I know we're supposed to be very solemn about the badbehaviour of the clergy, but to me there's nothing more heartening thana priest on the razzle. Like St Peter, they are at their best not whenlecturing about the frailty of religious commitment, but whenexhibiting that frailty in thought and deed. I mean to say, don't wesheep have a right to feel entertained when the shepherd drinks hoochand howls at the moon?
Enter the Right ReverendTom Butler, Bishop of Southwark. The other night he tipped up at theIrish Embassy – a place renowned through the ages for marathons ofabstemiousness – and drank a quantity of Portuguese wine, whereupon hestaggered into the sodden night and allegedly climbed into a stranger'sMercedes. This happened somewhere near Crucifix Lane (I'm not makingthis up). Witnesses claim the prodigal bish wasn't entirely happy inthe back of the vehicle: he threw a bunch of cuddly toys into the airbefore rolling on to the pavement, where he bashed his head. "It's notat all what one might expect from the senior clergy," said a shockedChristian walking her dog.
Butler woke up the nextmorning with a bit of a hango. A crown of thorns, to be precise. It wasnaughty of him then to tell the congregation he was the victim of amugging, but, then again, he wasn't really lying; the only problem wasthat both the victim and the perpetrator of the mugging were one andthe same man – himself.
Leader writers and ruby-cheeked clerics up and downthe country are frowning – perhaps, they say, the Bishop of Southwarkshould take a rest or otherwise flagellate himself with a wet plimsoll.
Butwhy? Nobody died, as my stepsons are often heard quite irritatingly tosay. In my view, the bishop should perhaps be mentioned in theforthcoming New Year's Honours List, for crimes in favour of humanity.After all, he hails from the Southwark stews and there is, in fact, arather colourful tradition of clerics behaving badly in that quarter.He was only keeping up with a tradition going back to the 12th century.The Bishop of Winchester, for example, had such a bad reputation forconsorting with the bawds of Southwark that for years (and inShakespeare's Henry VI) we find prostitutes described as "Winchestergeese".
Misbehaving bishops are among the greatcomic treasures of our time. Who could forget the wonderfullydegenerate Bishop Casey of Galway, who had a teenage son with anAmerican divorcee while strenuously urging the Irish hordes to improvetheir morals? And what about the venerable Bishop Demetri Khoury ofToledo, Michigan, who got hammered in a casino and groped a passingstranger? Such behaviour cannot, of course, be seen to uphold thehigher ambitions of the Church, yet, for the slightly less po-faced, itcould also remind us that while even the most visible of religiousleaders speak like angels, they live like men.
TheChristmas before last I took a northern bishop and a London priest tolunch at Rules. They said Grace, of course, and then got dusted onclaret. The bishop chose the Galloway beef and the priest had thesteak-and-kidney pudding. They fairly glowed, the two of them, withjolliness and sin, and they told stories about how to get young peopleinto church and how to make them feel it wasn't some morose Sundaydungeon. We laughed quite a lot and I turned eventually to the subjectthat takes up all the airtime these days – paedophile priests.
"It'srotten," said the bishop eventually. "Not least because it draws somuch attention away from our other failings." There's no joke to befound in cases of child sexual abuse, but widespread recent attentionto those sorts of crimes – and the Church's attempts to cover them up –might have rendered us immune to the altogether happier business ofclerics' more forgivable tumblings from grace.
WheneverI feel gloomy about the Church, I remember dear old Brian Brindley. Inhis day, he was one of the chief thinkers in the Church of England, andhe liked, meanwhile, to wear red high heels and disport himself in aquestionable fashion around the doors of public lavatories. He lovedarchitecture and good-quality grapes, and had a vision of unity for thechurches that was undiminished by his frailty and his colourfulness andhis sense of fun. He died during a birthday supper at the Athenaeum,"somewhere between the dressed crab and the boeuf en croute", and onecould not truthfully say the world was better without him.
ThisChristmas, while the children unwrap their plastics and the clericsfill their boots, let us remember that without failure there would beno need of forgiveness. No man or woman is simply one thing, and truetolerance means leaving a margin in life for people's vanity andweakness, as well as one's own. In recent years, Britain hasincreasingly been given to the witch-hunt and the quick condemnation,the rule of the mob and the holier-than-thou cheer of execration. Webehave as if we enjoy the spectacle of other people's failure.
Perhapsit might serve us better occasionally simply to smile at folly. TheBishop of Southwark's only sin was to bow so pitiably to the fear ofhis congregation's judgment. But let he who is without such fear castthe first stone.