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Gay cleric drops six of his veils

18 October 2013

Glyn Paflin enjoys a revealing diary of the past 50 years

Diary of a Gay Priest: The tightrope walker
Malcolm Johnson
Christian Alternative £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT577 )
(978-1-78279-002-0)

MALCOLM JOHNSON gave me a long interview in 1993, just after he took up his appointment as Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Stepney. He had gained a tremendous reputation by his work for homeless people at St Botolph's, Aldgate, and as the incongruous object of Chancellor Newsome's scathing remarks when the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was evicted from its office in the church tower. John Whale, our editor, regarded him as "a serious figure", an accolade awarded sparingly. Lionel Blue has apparently dubbed him the "pink bishop".

I remember being unsure whether Prebendary Johnson - since 2010 a Ph.D., thanks to his longstanding historical interest in Bishop Blomfield of London - was gay himself, and whether he had, in our office parlance, "a friend"; and, since our readers mostly preferred not to know such things, it was a decorous encounter that furnished a piece of safety-first journalism.

Now I do know. In his diaries, he has, in his own words, "dropped six of the seven veils"; and the book is dedicated to his civil partner, Robert. It is a terrific read - frank enough, though not, of course, in the Tom Driberg league (it does reveal that, like Driberg in one respect, Johnson was briefly married, a mistake he made much earlier in life); and full of fascinating glimpses into the twilight world of the Church of England. Some of the Church's (heterosexual) bishops tried, at least, to do the decent pastoral thing in an area that they disliked talking about in public. There has been a colossal amount of talk since the cloak-and-dagger approach of the 1960s, before the Sexual Offences Act, and after; but how much has changed?

There are bishops still with us who do not come out (so to speak) well from this diary. Yet it is striking how humane such Bishops of London as Robert Stopford, Gerald Ellison, and even, at first, Graham Leonard were at a time when pastoral initiatives could be made to look scandalous. In deepest Essex in the 1970s, I thought there was only one "gay" vicar, whatever that meant: Fr Elers in Thaxted, who, the adults said, was giving Bishop Trillo a spot of bother. You didn't have to be a child to be mystified: Johnson also had to explain "gay" to a Trollopian archdeacon in Amen Court.

Of course, as Johnson records, many of the clergy were (and are) gay, though only a handful were able to sustain long-term live-in partnerships, mainly those working outside the parish system. As a result of his work with the Albany Trust as a counsellor, and with the Clergy Consultation, developing a support network, he had a good idea of the numbers involved. Diary entries suggest that claims made for the significance of homosexuality in the Church as a pastoral issue 50 years ago were supported by the numbers, as well as by the qualitative consideration of lives wrecked by unresolved tensions and judgemental attitudes.

The St Botolph's case in 1988, which moved Rowan Williams, then an Oxford professor, to speak out against the humiliation of the St Botolph's PCC and the LGCM, occurred, of course, against the background of the terrifying early years of HIV/AIDS, made worse by an outbreak of unsympathetic moralising.

Although the epidemic could have provided more than enough outlet for one man's ministry, Johnson's pastoral heart remained for "the community" in a broad sense. His social circle has been wide, and, as any successful priest must, he finds people interesting and sometimes amusing (entries can be very funny). But his diary is also a reminder that, in the C of E, if you plan to stick your neck out, it also helps to be a bit posh (the family firm, employing more than 500, was Johnson & Sons in Great Yarmouth), and to own your home.

He must have looked like a good fit for the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, where he spruced up the chapel and had tea with the Queen Mother. Among the things that still anger him, such as the collapse after he left St Botolph's of its work with the homeless, is his ousting from this, his next post. He attributes it to the opposition of Lord Churchill, whom I remember as one of the pleasantest people to make conversation with in the days when the General Synod dined more formally than it does now in York. We must speak as we find, I suppose.

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