Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Claret, Your Grace?

No one really seems to care if celebrities of the entertainment type get drunk and do assinine things in public. It is, in many ways, part of the monkey dance that we expect of them; they are, after all, entertainers. We find drunks doing idiotic things in unlikely places in various states of injury or undress amusing, comical, entertainment gold.

What if, however, that the famous drunk acting stupidly in public is a celebrity of the religious type?

That is just what happened to Dr. Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark in England. Read the version of the story in the Times here. For a more tabloidy take on it, read the account in The Evening Standard here.

For those who don't want to read it (and just because it is so terribly amusing to recount), here's what happened. The bishop was at a Christmas party at (and all of the British news sources took great pains to emphasize this) the Irish Embassy in Belgravia in London. There, he was, ahem, filled with the spirit of Christmas.

Afterward, he left the party and was found inside the back seat of a car parked outside a pub near London Bridge Station. The owners of the car, noticing the intruder, came outside to find the bish throwing their child's stuffed animals around in the back seat. When the car owner opened the door, the bishop tumbled out of the car, already with a large injury on his forehead. He refused an ambulance and then wandered off into the night, eventually making it back to his home in Tooting Bec.

The next morning, at services, he claimed that he was mugged and his briefcase (later recovered among the stuffed animals) and cell phone (not yet recovered) were missing. He also claims to not remember the head wound, the car near London Bridge Station or how he got home. This story does not jazz, however, with witnesses that saw him before he left the embassy, when he was throwing plush toys around or when he staggered off into the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

On a personal level, I would be tempted to say "well, the guy drank too much, blacked out, acted like an idiot and now he must deal with the consequences." I also must point out that, to us in the drinking community, on a personal level, we can all relate.

On the other hand, Dr. Tom Butler is a public figure, a religious leader and apparently (according to the Times story) has a history of being tough on priests in his diocese who drink too much. If you are keeping score, the bish stands accused of lying, breaking an entering (the car), public drunkenness and hypocrisy.

Before proceeding to what I think should happen to this pickled prelate, I must return to the fact that the British press made such a deal about it having started with a party at the Irish Embassy. This is typical, British stereotyping of the Irish proclivity toward drunkenness. I would say "shame on them," but they don't care. It is part of their nature (see, I can use stereotypes too).

Things do not look good for Dr. Tom the Times points out, Lambeth Palace will most likely get involved. Archbishop of Canterbury (and Butler's boss) Rowan Williams. There will be inquiries and, seeing that Butler is sixty-six and intended to retire at seventy, he will most likely be leaned on to retire early. The only thing that can save him is other witnesses coming forth to clear him, evidence that he really was mugged or a Christmas miracle (hey, he is a man of the cloth after all).

What does this say about the Church of England? Not much more than it says about any organization who has members that make bad personal choices, really. Just because a board member is a drunk or beats his wife or anything else does not necessarily mean that the company is a sick organization. Unless there was a massive cover-up, or there was a pattern of such occurrences, or because of the former, we do not know about the latter, the C of E will continue on as it a somewhat irrelevant, poorly attended yet entrenched part of the British system and psyche.

More interesting, at least to me, is the reaction of the general public. How to gauge this? First, read the hilarious (and ultimately sympathetic) editorial by Brian O'Hagan in the Telegraph. Then, look at the reader responses below. They are a fascinating window on, well, the opinions on this matter by readers of the Telegraph. What they show are people who, in general, accept that the bish is human, made a mistake and seem willing to forgive. It does not seem to matter to them very much that this happened and they are willing to forgive Butler or to laugh him off.

This could mean one of two things. It could mean that the British are more generous with people like Butler when they make a mistake (which is what they consider it), and as long as he admits to it and apologizes for the attempts at deception, so what if the old fella had a few too many?

On the other hand, it could show just how irrelevant the C of E is to British society in general. It could show that people don't care because, well, the Church does not matter to them and who cares if some old guy in a cassock gets drunk, hurts himself and generally acts like a fool? In a country where only one in fifteen residents attend the C of E weekly and religious belief is in a tailspin, could one come to any other conclusion than that of public apathy mixed with mild amusement about a drunk bishop?

These questions will be (somewhat) answered if Lambeth Palace decides to investigate, but the larger questions about the C of E and British society linger on (as they have for years now).

Also interesting to consider is if this same incident happened in, say, Ireland to a Catholic bishop? Maybe if it happened in the United States to any religiously prominent person? What then? I suspect, at least in the American case, there would be much, MUCH more righteous indignation, howls about the horrors of alcoholism, accusations of clergy pedophilia and other such paroxysms typical of our increasingly therapy-based society.

All I can say for sure is this: this Christmas, if you see a commotion in the back seat of your car and a flume of stuff (possibly even stuffed animals) burbling up from the back seat, don't panic.

It's probably just a drunk Anglican bishop looking for his dignity.

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