In the crowded summer streets of York yesterday, Japanese tourists, German students and American pensioners were having their photographs taken in the shadow of the city's gothic medieval minster. Inside the great cathedral, a small, hunched figure, dressed in purple, prayed. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, the Church of England's first black primate, has foregone his summer holiday this year - he was meant to be going to Salzburg to enjoy some Mozart with his wife - in favour of seven days of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East and beyond.A quick search of Google, as of this writing, produces no reports on this in the US press. Of course, we don't have a tradition of clerics protesting government actions, and Sentamu is an archbishop in England, not America. But in this country especially protest by religious persons is usually left to marginal figures, individuals, seldom even pastors. And when pastors do get involved, we prefer that they don't. But really, it isn't that different across the Pond, is it?
To ensure that his sacrifice does not go unnoticed, Sentamu is carrying out his week of prayer and fasting right in the heart of his cathedral, and in dramatic fashion: he has pitched a small mountaineering tent - green, with an Episcopal purple lining - in front of the altar in one of the minster's side chapels.
Sentamu, archbishop for nearly a year and second only to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in seniority in the Church of England, evokes slightly mixed feelings among his colleagues. With his exuberance and his forthrightness, he has not only eclipsed Dr Williams, who has been largely cowed into an unhappy constipation by the gay dispute that threatens to tear the worldwide Anglican communion apart, but he has also discomfited the white, middle-aged and cautious managerial men who fill the bench of bishops. Only one, the Bishop of Hereford, has commended his fast, although, to be fair, some of the rest are on holiday or - in the case of the Bishops of Durham and Winchester - away politicking among conservative bishops in the US.I could say some snide things about bishops and arguments about church polity. Frankly, I find it all equally destructive: the insistence on "orthodoxy" (there can be but one 'orthodoxy'! But orthodoxy, and my orthodoxy?) and tradition (same song, second verse). But those people aren't the target of the archbishop's vigil, are they? They are not his telos. As in all matters of prayer, it is tricky to say just what the telos is. But then I remember God's voice to Jeremiah:
"The heart is deceitful above any other thing,
desperately sick; who can fathom it?
I, the Lord, search the mind
and test the heart,
requiting each one for his conduct
and as his deeds deserve." Jeremiah 17:9-10 (REB)
And it reminds me it is not the other's heart my prayer is concerned with, nor the other's heart that is my responsibility. And always, in the ways of God, there is room for hope:
The interview finishes in time for him to return to prayer. A few minutes later, he is back beside me, silently handing over a card. Inside, a 17-year-old girl has written to tell him how moved she has been by his action and is enclosing her pocket money, a £20 note. "If only this generosity, this desire to love your neighbour, could spread," he says, "we could solve this without war."
I tell him that his fast started on Sunday and by Monday there was a ceasefire. He shrugs. "The more I pray, the more coincidences there are," he laughs.