St Peter was at his best not when lecturing about the frailty of religious commitment, but when exhibiting that frailty in thought and deed. I mean to say, don't we sheep have a right to feel entertained when the shepherd drinks hooch and howls at the moon?
Enter the Right Reverend Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark. The other night he tipped up at the Irish Embassy — a place renowned through the ages for marathons of abstemiousness — and drank a quantity of Portuguese wine, whereupon he staggered into the sodden night and allegedly climbed into a stranger's Mercedes. This happened somewhere near Crucifix Lane (I'm not making this up). Witnesses claim the prodigal bish wasn't entirely happy in the back of the vehicle: he threw a bunch of cuddly toys into the air before rolling on to the pavement, where he bashed his head. "It's not at all what one might expect from the senior clergy," said a shocked Christian walking her dog.
Butler woke up the next morning with a bit of a hango. A crown of thorns, to be precise. It was naughty of him then to tell the congregation he was the victim of a mugging, but, then again, he wasn't really lying; the only problem was that both the victim and the perpetrator of the mugging were one and the same man — himself.
Leader writers and ruby-cheeked clerics up and down the country are frowning — perhaps, they say, the Bishop of Southwark should take a rest or otherwise flagellate himself with a wet plimsoll.
But why? Nobody died, as my stepsons are often heard quite irritatingly to say. In my view, the bishop should perhaps be mentioned in the forthcoming New Year's Honours List, for crimes in favour of humanity. After all, he hails from the Southwark stews and there is, in fact, a rather colourful tradition of clerics behaving badly in that quarter. He was only keeping up with a tradition going back to the 12th century. The Bishop of Winchester, for example, had such a bad reputation for consorting with the bawds of Southwark that for years (and in Shakespeare's Henry VI) we find prostitutes described as "Winchester geese".
Misbehaving bishops are among the great comic treasures of our time. Who could forget the wonderfully degenerate Bishop Casey of Galway, who had a teenage son with an American divorcee while strenuously urging the Irish hordes to improve their morals? And what about the venerable Bishop Demetri Khoury of Toledo, Michigan, who got hammered in a casino and groped a passing stranger? Such behaviour cannot, of course, be seen to uphold the higher ambitions of the Church, yet, for the slightly less po-faced, it could also remind us that while even the most visible of religious leaders speak like angels, they live like men.
The Christmas before last I took a northern bishop and a London priest to lunch at Rules. They said Grace, of course, and then got dusted on claret. The bishop chose the Galloway beef and the priest had the steak-and-kidney pudding. They fairly glowed, the two of them, with jolliness and sin, and they told stories about how to get young people into church and how to make them feel it wasn't some morose Sunday dungeon. We laughed quite a lot and I turned eventually to the subject that takes up all the airtime these days — paedophile priests.
"It's rotten," said the bishop eventually. "Not least because it draws so much attention away from our other failings." There's no joke to be found in cases of child sexual abuse, but widespread recent attention to those sorts of crimes — and the Church's attempts to cover them up — might have rendered us immune to the altogether happier business of clerics' more forgivable tumblings from grace.
Whenever I feel gloomy about the Church, I remember dear old Brian Brindley. In his day, he was one of the chief thinkers in the Church of England, and he liked, meanwhile, to wear red high heels and disport himself in a questionable fashion around the doors of public lavatories. He loved architecture and good-quality grapes, and had a vision of unity for the churches that was undiminished by his frailty and his colourfulness and his sense of fun. He died during a birthday supper at the Athenaeum, "somewhere between the dressed crab and the boeuf en croute", and one could not truthfully say the world was better without him.
This Christmas, while the children unwrap their plastics and the clerics fill their boots, let us remember that without failure there would be no need of forgiveness. No man or woman is simply one thing, and true tolerance means leaving a margin in life for people's vanity and weakness, as well as one's own. In recent years, Britain has increasingly been given to the witch-hunt and the quick condemnation, the rule of the mob and the holier-than-thou cheer of execration. We behave as if we enjoy the spectacle of other people's failure.
Perhaps it might serve us better occasionally simply to smile at folly. The Bishop of Southwark's only sin was to bow so pitiably to the fear of his congregation's judgment. But let he who is without such fear cast the first stone.