu

Archbishops Nazir Ali & Dr John Sentamu

Archbishop Rowan Williams is a thoughtful leader of the Anglican Church but we see the spectacle of his bishops battling out in an undeclared war of succession. If Bishop Nazir Ali says tweedledum, then Bishop Sentamu will say tweedledee.

Each is laying out his stall – with Nazir Ali unabashedly still imagining the Anglican Church to be the 1950s Tories at prayer while John Sentamu offering more nuanced opinions on the issues of the day. The bishops are out making their strategic moves on the chess board of Church politics. Who would you rather see next in Lambeth Palace?

Nazir-Ali has acquired a bit of a reputation for spin doctoring and is seen as a man eager to please. Take the recent debate on the renewal of the Trident missile in the British armoury –  an option that Rowan Williams has described as ‘morally unacceptable’. Nazir-Ali, on the other hand has come out a strong supporter, distancing himself from the Christian peace movement and also making a linkage to threats from the Muslim world: ‘It is quite possible to imagine a terrorist group, such as al-Qaeda, acquiring enough radioactive material to manufacture a dirty bomb or, indeed, for a terrorist organisation to be armed in this way by a rogue state. It is also possible that a presently stable situation, as in Pakistan, is overtaken by unforeseeable, but not unimaginable, events. More worryingly, the world is faced not with discrete terrorist groups and rogue states here and there’.

The reference to Pakistan is particularly bare-faced, given Nazir-Ali’s  Pakistani origins and his readiness to play the Pakistan card given a different audience.

Sentamu, for his part, is closer to Rowan Williams on this matter: ‘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'(in The Independent, 18 December 2006).

The differences between Nazir-Ali and Sentamu are striking on the issue of the 200th Anniversary of the abolition –  one mocks the apologists, the other believes in contrition:

Nazir-Ali’s view are: ‘Politicians, religious leaders and social activists have all joined in to bewail the undoubted horrors of slavery and to apologise for British complicity in this social evil. Those marching have been shackled hand and foot and have been wearing sweatshirts saying ‘So sorry.’ And yet this should be a time of celebration and of thanksgiving for Britain’s role in bringing this great oppression and cruelty to an end. Why do leaders and people of this country find it so difficult to acknowledge their achievements and to recognise the true source of their moral commitments? If a civilization is constantly criticized, run down and apologised for, the danger is that its virtues will cease to flourish’ (writing in The Mail on Sunday, 25 March 2007).

Contrast this to this report:

‘One of Britain’s leading churchmen yesterday urged Tony Blair to apologise on behalf of Britain for its part in the slave trade. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, urged the prime minister to go further than he has so far. Mr Blair this month expressed regret for Britain’s role in slavery, but did not make a formal apology.
‘Britain is our community and this community was involved in a very, very terrible trade’ Dr Sentamu told the BBC. ‘Africa as a community was involved in a very terrible trade, the church as a community was involved in a terrible trade. It is really important that we own up to what was collectively done. This is the moment in which you say ‘By the way, I think our forebears did a terrible, terrible thing’.(The Guardian, 26 March 2007).
Bishop Sentamu is not unafraid to battle the Establishment, while Nazir-Ali seeks to be its darling.

For example Sentamu has criticized the anti-terrorism laws in stong terms, ‘[The home secretary] has not produced the evidence that shows that in 90 days you’re capable of getting somebody prosecuted. Why does he want these days, so the police do what? Gather more evidence? To me that becomes, if you’re not very careful, very close to a police state in which they pick you up and then they say later on ‘we’ll find evidence against you’. That’s what happened in Uganda with Idi Amin.’ (

In February 2006, he observed that the US administration’s refusal to close the Guantanamo Bay camp reflected “a society that is heading towards George Orwell’s Animal Farm”.

In August 2006, Sentamu embarked on a week-long peace vigil and fast (drinking only water) in York after Israelís attacks on Lebanon. At at its end he stated that Middle East issues could no longer be left in the “pending tray of unresolved business.. there is no greater recruiting sergeant for would-be jihadists than the current conflict in the Middle East. The challenge of the international community is to make peace in the Middle East a priority for the sake of our souls and to sacrifice their own self-interest in the short term for the prize of sustainable peace”.

Nazir-Ali just does not have the bottle to speak or act like this.

While it would be too good to be true if these bishops reached out with an arm of friendship to the Muslim community, neither have been particularly sympathetic after last year’s Veil furore sparked off by Jack Straw. Nazir-Ali’s stand has been harsh and judgemental: “I can see nothing in Islam that prescribes the wearing of a full-face veil. In the supermarket those at the cash tills need to be recognised. Teaching is another context in which society requires recognition and identification.” (5 November 2006, The Times). Later he added, that people were “too worried about offending Muslims”, and “legislation should be introduced giving some officials the power to remove the veil worn by Muslim women”[it was] an unprecedented security situation” calling for legislation (

Nazir-Ali has yet to build bridges with other faith communities – a lost opportunity for a man who can quote the poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, and knows a thing or two about sufism following studies under the supervision of Anne Marie Schimmel.

Sentamu has been more nuanced. In response to a question on whether religious symbols should be banned, he noted ‘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’.

However he has also noted on the veil, “I think the thing is in British society you can wear what you want, but you can’t expect British society to be reconfigured around you. No minority can expect to impose this on the public or civic life.”

The Bishops need to be challenged whether the adoption of the veil by a small number of Muslim women warrants legislation or it can be deemed an imposition on whole of society.

As the ecclesiastical infighting intensifies, both Nazer-Ali and Sentamu may end up being trumped. Working away in the background is the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, waiting for his call of destiny and the opportunity to emulate that other great bishop of his alma mater, Wellington, Archbishop Benson.