Lambeth Palace attacks ‘misleading’ Times headline about bishop case

By staff writers
June 6, 2007

Lambeth Palace, headquarters of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, has issued a statement describing a headline in today’s Times newspaper as “completely misleading” in suggesting that a church report had concluded that the Bishop of Southwark was drunk in a well-publicised incident that happened in December 2006.

Dr Tom Butler has consistently denied that he had been drinking excessively when he arrived home dishevelled after a seasonal party and was subsequently identified as having been staggering in the street having allegedly clambered into a strangers’ car. The bishop has undergone medical examination, but no clear explanation of the events has yet been found.

The church is running its own investigation. However Lambeth Palace today condemned the impression created by the Times report headlined “Bishop was drunk after Christmas Party, leaked report says” (online version as at 12.35am; wording for other versions may differ).

The suggestion in the headline that the report has concluded that the Bishop was drunk is “completely misleading”, say the Archbishop’s staff. They claim it comes as a result of a misunderstanding of what the report, prepared by Chancellor Bursell, is intended to address; the stage it represents in the procedures of clergy discipline; and the untested nature of the allegations which were set out in the complaint.

Lambeth declares: “The report in question was a preliminary report, intended merely to assess whether - if true - the allegations made by the complainant would be strong enough to justify proceeding further with the disciplinary process under the Clergy Discipline Measure. The report's finding is that some of the allegations - if true - would be serious enough to justify being taken on to the next stage. Some allegations it discounts.

“At this preliminary stage, no explanation or answer by the person complained against is required or expected. Only at the next stage would the opportunity be given to the person complained against to give his side of the story. This report, therefore, is based on only the complainant's account.

“For that reason, the report does not make any judgement as to the truth of the allegations. A footnote makes it clear that other evidence 'may in due time put a different complexion on the matter' and, crucially, a clause in brackets makes it clear that the question of the truth of any allegation is yet to be determined: Chancellor Bursell qualifies references to the alleged drunkenness in the complaint with the phrase 'if it occurred'.

“The finding of the report was that the complaint was sufficiently serious to justify further exploration under the Measure. Although the complainant was not qualified under the Measure to bring it forward, a subsequent complaint was taken to the next stage in the disciplinary process, enabling the bishop to give his own account of what had happened.
“It was only at that point, on the basis of all the evidence then before the Archbishop, that he took the decision, announced last month, that no further action should be taken.

The statement concludes: “It would, therefore, be entirely misleading to represent this preliminary report as being any kind of judgement or finding that the Bishop of Southwark was drunk on the night in question.”

This is not the first time the Church of England has complained about what some media analysts describe as “the tabloidization of the broadsheets” – with the Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and the Sunday Telegraph being among those involved in disputes over reports.

In 2005 the Sunday Telegraph ran a headline which suggested that Dr Williams had doubted his own faith as a result of the Asian Tsunami on Boxing day 2004 – in spite of the fact that his own article said something quite different.

After Ekklesia drew attention to an admission of error in correspondence, the then editor privately apologised, but the paper declined to make a public amendment or correction. Other papers also refuse to correct factual inaccuracies, though some, such as The Guardian, employ an ombudsperson and publish corrections columns.

Early in his Archbishopric, Dr Williams faced false accusations that he was a druid, when in fact he had been initiated into a distinguished Welsh literary circle because of his contributions as a poet.

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, was also widely and wrongly accused of denying the Christian doctrine of the resurrection – a misrepresentation he has repeatedly tried to correct. In fact he declared that is could not simply be reduced to “a conjuring trick with bones”, because it was an action of God involving a much more fundamental transformation.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.