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Tottenham-supporting bishop must earn his spurs
A SELF-proclaimed ‘gentle’ Tottenham fan, the next Bishop of Durham Paul Butler will have to prove his mettle if he is to earn his spurs. Mark Tallentire reports.
BISHOP-designate Paul Butler entered Durham Cathedral to meet his new flock in, it seems, characteristic manner: quietly and modestly.
Facing several hundred faithful from a small platform at the south end of the nave, the bespectacled 57-year-old admitted to being “slightly stunned” at his promotion to the Church of England’s fourth most senior role.
During a brief question-and-answer session, the father-of-four seemed more comfortable chatting with visiting school children than addressing the gathered throng.
He succeeds a man of exceptional focus and drive in the Most Reverend Justin Welby, who left to become Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year after just 15 months in Durham.
And amid a feeling the Archbishop was “taken from us” too soon, comparisons are inevitable. In some ways, the two men are remarkably similar. Both grew up in London, both have large families and both are from the Church’s evangelical wing.
Both have seen tackling poverty and speaking up for the region in corridors of power, including the House of Lords, as central to their work.
But the Right Reverend Butler seems a lighter character, his rubbery face and long, thin legs allowing him to give a sense that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
The former social worker will need that human touch in coming months as he begins to explore a diocese and meet a church he, by his own admission, knows little about.
Asked about his first few weeks in the job – likely to be early in the new year, he said he would try to be out and about, meeting people and visiting places.
But as well as a friendly face, he will have to show steel if he is to succeed: there is no shortage of tough challenges to be grappled with.
He is a strong supporter of ordaining women bishops, saying it would create a “far better balanced leadership team”. But his views on homosexuality he describes as “traditional and orthodox”.
“I’m absolutely committed to all people of all orientations being welcome into local churches and feeling they have a place,” he says.
His three priorities are: growing the church, tackling poverty and working with children and young people.
On the first, he takes over leading a 230-church diocese which is ageing, losing numbers and, according to the Church Times, the poorest of any in the CofE. He wants growth in numbers, depth and discipleship, he says, admitting it will not be easy but insisting: “Growing churches are good for communities. We grow in the church not for the sake of the church but for the world and the glory of God.”
On the second, it is worth noting that he made time in his first-day tour to have lunch at Easington Colliery Cafe Project and sign up to a credit union.
He wants to encourage churches to engage with communities, he says, but claims people have had enough of outsiders telling them what to do – they want to lift themselves off the bread line.
And finally, on children and young people, it is clear it’s an issue close to his heart. His first visit today was to Holy Trinity CofE VA Primary School, in South Shields, and he is the bishops’ advocate for children and safeguarding.
“I honestly believe we have to invest in children and young people and see them not as the future but as part of the present,” he says.
That is not to say he arrives without experience. Educated at Kingston Grammar School and Nottingham University, he became a Christian in his teens, joined the CofE as a student and has worked in south London, Southampton and as an inner London evangelist.
He has a long-standing interest in Africa, working in post-genocide Rwanda, and campaigns on mental health issues.
In church circles, he is being seen as someone who will continue reform begun by Archbishop Welby and be a safe pair of hands.
For his part, he wants to be “relaxed”, meeting and chatting with people over a cuppa.
He will visit his new house, outside the gates of his predecessors’ Auckland Castle home, in Bishop Auckland, tomorrow and take up his new role in a few months’ time.
A fan of gardening and walking, he is looking forward to exploring Durham’s dales.
Introducing him at the cathedral yesterday, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, the Dean of Durham, reminded him that he will not be the first Bishop Butler at Durham – that the theologian and philosopher Joseph Butler (1692-1752) stands among the greats in the 1,000-year roll of honour.
“It’s deeply humbling and honouring”, he says.
Dean Sadgrove urged the faithful to remember their new bishop in their prayers. He’s certain to need it.
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