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Obituary: Canon Michael John Butler

20 March 2015

Wendy Cocks writes:

CANON Michael Butler, who died on 28 November, aged 82, after a car accident in Norfolk, was a priest who gave much of his ministry and energy to encouraging the spiritual life of older people. Educated at Keble College, Oxford, and trained at Mirfield in the late 1950s, he served in parishes in east London, the City of London, Surrey, and Brighton; and volunteered for many years with the Samaritans, and was part of their executive committee.

Michael became adviser for the Board for Social Responsibility, and later director, in Chichester diocese. It was while in this post that he encountered ecumenical partners who were keen to improve the spiritual care of older people. So began a relationship with the Christian Council on Ageing (CCOA) (now Christians on Ageing) which lasted more than 30 years.

One of his particular gifts was writing: he became editor in 1989 of the journal Plus, contributed to the publication Spiritual Perspectives on Ageing: A module for ministerial training as part of the Halley Stewart Age Awareness Project, and was co-author with Ann Orbach of Being Your Age (SPCK, 1993).

When Michael moved to Norfolk in 2000, after his retirement, he became involved with the Norwich CCOA prayer group. Out of this sprang his work with lifers in Nelson Wing, "the hospice behind bars", at Norwich prison; the "Out and About" project in which prisoners meet informally; and "Forget-me-nots", help for prisoners with dementia.

After he met Dr Elizabeth MacKinlay, from Australia, the idea of international conferences on ageing and spirituality was floated, and Michael led workshops in Australia, Durham, and, most recently, in Edinburgh in 2014, on the work he was undertaking with prisoners at Norwich prison. In Norfolk, Michael was a founder member of the Aylsham Music Society, and his rich bass tone will be missed there.

While all this paints a picture of a committed priest, he was a very private person, rarely sharing personal information; and the recollections of many have been about admiration for his writing and words of wisdom.

In his editorial in 2012 he wrote: "Friends tell me I take on too much and should 'downsize'. Maybe they are right, but there is something that I still prioritize. It means getting up at 6.30 am every day, and going to the parish church so that I can join in saying the morning office. After prayers I get my local paper, croissant for breakfast and roll for lunch, and my day has begun. The routine is comforting and rooted in gratitude to God for his gifts and challenges, even at 80."

Michael wasn't, as I'm sure he would readily have admitted, the most organised of people. Despite poor health over the past few years, he never gave up on all his projects: his prison work, collecting prayers for the book that he never quite got time to put together, his choir, and his unceasing support of CCOA. All in Christians on Ageing will miss him very much.

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