LONDON—Few outside the Anglican hierarchy would have recognized John Sentamu's name before June 2005, when he was tapped as the Church of England's first black archbishop.
But five months later, when his enthronement ceremony at York Minster cathedral featured pounding drums and African dancers wearing feathered headdresses and leopard-print outfits, it became apparent that he had a knack for making headlines.
As archbishop of York, the 57-year-old Sentamu stands second in the Church of England's hierarchy. Many believe he should be No. 1, replacing the professorial but dithering Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury.
With Williams worn down by the fight to preserve an Anglican Communion that seems bent on schism, there have been persistent reports in the British media that he may be prepared to step aside in favor of Sentamu in a year or two.
Sentamu combines charisma with a compelling personal story. His emergence as a national figure has been remarkably swift. More significantly, the Ugandan-born Sentamu has re-established the church pulpit as a thoughtful and forceful voice in the debate on Britain's multicultural identity.
At a time when the Church of England has seemed almost apologetic about its role in society and many Britons doubt its relevance, Sentamu makes no apologies and harbors no doubts.
"This country disbelieves itself in the most amazing way," he told the Times newspaper. "It almost dislikes its own culture. It doesn't realize that the arts, music, buildings have grown out of a strong Christian tradition."
Sentamu cannot be characterized as liberal or conservative, nor do his views always track to church orthodoxy.
Last fall, when a national debate erupted over a local school board's decision to dismiss a Muslim teaching assistant who refused to remove her face-covering veil while teaching a class of primary school children, the archbishop of Canterbury defended the assistant's right to wear what she wanted. Sentamu disagreed.
"I think in British society you can wear what you want, but you can't expect British society to be reconfigured around you," Sentamu said.
Multiculturalism, he argued, is a two-way street.
"Multiculturalism has seemed to imply, wrongly for me, `Let other cultures be allowed to express themselves, but do not let the majority culture at all tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains,'" he said.
Sentamu made headlines again last year after British Airways suspended an employee for violating the company dress code by wearing a necklace with a cross.
The archbishop of York said it was nonsense for the airline to prohibit the display of an inconspicuous cross while permitting Muslim employees to wear the hijab and Sikhs to wear turbans. "British Airways needs to look again at this decision and to look at the history of the country it represents, whose culture, laws, heritage and tradition owes so much to the very same symbol it would ban," he scolded.
The sixth of 13 children, Sentamu was born in 1949 in a village near Kampala, Uganda. He studied law at Makerere University in Kampala and became a senior judge at age 24. But he ran afoul of Uganda's new strongman, Idi Amin, and fled to Britain in 1974.
Sentamu studied theology at Cambridge University and was ordained in 1979. He served in parishes in Cambridge and London before he was appointed bishop of Stepney, in east London, in 1996.
As a black man living in a white society, Sentamu is intimately familiar with racism. He has been spat upon and taunted with racial slurs. During his six years as a bishop in London, he was stopped and searched by police on eight occasions. What bothered him most about the encounters, he told the British Broadcasting Corp., was the sudden change in attitude when the police discovered who he was.
But Sentamu also makes clear that racism is not the exclusive province of bigoted whites. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, he recently described Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe as "a racist dictator who needs to be removed for the good of the people of Zimbabwe and the good of the region."
Sentamu's pungent views and his willingness to express them have helped make him a media favorite. He has undoubtedly raised the church's profile in the national conversation, but some in the church hierarchy regard him as a loose cannon. In a recent profile that ran in the Times, an unnamed (and uncharitable) senior bishop complained that Sentamu "speaks before he thinks" and that he "has not connected his voice and his brain."
Perhaps, but there is no mistaking where he stands, especially on the most divisive issues facing his church--the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality. Unlike many African bishops, he has ordained female priests and deacons, and he has argued that the debate on homosexuality is misguided.
"My view is simple," he wrote last month. "Jesus Christ died for men and women, black and white, gay and straight, so that those who believe in him may no longer live for themselves but for the one who died for them. God's salvation does not discriminate."