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Melbourne memorial service a prelude to Bishop Bob Butterss' final farewell in NSW

Archbishop Freier present as a missionary and pastor is commended to God in prayer in his former parish of Mt Waverley

Bishop Butterss pictured during his time as an assistant bishop in Melbourne from 1985-94. Archbishop Freier said he had been told that the late bishop's prayer during his final illness was that he would be able to remain joyful in the faith until his death.

By Mark Brolly

July 12 2017 

Bishop Bob Butterss – a former Assistant Bishop of Melbourne, Dean of Brisbane and missionary priest in Papua New Guinea – had welcomed what St Francis of Assisi called “Sister Death” as a friend, not as something fearful or terrible, his Melbourne memorial service was told on 12 July.

Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier preached and a friend of 57 years, Bishop Jeremy Ashton, delivered the eulogy at the Melbourne service at the Anglican Parish of St Stephen and St Mary in Mount Waverley, where Bishop Butterss had been vicar from 1970-76. The Revd Dianne Sharrock, his successor as Vicar of Mount Waverley, led the service.

Robert Leopold Butterss was ordained for the Diocese of Melbourne in the mid-1950s and served a curacy at Brighton and as Vicar of Lara and later of Pascoe Vale for much of the following decade, apart from more than four years in PNG.

He retired to the NSW North Coast in 1994 and died there aged 86 on 4 July.

A member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, his Requiem Eucharist is to be held at St John’s church in Taree on 14 July and his ashes taken to a Franciscan community at Stroud, 80 kilometres north of Newcastle, to be placed alongside those of his wife, Margaret.

Bishop Ashton, who served as a priest and bishop in PNG for 26 years from 1960, said Bishop Butterss “was very ready to die, he was waiting for it” during his final illness and that “a becoming sort of humility was through his life” and at its end.

“It was not something fearful or terrible, it was a friend who was coming to him,” Bishop Ashton said. “And I’d like to think of Bob as I’ve known him all those different years – the whole of that life, all the different ministry in various places - all that he was doing was a way of preparing to meet Sister Death. And now to be united again with Margaret because one cannot really think of one without the other.”

Bishop Ashton said when he arrived in Australia “as a 10-Pound Pom” in 1960, he met the Butterss at the House of the Epiphany in Sydney, where they were training to go to PNG.

“Bob and Margaret in fact were really the first Australians I had met… In the House of the Epiphany… people were there preparing to go to all sorts of places but it seemed that they were the… mother and father of the place. Certainly it was wonderful to meet them and to get to know them a bit, to learn something about what an Australian was. Don’t know that I’ve really learned it still but they gave me an opportunity.”

In PNG, they worked almost 50 kilometres apart, with the then Revd Ashton in Oro Bay and Bob and Margaret Butterss in Popondetta, which could be a day’s journey away if the weather closed in. Often the Butterss hosted the English missionary and the woman who would become his wife, Betty.

Later, Robert Butterss became Victorian secretary and then Chairman of the Anglican Board of Mission, the national mission agency of the Church in Australia.

“One of the things that I remember with gratitude from his time that he continued the practice of giving untied grants,” said Bishop Ashton, who wore a cope and mitre given to him by villagers from Wanigela, in PNG’s Oro Province. “Nowadays, everything’s tied. ABM says this is how you’re going to spend your money but at that time, we were left free. We were trusted to spend the money in the way which would help with our work and that was a great thing from Bob at that time.”

Bishop Ashton recalled his friend as Dean of St John’s Cathedral Brisbane in 1984, just before a service to consecrate Anthony Hall-Matthews as Bishop of Carpentaria, which then covered Far North Queensland.

“In talking in the Cathedral with Bob before the service, he said to me: ‘I’ve got two worries about this service – one is that the Torres Strait Islander choir won’t turn up but my greater worry is that they will turn up and they won’t know when to stop.’ Anyhow, all went well there.”

The following year, Bob Butterss became an assistant bishop to Melbourne’s then Archbishop David Penman (later also serving under Archbishop Keith Rayner).

Bishop Ashton said that he (Bishop Ashton) had to retire in his mid-50s, the retiring age in the PNG Church then, had bought a house in Castlemaine and was looking for something to do.

“It was Bob who came and suggested that I might like to have a part-time parish in Melbourne. He took pity on me as a sort of unemployed episcopus vagans, a wandering bishop, and he took me from my wandering and set me down in Deepdene, just up the road here. That was again something for which I’m grateful for Bob for having brought me into Melbourne, into the life of the Church in Melbourne.”

The Butterss hosted Francisan Tertiaries at their Melbourne home, Bishop Ashton said.

“One of the things I remember from that is that he would hand out Prayer Books to us as we sat around for the Eucharist and I always went to see which parish he had been in recently because he had a wonderful collection of books which he’d collected from parishes around the Eastern Region.

“I think for much of his life he had felt at a disadvantage for not being a graduate of a university – I don’t think he had any right to think that – but he felt he was at a disadvantage. So in his retirement, he went and studied and got his degree.”

Archbishop Freier said he had been told that Bishop Butterss’ prayer during his final illness was that he would be able to remain joyful in the faith until his death, “and that’s a great thing”.

“Perhaps there is something you have admired in Bishop Bob’s life,” he told the congregation. “We can’t kind of embrace the whole of someone’s life but I often think if we find one thing that’s admirable, that’s virtuous, that we think, ‘I’d really like to be more like that myself’, we can take that up in our reflections in memory of their lives. It’s a challenge for us.”

Dr Freier, a Queenslander, recalled when Bob Butterss was Dean of Brisbane during the Bjelke-Petersen era that he told a military guard at a service in the Cathedral that they weren’t to bring their weapons into the Cathedral.

“This was a matter of great controversy at the time,” he said.

“I had always reflected on that as an act of great courage, of acting on principles which I also share, with Bob it comes from his Third Order Franciscan observance, but I thought that was something that was a courageous act that would have been a costly act... In my personal contact with him and with Margaret, it was a gentleness and warmth, but there was courage in taking a public position.”