A German friend of mine once ruefully (but truthfully) described his compatriots as a nation which had invented manners but not yet discovered tact. Rumours have been reaching the outside world for some time that the Bishop of Southwark may be more suited to a Rhineland cure than a Thames-side pastorate.
A fracas with the Revd Sue Walrond-Skinner, the diocesan supremo in Pastoral Care and Counselling, reached epic proportions and the BBC Sunday programme. A subsequent charm offensive in the deaneries and a formal review of pastoral care of the clergy did nothing to reassure the significant number of priests, male and female, who found the bishop’s manner abrasive, domineering and overly managerial. ‘Doesn’t he realise what damage to the fragile self-esteem of some ministers can result from his bully-boy tactics?’ asked a woman priest, after one deanery visit. ‘In one sense I voted against that man’, a Pastoral Auxiliary said to me recently, of the vote on ‘Resolution C’ in her parish. She is a supporter of the ordination of women.
All these ugly rumours erupted onto the public stage at the recent meeting of the General Synod when the Bishop lost his rag during Question Time. Tom Butler is Chair of the Board of Social Responsibility. During the course of earlier proceedings he was perceived, by many in the chamber, to have misused confidential information on a lay colleague to undermine both his argument and his very standing. An apology was sought.
But the bishop obdurately stood his ground. He mounted the platform to reply to the challenge. (It was a first tactical error.) He was then, by turns, sarcastic and sardonic, returning to the place he should never have left to cries of ‘Shame!’
Old Synod hands were astounded. No one had ever heard such a barracking of a diocesan from the floor of the House. The few other bishops in the chamber understandably kept their sightlines low.
Thus were the rumours from the diocese of Southwark publicly vindicated.
Perhaps some kindly fellow bishop will now take Tom Butler aside and explain to him all those things about generous apology which our mothers explained to the rest of us when we were little.