Ten years ago a senior bishop in the Church of England went out for a Christmas drinks party. He came back with a sore head, accusations he'd broken into the back of a Mercedes, and an increasingly legendary story that would give birth to a proto-meme.
This is the Christmas story of what happened to the Bishop of Southwark, one of the greatest morality tales ever told.
The Bishop of Southwark at the time – the Right Reverend Tom Butler – strongly disputes many of the reports of what happened on that night. The eyewitnesses are hard to track down. The fact it ever even became a national news story in an increasingly godless age seems bizarre. Regardless, what started out as a niche ecumenical matter has found a new life in strange corners of the internet, gained a cult following, and enjoyed semi-mythical status.
First, the undisputed facts: In December 2006, Butler, a noted churchman who regularly appeared on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day in his role as bishop of the Anglican diocese of Southwark, attended the Irish Embassy’s Christmas drinks party in London.
The event truly embodies the festive spirit, assisted by a copious supply of spirits for those attending. One regular guest described the yearly event to BuzzFeed News as "two men just nonstop pouring Guinness for the evening".
The bishop himself told The Guardian the event was "one of those pre-Christmas receptions with drinks and nibbles". But then the stories diverge. In the bishop's telling he woke up with a lump on his forehead, with no memory of getting home. He apologised to his congregation for his appearance – the lump stopped him wearing his ceremonial mitre – and he said he had been the victim of a mugging during which he lost his briefcase, mobile phone, and crucifix.
"There was this story about me being in a car at London Bridge, which I can remember absolutely nothing about," he told the newspaper. "I thought I was travelling home on public transport."
The media also spoke to Paul Sumpter, then a 39-year-old businessman, who told a different story. In his telling the bishop was walking uneasily down a street close to his cathedral at 9.30pm, shortly after the reception.
At which point, according to Sumpter's account in the Daily Telegraph, he noticed something was up with the Mercedes parked outside.
“Paul Sumpter, the car’s owner, was playing pool in Suchard Bar when he heard his vehicle alarm go off.
“He ran outside and saw Mr Butler, dressed in his robes and a smart black over coat, sitting in the back seat throwing out the toys.”
“Mr Sumpter said to him: ‘What are you doing in my car?’”
“Mr Butler replied: ‘I’m the Bishop of Southwark, it’s what I do’.”
Much like the multiple gospels covering the birth of Jesus, there are several accounts of the Bishop of Southwark story, all based on apparently similar source material. The Telegraph is considered by some as the canonical account, although strangely the journalist who wrote their piece – now working in San Francisco – did not respond to requests for comment when asked to expand on how he came to write his magnum opus.
Amid much media interest the Church of England conducted an investigation into the events of the night, which found the bishop had nothing to answer and did not deal with the issue of drunkenness – with the bishop obtaining apologies from several newspapers that claimed he was definitely worse for wear. The case was closed amid various claims of whitewash and media overexcitement, Butler got on with his job of leading a major Anglican diocese, and that's where the story should have ended.
Butler himself, now retired and the honorary bishop for Huddersfield and Wakefield, did not respond to a request for comment. He has always strongly denied being drunk and the matter is considered long closed.
Unfortunately, the internet got involved.
Gradually, thanks to Twitter, the story achieved a cult following. And somehow the simple phrase "I'm the Bishop of Southwark, it's what I do" stuck in the minds of those who read the story. It became – largely detached from what might be the reality of what happened and Butler's strong denial – an exasperated yet baffled exclamation of joy and confused delight suitable for the Christmas party season.
It took a few years before the odd reference started appearing on early social media, originally from active churchgoers.
There were a handful of other mentions but it remained fairly quiet. Then around 2011 the shout of "I'm the Bishop of Southwark, it's what I do" began to pick up momentum. Somehow it had become a howl in its own right. A way of saying "screw you" to the world. A mitre-shaped declaration of independence.
It could be offered up as an explanation for just about anything.
It became a semi-viable T-shirt slogan.
Financial publications started issuing tweets about it.
At some point a band called the Joy-Rides recorded a largely unlistenable song inspired by the incident in which they shouted "I AM THE BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK IT'S WHAT I DO, I AM THE BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK I DO WHAT I LIKE" over some distorted guitars.
Some people – many people, perhaps – who deployed the phrase were deeply unfunny.
And animals adopted its attitude.
Tracking down firm evidence as to what actually happened on that night proved impossible. People who were drinking with the bishop at the Irish embassy that night declined to comment. The pub where the incident allegedly took place has now closed. Meanwhile, repeated attempts by BuzzFeed News to talk to Sumpter – the only source for the original classic "I'm the Bishop of Southwark, it's what I do" quote – were thwarted.
His wife promised to pass our number on to the man himself to discuss the "hilarious" event but the call never came.
She was also absolutely baffled by our interest in the story and its growing legion of fans: "I didn't realise it had reached cult status, had forgotten all about it to be honest."
In reality what happened that night barely matters. The phrase itself has become a low-level, distinctly British meme of its own. But some people won't give up, with journalists Helen Nianias and Dolly Alderton organising a Bishop of Southwark party to celebrate the 10th anniversary.
"I think it's the most human and relatable story – we've all overdone it at a party before, especially at a work do where you struggle to look your colleagues in the eye the next day," said Nianias. "The story is so special and funny because it shows that we are all fallible, all liable to make the same mistakes, and it has a touch of the urban legend about it.
"It actually converted the grandfather of one of our friends back into a believer because 'some of them [the clergy] are normal'."
In short, the phrase has become a universal cry of Father Ted-esque despair. It's perfect for when you don't know what's going on but are aware that something's going very wrong. It's the excuse you should use when everything is imploding on you.
This Christmas, when in doubt, just remember the simple phrase: "I'm the Bishop of Southwark, it's what I do."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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