Sentamu makes traditionalist pitch with ‘aggressive atheism’ attack

Dr John Sentamu cemented his position as the leading traditionalist candidate in the race to lead the Church of England with a speech attacking "aggressive atheism" yesterday.

The man seen as front-runner to replace Dr Rowan Williams echoed comments by Tory deputy chairman Baroness Warsi when he warned that atheists want to get rid of religion altogether.

“What we are facing isn’t so much secularism, it is what I call 'aggressive atheism’ disguising itself as secularism,” he said.

“I’ve never been against secularisation because it allows the possibility for good debate and disagreement. But there is a strand within it which has become so intolerant, they think it is tolerant but it isn’t. It is the assumption that religion should have no space anywhere.”

Religious groups in the UK have been invigorated recently by increasingly confident statements from government about the role of the Church in British public life, marking a significant departure from Alistair Campbell's maxim that the British government 'doesn’t do God'.

A speech from David Cameron last December said Britain was a "Christian country", although it added a coded warning about Dr William's liberal interventions, saying the Church of England needed to "keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country".

Earlier this year, Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim woman to sit around the Cabinet table, used a visit to Rome to rail against "aggressive secularism" in the UK.

Dr Sentamu also warned against the Church becoming a social services industry if it loses its Christian message.

“In the past you used to say in the village there was the church, the pub and the Post Office,” he said.

“We need social action but that must not replace worship. We are not a social services industry. I want a megaphone to shout it from the rooftops.

“We are doing it not because we are replacing the welfare department but because the gospel leaves us no choice.”

That message will appeal to evangelical churchgoers, who want the Church to return to more traditional teachings.

Dr Sentamu's comments, together with his vociferous opposition to gay marriage, will cement his reputation as the traditionalist candidate.

They also raise the prospect that he will be much more vocal in his opposition to secularist campaigners than his predecessor if he gets the top job.