Prophetic Bishops – John Sentamu

There’s an excellent post over on Maggi Dawn’s blog about prophetic actions speaking louder than words. Near the end she relates it to the media’s desire for soundbite – something that contributed to the misunderstandings over Rowan Williams’ comments about Sharai law in the past week. Prophetic actions get people’s attention, speak louder than words and leave people open to hearing what they are about. Her full text follows…

The Archbishop of York and Jeremiah’s underpants

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has developed something of a public image as a man of prophetic action. A few years back he was made Bishop of Birmingham, but during the ceremony, instead of sitting on the Bishop’s Chair himself, he invited twelve local schoolchildren to come forward, gave each of them a golden crown to wear, and then as each of them sat on the Chair in turn, he washed their feet. He then preached about the ministry of a Bishop being that of a servant, not of a Lord. After moving to York, he set up his own prayer tent in the Minster and spent a week publicly fasting and praying. Then three months ago, Archbishop Sentamu appeared live on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, and talked about his objection to Mr Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. He said Mr Mugabe had “taken people’s identity” and “cut it to pieces”. He then removed his clerical collar – a symbol, he said, of his own identity as an Anglican and a priest – took a large pair of scissors and cut the collar to pieces. He declared that he would not wear a collar again until Mugabe is out of office. He has been a critic of Mr Mugabe for long enough, but it was this visual act on the TV which, though it may have seemed a little bizarre, caught the national imagination.Last week, speaking in Synod on the meaning of Covenant, Dr Sentamu gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a gift – a four-foot ebony “chief stick” he had brought back from a humanitarian visit to Kenya. This symbolic gesture of respect for Dr Williams’ authority and leadership was all the more powerful after the row in recent days over the “sharia law” lecture and interview (a row which, incidentally, has been reported in blogland to have been largely a media set-up).

So what’s with all this dramatic action? Is the Archbishop of York just playing for media attention? Cynics might think so. But there is a long history of prophetic action in the Jewish-Christian tradition, perhaps its most colourful exponent being the prophet Jeremiah, who once took off his underpants to make a point. In the thirteenth chapter of his book, Jeremiah tells a bizarre story of how he went to buy a new linen loincloth, wore it for a while, and then went down to the riverbank, took it off and buried it. Some time later he went to dig up the underpants, only to find that they had gone rotten. This he used as a sign to show his community how they had become distant from God. They should, he said, have been as intimately close to God as a pair of underpants. But separated from God, they had become rotten and useless.

Jeremiah could, of course, have delivered an elegant speech, using sophisticated religious, political or philosophical language. Or he could have preached a fiery sermon, or written a poem or a song – he could have got the idea across in a number of ways. But it seems that Jeremiah was talking to people who had stopped listening to his words. Jeremiah’s book is littered with stories like this – stories of prophetic, visual actions that take everyday objects and turn them into pictures of what was happening in his world.

There have been a lot of words written and spoken about the other Archbishop in the last ten days, some of them in a fearful and angry response to a taboo subject, many more in a cynical way, apparently planned for media effect. Instead of engaging with the issues, many of the arguments were reduced to nothing more than taking sides. “Are you for the Archbishop of Canterbury, or against him?” a visitor asked me in my Vestry last week. Once last week’s row had reached a pitch where words were no longer being heard, still less change anyone’s mind, the Archbishop of York’s gift of a chief-stick was a moving, visual image that transcended the argument, instead simply placing himself in solidarity with his brother and colleague. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words.

I for one am glad that we do not have dumbed-down Archbishops. The last thing the Church needs is mere symbols of power; what we have in these two leaders is two people who refuse to be tamed into mere institutional bureaucrats; they set the tone for Christians who want to engage properly with thoroughgoing thinking and appropriate action, not simply reduce everything to a soundbite.

Come and hear both Archbishops speak in Cambridge this week on the relationship between faith and society. A World To Believe In, Cambridge, 20-22 Feb

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