Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The scissors is mitre than the PM

I’ve never paid too much attention to Archbishops, and I am pleased to say that they have, in large measure, reciprocated. But it is hard to ignore some of them, notably Dr. John Sentamu, The Archbishop of York.

Of the current crop, he is the man who, given the time, the circumstances and a Nebucadnezzar of red, I would be happiest to sup with. At least on the evidence of his PR.

He is the sort of chap who, when you are watching TV, pops up when you least expect it and steals the show. I saw him the other week on the Andrew Marr political programme, execute a perfect paper and scissors routine on his own dog-collar. It was as if some hidden hand had suddenly switched over to Blue Peter, were it not for the fact that as he chopped he gave short shrift to the President of Zimbabwe. Each snip was a cut to the gizzard of Fat Bob. One wanted to stand and cheer. And would have done so, were it not for the plate of cheese and pickle sandwiches delicately balanced on the knee and the pint of Genuine Stunning in the right hand poised to gulp.

It may have seemed an empty gesture (the dog-collar scissoring that is) but while everyone will remember the scissors of Dr John Sentamu, no-one will remember the Prime Minister’s calls for action from the international community. Sentamu is a natural PR man and with this simple act secured more column inches and airtime for his views on Fat Bob than half a dozen Prime Ministerial announcements.

Within days of being enthroned, the Archbishop had erected a tent inside York Minster and had his head shaved. He slept rough for a week, lead prayer every hour for seven days and fasted throughout. He highlighted the plight of people caught up in the Middle East conflict and declared it was an act of public witness to encourage peace. Some clearly thought he was barmy but he conducted scores of TV and Radio interviews and was reported around the world. No fool he.

Dr John Sentamu is the sort of Archbishop we have not seen before – an Archbishop who believes in action and knows how to get the press on his side. This alone makes him formidable.

I was interested to note in a BBC TV interview at the time of the tenting that he was quick to acknowledge that he would be sleeping on his mum’s knitted mat and showed the journalist his torch and reading matter – a Hebrew Bible and Greek Testament.

But it is not his learning, but rather his energy, inventiveness, and commitment that one responds to. Daily one expects him to turn up on other TV shows. Perhaps Britain’s Got Talent on which one would not be surprised to see him give us a racy rendition of Land of Hope and Glory on the spoons while gargling The Peer Gynt Suite through a gazoo, and hinting at the glories of paradise by semaphore.

Of course, one applauds such exploits, or, as one is at home with another glass of real ale for company and a further small plate of cheese and pickle sandwiches, one guffaws, spraying the place with crumbs and small pieces of vegetable matter which show astonishing aerodynamic abilities and fly to the end of the room, well beyond the reach of anyone sitting in an armchair watching television. But he made me want to get up and do something about it. You see what I mean? John Sentamu is the Pied Piper of both Archbishops and those who sit watching Archbishops on television guffawing through cheese and pickle sandwiches.

He is obviously a PR man’s dream. He would be the sort of client who, in a meeting with advisers to discuss what could be done to publicise the plight of latterday boat people setting themselves adrift to float to a new life in a happier land, would blurt out: “Hows about I go over Niagara in a barrel? If we can get a couple of boat people to fish me out at the other end and give me artificial resuscitation would that be good?”

Or, who, hearing of the trouble in Darfur, would say: “Let’s cut to the chase. Why don’t I dress up as a Janjaweed – all Kalashnikovs and machetes on horseback – and charge into Westminster Hall? We can highlight security deficiencies at the same time as raising the profile of the downtrodden in the Sudan. In fact, let’s do it now.” At which he would storm out of the room and be half way into the saddle before his advisers could claw him back and persuade him that perhaps a more considered and diplomatic approach would be more efficacious, and may not result in him being shot by security men. But the AB of Y is not a man for diplomatic approaches. When things have gone too far, he leaps into action. As the mortgage market takes a nosedive, I daily expect to see him chained to the satellite dish on top of a tower block, calling for a more compassionate approach to those who are losing their houses. As food prices climb, I know I will see him soon astride a rotavator, ploughing his own allotment, his toothy grin on every front page smiling through a forest of leeks. Dig for Victory! As energy prices sky-rocket, how long before he switches off all the lights in York Minster by throwing a big red switch and lights a ceremonial candle to echo what pensioners up and down the land have to do every evening. All filmed by the nation’s press.

Of course, there are those who think he is just a crude self-publicist, and certainly his omni-presence means he is taking a strong lead from his ultimate boss. But he always has a good cause and he has the good sense to be first. I hope other Archbishops are not inclined to follow suit. Leave the field to the man who knows how to do it, is my advice. It would be a pity if the waterfalls of the New World were suddenly chock-a-block with Archbishops in barrels.

In October 2007, Dr Sentamu was awarded the title Yorkshireman of the Year by the Black Sheep Brewery. In his speech he expatiated on the name of the brewery and turned a swift pastoral lesson, then drew the attention of the audience to the little-known African-Yorkshire DNA connection. ‘Perhaps my parents had this in mind,’ he said, ‘when they gave me, as one of my Christian names, the name Mugabi, (John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu). If you spell Mugabi backwards it is I-ba-gum.”

He reminds me a bit of the prelates whom one encountered in G.A. Henty books, who robbed the obviously evil Guy de Brotignan with a merry laugh and redistributed the wealth among the poor, drank ale by the flagon and fought with anyone who crossed them – a sort of Friar Tuck de nos jours but without the paunch. Swashbuckling is the word I am searching for.

You might be out for a casual sky-dive one day, and who will come whizzing past you, clad in red leather, but the Archbishop of York, bestowing an apostolic blessing as he plummets to earth. And, of course, who does he choose to do his stunt with? Why, the Red Devils of course. Does he miss a trick? Not often.

The story behind the story tells us still more about the man. He had attended a charity dinner and a Yorkshire businessman seizing his chance challenged Dr Sentamu to make the jump with him. The cause? To raise money for the Afghanistan Trust – who support soldiers and their families who had been wounded or killed on duty in Afghanistan. Did he hesitate? Not our man. They aimed to raise £50,000. With money still to come in, they have so far netted £75,000.

They tell me that Archbishops of York often go on to Canterbury. I, for one, can’t wait.