Monday, December 11, 2006

bishop of southwark - 'the boozy bish'

o dear o dear o dear. another clergyperson bites the dust. of all the pieces in all the papers, i present to you ruth gledhill's blog from the times. why this one? she is the newspaper's religious correspondent, she writes well, and she was always nice to my father :-)

it is, however, a conundrum for me - to be a spiritual leader, that everyone expects to be an exemplar; and at the same time to be oneself, which includes some percentage of imperfection and major messing-up. i tell you, who'd be in the religion business?!

"Bishop of Southwark: 'Bished as a newt'

Mass at my heavenly church of St Anne's Kew this morning was chacterstically high and, after the children came back in from Junior Church, noisy too. Then at the end Father Nigel gave his flock a little unexpected bonus track. He lowered his eyes and said: "Now I want you all to say a prayer for our Bishop, Tom Butler, and his wife, who as some of you may realise have been in the papers recently." He didn't elaborate on why, just urged caution before any of us rushed to judgment, and, with characteristic generosity of spirit, repeated his admonition to pray. Never before have I known such silence in our beautiful church, packed as usual with standing room only. It was a silence of stunned profundity and wonderment. Father Nigel had left them all flummoxed, wondering indeed at what on earth had happened. Because as became clear from the number of people who discreetly probed me over coffee afterwards, few in Kew read The Mirror (from whom my headline is borrowed), The Sun or The Mail on Sunday. And if they read The Sunday Times, as I would hope, they clearly do it only after church. Definitely worth reading though is Stephen Bates in The Guardian. I also did a piece with Sean O'Neill, who is Irish and was actually at the Embassy party in question. "I don't know the Bishop of Southwark personally," he told me. "But there was a very garrulous clergyman there, walking around saying: 'I am the Bishop of Southwark'."

Some of them do read my blog, however. They were slightly perplexed, given my report, about our parish priest's request that we be generous in our response to events. I offered them my own sober analysis, adding my concern that sending the Bishop a bottle of high quality champagne, might not perhaps have been the best thing to do in the circumstances.

"Bished", of course, was in the 1950s a Jennings-style term meaning done for, useless, no good. I am not saying poor Tom Butler is now bished as well as bashed, but this case does raise some interesting issues.

An inconvtrovertible fact is that what he claimed about the incident has been shown to be untrue. According to the information he conveyed to his spokeswoman Wendy Robbins, which she conveyed to me when I first enquired about the story early last week, he was asserting that he had been mugged.

Well if being thrown out of a Mercedes, in Crucifix Lane of all places, after throwing the owner's children's toys off the back seat constitutes being mugged, I suppose he was. He claimed he could remember none of this and I choose to think he was not being less than truthful in his mugging story. "I'm the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do," was his memorable response when the owner of the car confronted him after the car alarm went off on the Mercedes.

According to the reports, he had drunk copious amounts of Portugese red wine at the embassy function he attended in Belgravia beforehand. It was the Irish embassy. Possibly, he was drunk. One of the symptoms of extreme drunkenness is the "alcoholic blackout". Few people without a drink problem suffer these frightening episodes, even if they drink heavily at Christmas functions. "Normal" people who have never known what it is like to be addicted to alcohol might find this difficult to believe, but when blackout kicks in it is possible to lose an entire evening, day, even a week from one's memory. The excess alcohol effects some weird chemical reaction in the brain which disables the memory receptors. It also disables the usual societal inhibitors, so it is during those times that alcoholics do the most inconceivably awful and embarrassing and sometimes hateful things. Many murders, as prisoners will testify, are committed in blackout. It is understandable that those left with cleaning up the mess afterwards are sceptical when the perpetrators of these heinous acts claim not be be able to remember, but it is true. You really cannot remember a thing after blackout.

I don't understand the process but I certainly understand the effects. It has to be a possibility that the Bishop suffered one of these blackouts. So it would be unfair to assume the mugging story was a lie. It seems far more likely to me that he genuinely believed he had been mugged, given the evidence of the black eye, bump on head and missing mobile, briefcase and glasses. (It was of course the briefcase's appearance in the back of the Mercedes that alerted the owners to the illustrious nature of their temporary passenger.)

The other possibility is that he has suffered a cerebral medical problem, a minor stoke or something similar. This would be truly awful. But there seems no doubt, from the reports in the Sunday papers, that he had been drinking.

One issue, as far as I can see, is how this reflects on him given his own treatment of clergy in the Southwark diocese. As someone who has worshipped for the past 15 years at the very least at three different churches in the diocese, and who meets clergy from Southwark and neighbouring dioceses regularly at General Synod, I have been witness to the effects of Bishop Tom's inimitable pastoral approach to his own errant and indeed inerrant clergy. Put simply, as one lay person said to me when they telephoned yesterday: "Ruth, I feel sorry for the man but let's face it, if my vicar had done this he probably would not have survived."

To me, this all represents a fantastic opportunity for the Bishop, who naturally enough, heads the Church of England's social responsibility arm. (Doesn't God have a fantastic sense of humour sometimes?). He should not resign. Or at least not yet. He is 66 for goodness sake, and surely cannot be that far of retirement in any case.

But let's remember the churches' advertising campaign this Christmas, one done with the support of the Church of England and other mainstream churches. The posters show an empty beer glass, with the face of Jesus etched out in the foam on the side. Let's hope the Bishop of Southwark can now also be inspired to find Jesus in his cups, and take advantage of the powerful opportunity for witness to the nation that this represents. In the end, all I can personally do is look with awe at the headlines, whisper, "There but for the grace of God...", and pray."

1 comment:

  1. I can see what you are saying but the main point here is that this guy has taken a realy hard line in the past, even to the point of sacking clergy. See my words at

    How can he now retain the job he is clinging onto?