The first time I met Bishop Tom Butler he left me in tears.
It was in his study in Leicester in 1991. I sat on an orange box. He and Barbara had only moved in on the Monday, this was the Thursday and he was due to be enthroned on the Saturday as Bishop of Leicester. I had moved from a wonderful curacy in Kendal to a bit of a disaster in Leicester. The mistake was obvious after only a few days in post as an Associate Vicar and my world felt like it had collapsed. I had moved my family (with three children) and we were going to have to move again. Without going into detail, I thought of throwing the whole thing in.
Tom asked me questions, then told me to leave the diocese and start again somewhere else. That made sense. But that wasn’t the thing that brought me to tears. Two things did:
1. He gave me complete clarity about process: “Deal with me regarding jobs/posts; deal with the Assistant Bishop for pastoral care of you and your family.” I never needed to consult the Assistant Bishop, but I knew where I stood. When things got so bad I had to be pulled out of the parish, Tom acted decisively and with clarity. That is what I needed.
2. Tom prayed for me. That’s when the tears flowed. I have no idea whether or not he remembers this, but I do.
There are some in the church who wish to divide the words ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’. Apparently, Tom Butler is a managerial bishop – and some have accused me of being the same. Well, I see it as a compliment in one sense. Why? Because the dichotomy between ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’ is a false one – and a dangerous one. What some people mean by ‘pastoral’ (when asking for it in a bishop) is someone who won’t challenge, who is malleable and won’t interfere too much. But pastoral care begins with getting the administration, communication and ‘business’ right: how do you respect someone who says they care for you pastorally when they then double-book you, fail to reply to letters or emails and don’t do what they promise to do?
A bishop is called to be an accountable steward of the resources of people and stuff/things. He is not called primarily to be ‘nice’ or popular. If niceness and popularity follow, then that is fine; but episcopal leadership and ministry are not good for people who want to be everybody’s friend. The alternative to good management of the resources God gives us is, presumably, bad management. Can anybody show me how bad management equates to good pastoral care?
Tom Butler has led the Diocese of Southwark through nearly twelve years of challenging change. Holding this diocese together was never going to be an easy task and Tom’s early days were not easy for anybody. But he leaves with the respect, gratitude and affection of thousands of people in the diocese and beyond who realise that pastoral care means attention to detail, careful handling of structures, utterly fair treatment of clergy and people, consistency of practice and a life rooted in prayer for those you serve and lead.
Tom’s ministry has spanned nearly five decades and the Church owes him a huge debt. As was recognised by politicians, peers and civic representatives this afternoon at the civic reception prior to Tom’s Farewell Eucharist in the Cathedral, wider society owes him a massive debt, too. He has never been content to let the Church live in a private religious ghetto. His final words today before leaving the Cathedral were the proclaim Jesus Christ and love one another.
The Cathedral was packed. The applause was long and resonant with affectionate respect for Tom and Barbara. They will be hugely missed here. And, for a second time, Tom brought me to tears as he left his diocese having faithfully done what he was called to do. Only he knows the cost of this long ministry – some of us got glimpses. He has been faithful in preaching the gospel, faithful in leading the church and (contrary to the behaviour of some) has never simply cherry-picked the bits of church he likes. But, if I could be half the bishop he is, I would be satisfied.
Tom deserves a long and happy retirement. And the Church of England must hope he will continue to serve her with the wisdom, clarity and loyalty he has exemplified thus far.
Others will have their own say. I remain hugely indebted to Tom and will miss him.