Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

In Memoriam
Bishop Christopher Butler

Several months after Bishop Butler's death in September 1986, St Edmund's College—Butler's home for the last twenty years of his life—published a collection of obituaries and remembrances. We present here, in condensed form, a few of the many tributes to Butler's life and work.

These remembrances from people who knew him well are a useful complement to the formal obituaries published in The Times, the New York Times and the other leading newspapers.

We thank The Universe for permission to present the obituary written by Bishop Alan Clark.

From Cardinal Basil Hume

‘The love of truth seeks a holy leisure’. The scholar in his study, the theologian in his monastic cell, the contemplative in his oratory: were not these the places where Bishop Christopher Butler was most at home, and were not these the activities at which he best excelled? He was first and foremost a scholar and a theologian, well served by his powerful intellect and training. He owed much to his school in Reading and to St John’s, his Oxford College. There he learned the tools of his trade, to think and to write. The pursuit of truth: that was not for Bishop Butler an academic exercise only. He was a monk, and as such was committed to that search for God which St Benedict lays down as the monk’s first, and most urgent, business. Scholarship should lead to prayer, and prayer should give scholarship a special quality, a discovering of Him who is Truth. It was so I believe in the case of Christopher Butler.

God’s plans often do not coincide with our personal aspirations. In this case obedience, so integral to monastic observance, was to rob Christopher Butler of his ‘holy leisure’ and involve him increasingly in the service of others, first as Headmaster and then as Abbot. I suspect that Christopher Butler would have lamented as St Gregory did: ‘Since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I have been unable to keep steadily recollected because my mind is distracted by many responsibilities’

He was an Abbot for some twenty years, much respected both in his own monastery and throughout the Benedictine world. No wonder, then, that in 1961 he was elected by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation to be Abbot President, with additional responsibilities and anxieties. The Vatican Council had already been called but in 1961 most of us had little idea what this would mean. Abbot Butler was not elected because there was to be an ecumenical Council, but, as is so often the case, the Holy Spirit achieves his purposes by going beyond those intended by the human instruments through whom he works. Thus when the General Chapter elected a new Abbot President. the Vatican Council acquired a significant member. It was because he had been asked, now under obedience to his monastic brethren, to shoulder yet another burden, that he was enabled to bring to the needs of the Universal Church the wisdom and learning acquired when his life left him more space and freedom from distraction.

He had never ceased, of course, to make time to think and to write. There were books before the Council, and notably about the nature of the Church, which hinted already at ideas that would be part of the Council’s agenda, and then books after the Council explaining what had taken place. He was one of the best apologists for the Council in this land. His appointment as Bishop in 1966 gave him a special authority and influence. Many looked to him for guidance and help in a time of great changes, and indeed of profound crisis as well. His judgements were balanced, informed and refined in prayer.

No doubt at a later date, when perspective becomes clearer and the history of the last twenty years is written, the name of Christopher Butler will be recalled and his contribution assessed. At the moment we are concerned with the man, the monk and the bishop.

In an essay published in 1981, Bishop Butler wrote: As the seed of Christian perfection grows within us, the screen caused by (quite legitimate) worldly concerns becomes less opaque. How often do we see in old age a ripeness of spiritual maturity, a peace that can scarcely be ruffled, and a joy that is as shy as it is profound, begin to show through the earthly veil. The Christian is happy because faith has brought him, with absolute reality and infinite value, into that union for which he was created... (An Approach to Christianity (1981) p.238)

It would seem that unwittingly, and with complete absence of any self-conceit, he had achieved the state which he described so well. But yet he was not spared a final trial, when in the last months his mind — such a powerful tool in the Lord’s service was so sadly impaired. Was he being prepared for a closer intimacy with God? I believe that he was. That happens to God’s special friends, but this trial was a hard one for him to bear and saddening for his visitors to behold. As he went to bed on Saturday the 20th of September he said ‘good night’ to the nurse who was looking after him, thanked her and told her that her work was now done. He knew he was on his way, and he was once again at peace.


From Canon Martin Hancock

Basil Christopher Butler was a man with a passion for truth in the intellectual, moral and spiritual orders. To this end he devoted his life and great intellectual power. He was totally committed to intellectual integrity, but at the same time fully aware that the pursuit of truth involved the heart as well as the mind. He has described this journey in his book A Time to Speak and given his mature conclusions in An Approach to Christianity, which was his last work of any length.

Abbot Butler—as he was then—really found himself at the Second Vatican Council, and the letters that he wrote to me from Rome are the most stirring and moving of any I received during a correspondence of over fifty years. Perhaps his most successful book is The Theology of Vatican II, the result of his Sarum lectures at Oxford in 1966.

