Vale - Harlin John Lascelles Butterley

One of the best known and most loved and respected priests in the diocese died in his 85th year on Friday 6 January, Epiphany, 2012.

When Bishop Robert Davies selected a Sydney-educated moderate Evangelical as Dean Webber's successor there were mutterings of a likely split in the diocese, but any fears that Harlin Butterley might lead the cathedral away from its centrist tradition of churchmanship would soon have evaporated.

For not only did [he] wear full Eucharistic vestments without complaint; he proved to be a popular and adaptable leader at St David's. Indeed, given the cathedral's dynamic spirit and its expanding congregation during a period of nation-wide decline, the Butterley years are sometimes recalled as ‘a golden age'.

Forty-five years old at the time of his appointment, Harlin Butterley had some prior experience of the Tasmanian diocese, as general secretary of the Church Missionary Society for three years from 1952. He subsequently served for ten years as missionary chaplain to a boys' college in Hong Kong, then five years as an army chaplain, two of them in England and three with NATO forces in Germany.

Butterley was installed at the cathedral on the final evening of the February 1972 floral festival, and his installation sermon warned against the Church compromising its core message in the face of advancing forces of secularism and modernism: ‘Sometimes in its urge to be modern, the church becomes ludicrous.'

Although he had warned against any dilution of the core Christian message, Butterley was certainly innovative and modern in his methods. His sermons were frequently imbued with humorous asides, some of them self-deprecatory, and he was not above the occasional pulpit gimmick, one of which made him ill. In seeking to highlight the relevance of eye-witness evidence to acceptance of the Resurrection story, Butterley swallowed a garden rose at each of his three Sunday-after-Easter morning sermons and at Evensong, unaware that they had been recently sprayed with arsenic. This incident inspired the title of a book of sermons and reflections he later published, Poisoned While Preaching.

In visiting his parishioners Butterley cut a dashing figure on his motorcycle, equipped with black leather jacket and helmet. He became a member of Hobart Rotary and did not court invitations to Government House. But he was much in demand as a speaker. The dean's wife, Judy, was a yoga enthusiast and turned many conservative heads in the St David's congregation by introducing them to ‘hot pants', a new and smart fashion item. She wore them at the dean's installation, and it was her photograph, not the dean's, that appeared in The Mercury next morning. The Butterleys did not entertain widely, but the deanery was a hospitable place, cheerfully offered for study groups, committee meetings and an annual fair.

Butterley was not an enthusiast for committee meetings, but he seems to have been careful enough to avoid any serious complaint from his own Council or congregation that he failed to consult.

Although the new dean's first year was a difficult one, much was achieved. There were rapid developments on the property front. At his first annual meeting of parishioners the dean foreshadowed a vigorous ministry to youth. Within months of the arrival of his new precentor, Graham Oliver, and young assistant curate, Peter Kearney, the cathedral crypt was converted to a gathering place for youth.

From its launch in February 1973 the ‘Dungeon' coffee shop was open on Friday and Sunday evenings, with over four hundred members signing up. More space was soon needed [but] in 1975 the cathedral found it difficult to comply with public health requirements and the shop was closed. Butterley was not really sorry ... because he was not fully convinced that it was serving a distinctive Christian function.

There were other initiatives aimed at youth. In August 1977 Butterley presided over the cathedral's first folk mass, which attracted more than five hundred communicants, and a second was celebrated in December. There appears to have been no outcry from the traditionalists at St David's, but Butterley was relieved that the popularity of folk masses was relatively short-lived.

At his first annual meeting of parishioners Dean Butterley had flagged the need for a stewardship program, and from 1973 a higher level of weekly offertories was sustained for several years. A balanced budget was deemed mandatory, but there was now scope for more generous cathedral support of missions and local community outreach.

Perhaps Dean Butterley's most strikingly successful innovation was his willingness to cater for diverse worship styles by segregating congregations rather than amalgamating or standardising them. He dedicated the 9 o'clock (later 8.45) Sunday morning service to informal family-style worship, later relying on the Third Order of the new Australian Prayer Book adopted by General Synod in 1977.

The 8.45 service grew rapidly in popularity and developed a disciplined but informal organisational structure ... with a committee elected every six months to promote outreach.

Peter Kearney reported that a feature of the congregation was the number of unconfirmed communicants; several of them were non-Anglicans. This break with tradition was considered by the dean as a relatively small price to pay for the sustenance of such a dynamic and financially generous component of the cathedral family, whose registered membership exceeded 120 by the end of the decade and whose attendances sometimes exceeded 200. Several members later offered themselves for ordination; two co-founded Hobart's Christian radio station. Butterley recognised that the 8.45 service offered a safety valve for disgruntled members of other parishes, both Anglican and non-Anglican.

In the aftermath of the Tasman Bridge collapse in January 1975, service times were altered to accommodate ferry timetables for eastern shore parishioners, and Butterley regularly visited homes on the eastern shore for special study groups. Surprisingly perhaps, the St David's congregation actually increased during 1975.

Close links with St Michael's Collegiate continued, even after the departure of the Sisters of the Church in 1973. Butterley retained the demanding role of school chaplain [and] many years later singled out his association with Collegiate as a very satisfying experience.

In 1977 the money for a major restoration program for the cathedral was raised in just six weeks, Butterley having used his links with Hobart Rotary to gain support. He wrote a personal note to each donor and the campaign was seen to have strengthened links between cathedral and community. Yet another link with the community was fostered in 1978 by the dean's advertised course on happiness and marriage, which promised to cover everything ‘from sex to real estate'.

By late 1979, after seven hectic years, Harlin Butterley was ready for a less stressful life, and ... accepted appointment as vicar of St Andrew's Brighton, [in] Melbourne. His departure in April 1980 was much regretted by Council and congregation alike.

The Butterley incumbency at St David's was one of the shortest in the cathedral's history, but by most criteria it could be rated as highly successful. A large and diverse congregation was sustained; serious dispute in cathedral governance was absent. Within the broader Hobart community the dean enjoyed considerable popularity. On hearing of its financial predicament in the 1990s he donated the royalties from his book of sermons, and in May 2010 he accepted Bishop Harrower's offer of the title ‘Dean Emeritus'.

Adapted from a section on Harlin Butterley's tenure as Dean of Hobart, in the draft history of St David's Cathedral. The author is Emeritus Professor Peter Boyce.

A book-length history of St David's Cathedral, God and the City, is scheduled for publication on 21 August 2012, which will be the 170th anniversary of establishment of the Diocese of Tasmania and the simultaneous elevation of Hobart Town to city status.


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older man clergy collar holding spaniel in arms

Harlin Butterley with his beloved dog, Ginger Spice.
Photo courtesy Jill Weeks, Where2Now