Philip Hensher: Tell me the one about the bishop and the Irish party

'Having a couple of drinks is not a sin', one disconsolate worshipper maintained
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The Independent Online

A very worrying story has just emerged about the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler. Last Tuesday night, he arrived home in a terrible state. In his official function, he had dropped in at a reception at the Irish Embassy. When he arrived home, he found that between the Embassy and Tooting, something awful had happened to him. He had lost his briefcase, spectacles, and his mobile phone; he had a black eye and a lump on his head so large, he piteously informed his flock the next day, that he couldn't get his mitre on.

Although he had no memory of the events of that evening, he concluded that he had been mugged, and somehow found his way home, where the confusion and oblivion resulting from a blow on the head dissipated. He informed the police of the crime.

The police, naturally, took this very seriously, as anyone would. Indeed, it seems an extraordinarily shocking crime. Even though, these days, not many people are practising Christians, a man of the cloth compels respect even among the most depraved of London's low-life. The juvenile thug waiting with his posse for the next passer-by to rob would, one had always thought, draw back from clubbing the chap with the dog-collar. One who could cosh a Bishop of Southwark must be lost to all considerations of decency and respect, and the police embarked on their investigation with great tutting and shaking of heads.

At this point, they unearthed a man who claimed to be a witness to the Bishop of Southwark's missing hours. At first sight, it looks like a clear case of mistaken identity. A Mr Paul Sumpter was playing pool in a bar in Southwark when he heard the alarm on his Mercedes, parked outside, going off. He says he and a number of other customers went to investigate, and found a white-haired gentleman in a cassock sitting in the rear seat.

The subsequent exchange went like this. Mr Sumpter: "What are you doing in my car?" White-haired gentleman: "I'm the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do." Two of the pool players dragged the soi-disant "Bishop of Southwark" out of the car, and in the argument, he fell on the pavement, hitting his head. He was asked if he wanted an ambulance, which he declined. Then he got up and walked into a railway arch.

Some credence must reluctantly be given to Mr Sumpter's version. He subsequently found the papers the Bishop had reported as being forcibly taken from him on the back seat of his car. But overall it is almost impossible to decide which of the two versions is more likely to be correct.

Parties at the Irish Embassy are notoriously festive affairs, and the Bishop's congregation were yesterday sticking up for him, though, apparently, not for his version of events. "Having a couple of drinks is not a sin," one disconsolate worshipper maintained yesterday. "Maybe he did not realise how strong the wine was."

Faced with two versions of the same events, most of us are likely to go for the more cheerful account. Wherever the truth lies, which of us would not prefer the one about the rat-arsed bishop? Where a bishop being mugged would be evidence of society getting very much worse, a story about one getting very drunk and falling over is, surely, evidence that the Church of England is going on very much as it has always done.

Despite the details of the mobile phone, the Mercedes and the pool bar, there is something wonderfully period about the story. It all sounds very much like the misbehaving and purple-faced bishops Pope or Hogarth immortalised, or like the very worst goings-on in Trollope's Barchester. At a time when the Mrs Proudies of this world seem to have the upper hand in the Church of England, it would be quite nice to think that there was a Dr Vesey Stanhope here and there. And the Bishop seems very much like an old- style good egg; dealing with the whole question of gay clergymen, as most bishops always have done, by not noticing and occasionally pointing out that most gay clergy do a very good job.

I must say, I would very much prefer a bishop who got hopelessly drunk at an embassy party and fell over on the pavement to some other Anglican bishops. Some of them are currently trying to derail government equality legislation by threatening to withdraw services such as youth clubs, and close down quite important charities.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has carried out a series of unlovely publicity stunts, including sleeping in a tent in the Minster for a week in August to draw attention both to himself and to peace in the Middle East. If one were wondering which of these causes were dearer to the heart of the Archbishop, all was made clear when it was announced that a series of images would be projected on to the east front of the Minster. The first of these, naturally, was a 20-foot photograph of Dr Sentamu.

Was Mr Butler mugged? Or could Mr Sumpter's extraordinary story really be true? Mr Sumpter says that he asked the gentleman why he had got into the back of a perfect stranger's car, and was told "I'm the Bishop of Southwark - it's what I do." If that were true, it would be the answer of a bishop with a distinct sense of fun about his office. If the Bishop did say that, we could take it for granted that he would never be likely to cause a 20-foot photograph of himself to be projected on to the side of Southwark Cathedral.

I only wish we could know which story to believe.