The Rt Rev Thomas Butler


The Church of England is at its most arcane when appointing Bishops. There is local consultation initially but this soon gives way to the secret deliberations of the formidable sounding Crown Appointments Commission. The Commission selects the names of two candidates for consideration by the Prime Minister. The first intimation the successful candidate receives is a letter from the PM telling him that his name is being put forward to the Queen. Thomas Butler, Bishop of Leicester until five days ago, received such a letter recently inviting him to transfer to the Diocese of Southwark. The Church has long admired this particular servant's attributes and is now entrusting to him the leadership of a complex melting pot of a Diocese full of challenges, not least the millenium Dome. It covers, in his words `most of London south of the river together with a chunk of Surrey countryside.' Southwark is arguably in the premier league of Dioceses, but Leicester, although smaller in human terms, must be pushing hard for promotion as a result of its progress under of Bishop Thomas's guidance since his appointment in 1991.

One transformation stands out. The Bishop's introduction of the Parish Funding Initiative and his insistence that `money is spiritual' has increased the per capita giving so significantly that Leicester has moved from near the bottom to the upper quartile of this particular ecclesiastical league table. Bishop Thomas would be the first to acknowledge the contribution of others to these successes and he has built up an impressive record for making appointments which have deepened and extended the range of skills serving the Diocese and which have also encouraged the church locally to rediscover its sense of mission as well as dramatically lowering the average age of the clergy !

Leading by example with unfailing good humour Bishop Thomas has attached great importance to building up the confidence of his clergy, working with them to alleviate tensions and any sense of isolation and loneliness, and applauding their achievements. His own boundless energy has galvanised many a service and left some of his colleagues literally trailing behind. Fostering this sense of partnership has its advantages for the Bishop. Just before beginning a recent press conference he had a temporary memory lapse. Reaching for his mobile he dialled a colleague: `Quick, remind me what are the ten commandments?'

Ordained in 1964, and serving curacies in Wisbech and Folkestone, Bishop Thomas arrived in Leicester from London where he had been consecrated area Bishop of Willesden in 1985. This urban background to his ministry had not escaped notice, and it is said that following his enthronement in Leicester, Dr Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, remarked to him "I have a little job for you', namely co-ordinating the follow-up to the Faith in the City report. Until 1995 Bishop Thomas was chair of the Archbishop's Advisory committee for Urban Priority Areas and is currently the General Synod's representative on the Inner Cities Religious Council, a body which advises Government. He continues to serve with distinction as the Chair of the General Synod's Board of Mission.

Bishop Thomas `puts himself about.' The compact nature of the Leicester Diocese helps in this respect, combining an obvious urban centre with suburbs, market towns and rural areas not too far away. He has been a highly visible Bishop, taking care to move out into the local community whenever possible, establishing links with industry and education and finding the time to make direct contact with countless groups of people informally as well as in grander settings. To paraphrase one of his radio broadcasts : Ordinary folk working together can rejuvenate their neighbourhoods; a little more nosiness and rather less "minding one's own business" can rekindle confidence, raise the spirit and create if not the Kingdom of Heaven, one of its outhouses.

Leicester can rightly point to an exemplary race relations record and Bishop Thomas has ensured that the Church has contributed to this. He has been responsible for appointing the first black person as a Canon of the Cathedral. His total belief in and commitment to inter-faith dialogue had already made its mark in London. Since coming to Leicester he has been an active President of the Leicester Council of Faiths seeking every opportunity to identify common concerns and principles. When, recently, another conflagration seemed likely in the Middle East, Bishop Thomas issued a joint statement with the President of the Leicestershire Federation of Muslim Organisations and when the civil war in former Yugoslavia was at its height he brought together ethnic representatives for an act of witness. The book `Just Spirituality' written by himself and his wife Barbara, gives many examples of the rich and diverse traditions and imagery displayed by all faiths. He and Barbara have travelled extensively together partly as a result of the Diocese's links with Kilimanjaro and Yokohama, but also as a result of Barbara's work as Executive Secretary of Christians Aware, a charity bringing together Christians from different cultures for conferences and courses. They have co-authored a second perceptive book `Just Mission' which also contains some of the marvellous stories they collect so avidly and attests to their zest for life.

