Drumming and dancing had led the enthronement of John Sentamu as Archbishop of York. Having witnessed this last year, I returned this month to express solidarity with his quiet vigil of seven days of prayer and fasting for “lasting peace in the Middle East”.
Tourists were queuing to enter York Minister as I arrived. “I’ve just come to pray with Archbishop John,” I told the attendant who directed me to St. John the Evangelist Chapel.
About 50 people were seated in the small side chapel. A recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto lamenting the “futility of War” filled the temple. At the front of the chapel there was a small tent held up by ropes tied on to prayer stools, Microphone Stand and the Altar Table. No danger of any storms blowing this tent over. Kneeling in front of the tent, facing the altar, Archbishop John resplendent in his purple attire. Beside him two small old Sunday school chairs, a prayer stool and also his renowned drum which provided the base for a small black cross. I took a seat close to the Archbishop. I joined in prayer using a sheet with prayers for peace commended by the Archbishop.
At the close of his hourly round of prayers signalled by the conclusion of Elgar’s Concerto, the Archbishop rose to his feet, moved to a small side table and had a drink of water – his sole food intake during his seven day fast.
A queue forms as people come to speak with him and he stood beside the tent listening to them.
I reflected on the symbol of the tent and all it represents in Scripture. A tent was seen to be God’s dwelling place [Ps.78:60], and it was at “the tent of the meeting” where “the Lord would speak” with Moses [Ex. 33:7-9]. The Johannine insight summed up as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1:14] is often pictured as God pitching a tent to live amongst people.
I was just beginning to turn my thoughts to those whose homes and lives have been destroyed in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan when a woman came and sat beside me. She leaned towards me and asked “Are you from Iraq?” “No” I replied. A few minutes later she enquired, “Perhaps you are from Lebanon?” “No” I replied again. She then went to talk with the Archbishop. He just listened too, nodding and smiling, and shaking her by the hand to bring the encounter to a close.
When the queue had finished I went to greet the Archbishop. I thanked him for his leadership and prayers and asked him how he was. “I am in good shape. Amazingly I don’t feel hungry. This suggests I had been overeating before,” he said and continued, “God is god. Thank you for coming and for all your encouragement. I have been amazed at all the expressions of support.”
I asked him if I could pray with him. “Thank you” he said, and immediately turned towards the altar and started to pray for me, and for peace in the Middle East.
Then I prayed for the Archbishop: “Thank you Holy God for your Servant John for his leadership and for his prayers.” And continued with a prayer I had formed in the Minster a few minutes earlier:
“Holy God You call us all
to love our neighbours as we love ourselves,
to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, and,
to love the stranger, for we all know what it is to be a stranger.
You call us to forgive one another.
Show us how to walk your way,
lead us ever by your truth, and,
bless us always with your life.
In the name of Christ.
We concluded with an embrace.
The clock struck again. It was 2:45pm.
The Archbishop returned to his seat to prepare for the next hourly act of prayer.
Silent prayer continued.
Just after the clock had struck three the Archbishop moved to a microphone beside him and spoke into it. “This is John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. I ask you for your attention.”
The tourists around the Minister stopped in their tracks. A hush came over the whole place as people observed silence. The Archbishop then prayed aloud for “lasting peace in the Middle East; for all those who have been hurt or made homeless.” He invited those gathered before him to use the prayer sheet provided to join him in the prayer of St Francis of Assisi as adapted by John Sentamu, and the Lord’s Prayer, concluding with the Universal Prayer of Peace and a saying from The Prophet used daily in prayer by Muslims.
Then he called on people to continue in the attitude of prayer for 7 minutes as Elgar’s Concerto was played again. At the close of the music the Archbishop rose to his feet and went out of the Chapel.
Before leaving the Chapel I gave thanks again for Archbishop John and his ministry of prayer and fasting. I observed his drum – now silent, giving way to the sounds of quiet prayer.