If you had visited York Minster this week — northern Europe’s biggest gothic cathedral — you would have seen the strange sight of the Archbishop of York, Ugandan-born John Sentamu, camped in a tent within the church. His hair specially shaved for the event, Sentamu has been fasting for peace in the Middle East. His fast has been part-John the Baptist, part-David Blaine; the UK press, usually skeptical of public religiosity, is largely impressed.
Sentamu feels that God revealed this course of action to him after watching a news program highlighting the suffering of a Lebanese girl and an old Israeli woman:
“I was gutted at that news report,” explains the archbishop, who does not speak received Anglican. “Gutted at the plight of the young and the elderly, at those who are helpless in this conflict. And then I realised this was what I had been trying to hear. I was hearing the voice of God in that little girl, in that old woman.”
His decision to scrap [his family] holiday, move into a tent inside the cathedral and undertake a fast came when he read from the Bible about the disciples of Jesus failing to heal a young boy. “They ask Jesus why they couldn’t do it,” he explains. “Jesus replies that it was ‘only by prayer and fasting.’ And that was my word. I thought, this is the same. It’s got to be prayer and fasting . . . “
Sentamu’s fast belongs to a spiritual tactic called “prophetic enactment.” Rather than preach lengthy sermons, some religious figures choose symbolic (often eccentric) actions to highlight the will of God. Think Simeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar for 36 years, or Isaiah’s naked stroll through Jerusalem. Although Sentamu’s “prophetic enactment” is a little less extreme, it is nonetheless quite potent. Bear in mind that the Archbishop of York is Anglicanism’s number two man; such bold symbols are a welcome departure for a church otherwise racked with schismatic rubbish over gays. Did it stop the bombs? Probably not, but some causes need impressive (but sober) symbolic statements, and I for one am impressed by this one.
I have been wondering whether Mormon prophets have a tradition of “prophetic enactment.” I cannot think of one. Am I wrong?