Having gained the degrees of BSc (1st Class), MSc and PhD from Leeds University, Bishop Thomas lectured for twelve years in Electronics, first at the University of Zambia and then at the University of Kent, where he was also Chaplain. He has been spotted disguised as a research student in our own laboratories here on campus. His practical skills came to the rescue recently when the Archbishop of Canterbury's car developed a fault in its fuel injection system. An enthusiast for electronic communication, he now has email links with one third of his clergy for whom `a hot line to the Almighty' has taken on a new meaning. "Word saves the Bishop faster" announced my computer when committing this speech to its memory !

The scientific world and its parallels with theological insights has always fascinated Bishop Thomas, particularly the coming together of the awesome and the everyday. I quote :-

`Hubble for is effectiveness depends upon its position floating above the pollution and distortion of the earth's atmosphere so that it can get a clear and pure image of the heavenly bodies, and yet it's made up all the way through of very earthly material; steel, silicon, glass, aluminium and now silver foil, string and sellotape. Christians have argued long and hard how Jesus for his effectiveness can be both at one and the same time, all the way through, very earthy and ordinary, and yet penetrate above the pollution and distortion of human hearts and souls so as to see into the beauty and darkness of God's heaven.'
`I believe' continues Bishop Thomas, `that scientists can be trusted to act responsibly'. He does not hold back from urging that we all recognise and accommodate the ethical consequences of scientific discovery lest we remain in his words `scientific geniuses but moral pigmies.'

The Church of England needs gifted communicators more than ever if it is to stand any chance of being taken seriously. Bishop Thomas is one such communicator. He is a regular contributor to the Today programme on Radio 4 ranging widely in his choice of topic and he has appeared on Heart of the Matter, Any Questions and Everyman. In 1996 he took his seat in the House of Lords and has already contributed to the debates there.

`My Bishop's eyes I've never seen Though light in them may shine; For when he prays he closes his And when he preaches, mine.'
Not so Bishop Thomas whose compelling, quickfire sermons challenge us in clear, unequivocal language to open up our eyes, thoughts and hearts.

When writing recently about the Church's impending Lambeth Conference, he commented :-

`Overseas bishops when they encounter the British media, are astonished that the national media are paying so much attention to church matters, which is no bad thing. Then they are astounded at the distorted way in which issues are often handled with `human interest' stories dominating all else. So at home or overseas, for this Lambeth Conference, please pray hard and don't believe all you read!'
Bishop Thomas has made wise and conciliatory contributions to the Church's protracted and painful acceptance of the ordination of women to the priesthood. A supporter of this profound change, he has nevertheless won praise for the sensitive approach he has adopted within the Diocese towards those colleagues who take the opposite view. He is instinctively drawn to the `loser.'

The Church of England may exasperate its members when apparently facing in two directions at once but, if true to its tradition, it must remain inclusive, non-judgemental and compassionate. encouraging those who are its thinkers. Bishop Thomas stands in this tradition, but at the centre, not on the edge, patiently making the Church's somewhat cumbersome structures work for measured progress both locally and nationally. It is not unknown for him to bang episcopal heads together, figuratively of course, when unity is the priority. The impetus he gave to the creation of the Diocese's Lay Pastoral Congress is indicative of his respect for the contribution the laity can make. Young people are a priority too and the Bishop has enjoyed supporting the Leicester City Family Football Nights, quite noisily probably !

Bishop Thomas does occasionally find some free time. He is a very keen walker, often accompanied by his large, but completely benign hound Brutus. He and Barbara ran the London Marathon in 1992 (although it is fair to say that the training regime which preceded it gave him a glimpse of the other place) and he was once seen sharing a tandem with the Archdeacon of Loughborough on a circuit around the Cathedral. As a boy Bishop Thomas relished cycling out of his native Birmingham to visit country churches the spiritual resonance of which made a lasting impression on him and played a part in the emergence of his Christian faith.

In the words of Bishop Thomas `The Bible speaks of people of faith being a pilgrim people. Our society is a community on the move into an unknown future. That fact needs to be faced bravely, so that we can be prepared to live as a pilgrim people who do not have all the answers, but who teach and learn from one another as we do.'

His own journey will soon take him away from Leicester where his daughter Anna works in hotel management, back to London where his son Nick teaches. He leaves a Diocese in very good order and heart, optimistically working towards the millenium and greatly appreciative of his totally positive influence. We salute him as a man of utter integrity and one of the most effective ambassadors for a Church he loves deeply.

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present to you and this congregation the Right Reverend Thomas Butler for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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J.Allen2@lboro.ac.uk, July 1998.
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