He was appointed an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, and was the first Catholic priest to receive this honour since John Henry Newman.

Bishop Butler was greatly attached to Downside School, of which he was Headmaster before being elected Abbot of the Downside community. He was also deeply attached to St Edmund’s, and took a liking to the place from the moment he came to live there. He disliked going away and only travelled for reasons of apostolate or charity. I know how thankful he always was to get back to his shabby and exceedingly untidy room. He lived the last twenty years of his life at St Edmund’s and felt completely at home.


From Father Michael Garvey

At St Edmund’s College we were aware of the honour it would be to house Bishop Butler on his appointment as Auxiliary Bishop. Exactly how he would fit into the community was another matter. The College had its President, and now had to find a niche for the Bishop and his secretary. If doubts about the wisdom of the scheme existed, they were soon laid to rest. Our distinguished guest proved to be an unassuming man with a friendly smile and a lively interest in what was going on, but with no wish to interfere.

The same detachment from College politics persisted when Christopher Butler became President in 1968. His appointment coincided with the appointment of a new Rector of the seminary and a new Headmaster of the school, and he described his own role as that of a sort of referee when interests conflicted. That they never did conflict to any extent was as much due to the President’s benign influence as to the real community of interests of the persons concerned.

One responsibility which was unavoidable for the President was to ensure that the finances of the College were on a sound footing. The finances were in no such condition in 1968, and Bishop Butler was called upon to give us the experience of his time as Abbot of Downside, and to use his persuasive influence with Cardinal Heenan to obtain a much- needed injection of capital into the College. He did this successfully. When the time came, in 1975, for Allen Hall to move to Chelsea, it was made clear that no further subsidies were to be expected from Westminster. It was then that the Bishop’s advice, always tinged with a prudent caution, proved invaluable. He had the vision to see when it was necessary to spend and to take a long-sighted view. He listened to proposals with a sympathetic attention; his judgment was invariably incisive, and usually right—even when he poured cold water on a cherished project.

Most headmasters would not find it an appealing prospect to live on the same gallery as their Chairman of Governors. Bishop Butler’s presence in the school was never obtrusive. He was a tower of strength—always accessible for advice and affirmative in his encouragement and loath to interfere in any way with the internal administration of the school. As the years went by he played the role of President-emeritus rather than active Superior, a wise friend rather than an employer, and his presence was very much missed when he took his infrequent holidays or was absent on business.

Bishop Butler’s most profound gift to St Edmund’s was the influence of his saintly life. A man of prayer and real humility at the helm is a bonus indeed to any establishment. His courtesy was unfailing, and he was the most approachable of men. Boys as well as members of the staff came to him with their problems, and he dealt with both with equal seriousness and sympathy. He was as ready to give his time to talks to the class of Rhetoric as he was to address himself to the deliberations of ARCIC. He positively enjoyed the company of the Edmundian community—rejoiced in the celebration of our feasts—and truly made St Edmund’s his second home, after Downside.


From Mr J. M. Gillham

Bishop Christopher Butler will go down in history as an outstanding English theologian and scholar, who prayed and worked for Christian Unity.

I shall always remember him preaching at a Unity service at St Hugh’s Catholic Church, Letchworth, to a packed all-denominational congregation. He stepped forward and looked around the church, which was silent in eager anticipation of his opening remarks. These were simple, direct and to the point: ‘We are all here because we believe in Jesus Christ’. He then, in his beautiful, pure English voice, reminded us of our good fortune in having Christian Faith to strengthen us during life’s journey on this earth, and the hope of the glory of the Resurrection and Eternal Life. His simple address made a terrific impact on the ‘mixed’ Christian congregation, who afterwards crowded into the Church Hall to line up and shake his hand.

At St Edmund’s College he was loved by all. Courteous, gracious and friendly to the whole community—the domestic, estate, and academic staff, the boys and (in recent years) girls, parents and governors—he treated everyone with the same interest, sympathy and understanding.

Bishop Butler spent almost the last twenty years of his life at St Edmund’s, which he loved dearly. I think he found the peaceful Hertfordshire country environment and his attractive study, overlooking the parkland in front of the College, conducive to his contemplative thinking and theological writing. His book-lined study walls exuded scholarship, sometimes through a haze of sweet-smelling tobacco smoke wafting from his beloved pipe. He was, however, no recluse. His study door was always open to those who wished to consult him.

Bishop Butler in 1983

As President of the College since 1968 and Chairman of the Board of Governors from 1969—1985, he governed progressively, but, at the same time, prudently. Unwavering in maintaining the Catholic traditions of St Edmund’s, he was always receptive to new ideas in an ever-changing world, weighing up the pros and cons of alternative ideas, to arrive at the most viable solution.

