LONDON (Reuters) - Already split over women bishops and gay rights, the Church of England has stumbled into a damaging race row over who to choose as spiritual leader of the 80-million strong Anglican Communion.
Since Rowan Williams announced in March that he was to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury, the bookies’ favourite has been John Sentamu, the charismatic Archbishop of York - the only black bishop in the mother church of the Anglican Communion.
But race has reared its head, embroiling the Church in a row that some insiders say shows the insular snobbery and racism that has been accepted quietly for centuries.
Abhorrence aside, claims of racism are potentially explosive because African churches make-up an increasingly large chunk of the world’s Anglicans. More than half are from Africa. Sentamu, 62, grew up in Uganda under dictator Idi Amin.
Arun Arora, his former aide, suggested Sentamu’s chances were being blighted by “naked racism” in an anonymous whispering campaign by those who can’t bear a black man to “break the chains of history”.
Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who was brought up in Jamaica and is chaplain to both Queen Elizabeth and the Speaker of the House of Commons, said she had personally experienced “blatant racism” within the Church, though she was aware it was often subtle.
“It is there, we might dress it up and call it different things, but it is there, and it is sad because it is contrary to the Gospel,” she told Reuters.
Sentamu’s upbringing in Uganda, where he was jailed and beaten during Amin’s regime, may help improve ties with various churches in Africa unhappy with the more liberal stance adopted by some Western provinces.
African evangelicals are keen to see their influence grow within the Communion and they are unlikely to take kindly to Sentamu being overlooked amid claims of racism.
A former lawyer and judge who fled Uganda in 1974, Sentamu refuses to talk about any racism claims, only putting out a statement in which he says he has not experienced it within the Church - only outside.
He has had his vicarage firebombed, has had dog excrement put through his letterbox and was described by a mourner at one funeral as a monkey. As a bishop in a poor part of London, he was frequently stopped and quizzed by police.
But some have questioned the strength of the smear campaign: in this interpretation it will not be race but character that defines who gets the job.
And some feel Sentamu is just too loud, ambitious and outspoken for a Church that has tried to muddle through and keep unity through slow moving diplomacy.
For others, Sentamu is one of the Church’s most recognisable men, a senior cleric whose broad smile, passionate oratory, and dramatic gestures could liven up the Church after the “scholarly dustiness” of Williams.
“Anglicans are often accused of being very tame and pale, and to have someone like John Sentamu leading the Church, I think, would reinvigorate a lot of Anglicans,” said Christina Rees, a long-term campaigner for women’s issues.
He ripped off his clerical collar during a live TV interview and cut it up as a protest against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, saying he would not wear it again until Mugabe had gone.
Sentamu has fought against growing secularism in British society and supported the right of Christians to wear the cross in public places, gaining supporters from those who want the Church to have a clearer voice.
“I think the country would like, whether they agree necessarily with what the church says, to know what the church thinks,” said Peter Bone, a practising Christian and lawmaker in the Conservative-led government.
But his strengths have upset some purple-clad bishops.
His outspoken opposition to government plans to legalise same sex marriage, likening it to something imposed by dictatorships, was deemed by some senior clerics as over the top. It has also alienated many liberals.
Some queried whether he should have agreed so enthusiastically to write a regular column in Rupert Murdoch’s popular tabloid the “Sun on Sunday” after a phone-hacking scandal engulfed his media empire.
As a result, the slogan “Anyone but York” is threatening to take hold. There is a school of thought that a safe pair of hands would be better at a time when the Church is so polarised.
Sentamu would also have to tame what critics refer to, off the record, as his autocratic style of leadership if he became ensconced in Lambeth Palace, with its stifling bureaucracy.
His former aide, Arora, has been appointed to a high-ranking post in the Church’s communications department since going public in a blog about the racist whispering campaign.
Fears of a smear campaign increased when the Telegraph newspaper quoted two anonymous bishops saying Sentamu is “quite tribal and the African chief thing comes through”, and talked about his “African views and approach”.
The Church of England said it is aware of the need to be “constantly vigilant” against racism. But one observer, who did not want to give his name, suggested Sentamu’s camp had been over-sensitive.
“In terms of a whispering racist campaign against Sentamu (among bishops and bureaucrats), no, I don’t think so,” he said.
“I have not seen any evidence of it.”
George Pitcher, Archbishop Williams’ former public affairs secretary, writing in his Daily Mail blog, said if Sentamu failed to be elected, it would not be because he is black.
“Lately, it’s true that some of his critics have concluded that their views are as valid and innocent as if he were a white man,” he wrote. “And so I’ve heard these words: capricious, impulsive, vain with the media and quick to temper (as well, I might add, as words such as prophetic, inspirational, generous and kind). None of these words has anything to do with Dr Sentamu’s ethnicity.”
Reporting by Avril Ormsby Editing by Maria Golovnina