He once said to me Vox vocis sonet, vox exempli tonet — ‘the voice of a voice resounds, but the voice of example thunders’. Bishop Christopher Butler’s example certainly thundered.

Butler's Headstone

From the Carmelites of Ware

Our appreciation of him is bound up with a special memory that we love to recall. It was a dark cold mid-winter morning; the roads were icy; our chaplain was ill and we had little prospect of Mass. To crown all there was an electricity cut—and then, quite suddenly, there was Bishop Butler on the sanctuary, quietly proclaiming the Gospel, his face peaceful and kindly in the candlelight. You might have been forgiven for thinking that an eight-mile journey in freezing conditions was normal for an octogenarian!

This has been the pattern of all his generous care for our concerns—preaching for a special occasion; explaining the findings of ARCIC; even, at one urgent and embarrassing moment of crisis, writing a preface needed for a printer’s deadline. Indeed he came among us as one who served and always he made it seem as though he were the receiver and not the giver.

We thank God for the privilege of his friendship over the last twenty years, and for this opportunity to say how and why, in Ware Carmel, his name will ever be remembered in blessing.

From Archbishop Robert Runcie

St Edmund’s gave Bishop Butler great happiness, and I shall always think of it as his home. We all build up our private portrait-gallery of saints, and now Christopher is securely in mine.

Archbishop Runcie and Bishop Butler

Runcie & Butler

Before I met him I already knew his writings, and admired the clarity of his mind. I respected above all the influence of this great theologian of the Second Vatican Council. I encountered him for the first time on March 14th 1970. He welcomed me at my enthronement, and the formal words within the service were followed by invitations to dine and talk here. Thus began ten years of close association which I regard as one of the greatest blessings of my time at St Albans. I remember too how before my departure for Canterbury he gave a little farewell party for myself and my wife. It was characteristic of him to remember her, and she, who is somewhat sparing in the choice of her ecclesiastical occasions and slightly wary of ecclesiastical people, adored Christopher. He was a priest who was totally straight, completely unstuffy, genuinely interested in her and the family, and above all such fun to be with. The Seventies were days when we talked much about the need to be ‘truly human’. I think that Christopher used to wince at this rather mushy objective, but if anyone was truly human he was. ‘All too human,’ he would add, with a little glimmer of wickedness in his eye.

The shy and scholarly Benedictine monk was not naturally disposed to dramatic calls to the nation or demands for a national initiative in evangelism. But he was prepared to go along in critical solidarity with those who were. So we engaged in a year’s campaign of united evangelism—abbreviated for the slogan-makers into ‘Q’. ‘How’s Q going?’ we used to say to each other when we met across a vestry or in a meeting. In the mass services which we had there were some who thought Christopher was misplaced. He didn’t tell funny stories from the pulpit and he didn’t engage in dramatic personal testimonies. But I always remember a little old woman saying to me, ‘You can always understand Bishop Butler: he doesn’t use funny churchy words’. And that was true. He would speak clearly about truth, goodness and purpose as evidence for belief in God. Above all, when he spoke about God you felt there was no one else in the church who knew as much about the subject. He was always concerned with fundamentals. Even though he never used a note, his words fell into natural prose. He always held the attention of the thoughtful and of those who were prepared to listen and to do something about the sermon they’d heard. Those who came merely for entertainment would perhaps go away disappointed.

I don’t know anyone who was so involved in the philosophical and theological debates about unity and yet was so closely in touch with the practical parish problems that they raised and the opportunities that they opened. Many of the obituaries say that he was awarded the Cross of St Augustine twice for his work for ecumenism. That was of course an error. I didn’t realize that he had been given it before and I gave him one with a great speech at Lambeth. He accepted it with humility and gratitude hut whispered, ‘Actually Archbishop Ramsey gave me one. Shall I give it back to you later?’.

I have a favourite passage about a very English bishop, a passage which contains this sentence: ‘There is a saintliness which seems to spring from rigorous self-discipline’. Christopher’s character did not suggest that kind of quality. About the self-discipline there could be no doubt. But what was most evident was the humanity, the breadth, the naturalness. We found in him no tension, no pose, no tautness that he could not relax. He was one of those rare spirits in whom grace seems natural. Grace had so intimately mingled with his nature that it was all of one piece. Grace itself had become natural. Who was to say which was which? Was it all grace? Was it all nature? Was it not all both?

The Christian life, he made us feel, was supernatural, yes; otherworldly, yes; but not strange or unnatural or forced or inhuman or narrow. This was what the man was born for. It was normality itself. It was balanced, sane, unwarped. It was man as he ought to be. To one so gentle we took our problems. And taking them we found in him moral insight, itself deriving from the harmony of grace and nature within him.

Let us pray we meet again, in the company of Mary and all the saints in heaven.


From Bishop Alan Clark

A giant mind, a massive intelligence, a formidable opponent in debate, a deeply respected theologian—a most lovable man.

Much will be written of Bishop Butler, of his mastery of theology and Catholic doctrine, and also of his obsession with philosophical thinking, whatever its origin. For he could never justify the Christian faith to his own satisfaction unless he had built round it an impregnable philosophical defence.

If any person could have argued himself of his own resources into the Catholic Church, it was Christopher Butler, though he would have pounced on this piece of Pelagianism with passionate denial.

But, once within the community of the Catholic Church, it was his delight to build its doctrine painstakingly into a synthesis aimed at every level of mind. As is well known, he found Lonergan had, to his way of thinking, done a great deal of the groundwork for him.

However, as one who prides himself on having been a close friend, I want to say something of the man and the priest.

He had a puckish humour nourished by his vast reading of the classical literature of past and present. Although deeply versed in the classics of Greek and Rome, he was equally at home in the historical debate of the English schools, ancient and modern.

His most lovable quality, I think, was his genuine willingness to listen to anyone who had something to say even though, with no malice, he could almost shyly tell others he had just listened to unutterable nonsense.

His love, a real passion, for truth enabled him to express unfeigned interest (through a billowing cloud of tobacco smoke) in the intellectual offerings of his opponents.

Yet one could be lulled into an unwise complacency. In a rolling period, a sharply tuned paragraph, he could demolish devastatingly an ill-conceived argument. But the gentle, humble, and simple way he rejected untruths or shabby thinking meant that he was without enemies.

Others will testify to the ease with which he could entertain the adolescent and the young. But children? Anyone who had the privilege to see him conversing very seriously with the very young will remember it still. I think he gave such younglings a feeling of being on equal terms with this kindly man who did not brush aside their fantasies but welcomed them.

We were on ARCIC I together. I can only say that his contributions ranked very high in the tremendous work of that body of Anglicans and Catholics who over a period of 12 years wrote together a statement of their faith on long controversies and divisive issues.

Some disagreement remained, but doors to agreement were pushed open as wide as was intellectually honest. He could be stubborn, and I did hear the odd groan of others who were defending a different position.

But he would return to his room and to his Agatha Christie (he prided himself on guessing the murderer at an early stage in the novel) and next day there would he new clues offered to the resolution of an impasse.

His spiritual life was enshrined in a strictly adhered-to timetable. His Mass, his breviary, his Rosary and a frequent return to De Caussade formed the pattern of his day.

God was for him the Magnum Mysterium, but his love was simple and uncomplicated. He did all sacred actions scrupulously to the point of exaggeration—but his innate reverence seemed to require that.

So he has gone to God, and his giant mind, so full of questions, is now brimming with peace and satisfaction. Many in his own Benedictine Order will have their say and his picture will sharpen in our own memories. I shall keep him in mind as one of the most lovable men I have ever encountered and with whom I was privileged to co-operate in an historic task. It is not given to many to sit for so long at the feet of a Master in Israel.


Bishop Christopher Butler OSB  - Chronology

Born at Reading, England, 7 May 1902
Educated at Reading School and St John’s College, Oxford (White Scholar)
Craven Scholarship
First Class in Classical Mods, Greats, Theology
Gaisford Greek Prose Prize
Proxime accessit
, Hertford Scholarship
Tutor at Keble College, 1925
Ordained Deacon in the Church of England, 1926
Classics Master, Brighton College, 1927
Received into the Catholic Church, 1928
Entered Novitiate at Downside Abbey, 1929
Ordained Priest, 10 June 1933
Head Master of Downside, 1940—46
Abbot of Downside, 1946—66
Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, 1961—67
Full member of Vatican II as Abbot President, and member of its Theology Commission
Ordained Bishop (Titular Bishop of Nova Barbara) by Cardinal Heenan, 21 December 1966
First Bishop in Hertfordshire (retired 1977)
President of the Social Morality Council
Chairman of the Editorial Board of  The Clergy Review, 1967—80
President of St Edmund’s College from 1968; Chairman of the Board of Governors 1969—85
Member of ARCIC I, 1970—82
Vicar Capitular, November 1975 to March 1976
Assistant at the Pontifical Throne, 1980
Hon. Fellow St John’s College Oxford
Hon. LL.D., Notre Dame University, and Catholic University of America
Died 20 September 1986