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When gay pride met prejudice

18 October 2013

Malcolm Johnson's London church was well known for its work with homeless people. His ministry in the gay community had to tread more carefully - and it ultimately led to his denunciation by the diocesan chancellor, amid a storm of publicity. Here are extracts from his newly published diaries


Outspoken: the Revd Malcolm Johnson in 1993

Outspoken: the Revd Malcolm Johnson in 1993

The Portsmouth curate

25 June 1962 At my first staff meeting the vicar said that the Mothers' Union wanted a talk: "A day in the life of a parson". "Malcolm, you've been here seven days, so go and describe one of them." The days are certainly very full - communion, matins and meditation in the morning then work through the day, mainly visiting the 1000 homes in my area of the parish, and tramping over every inch of the cemeteries.

28 May 1963 Am at Cerne Abbas, the Franciscan friary, taking stock of my first year in the ministry, and I'm not sure I like what I see. It has been frantically busy so personal needs have been shoved into the background. . . My big problem is still my sexuality and every day I think about it. In some ways it hinders my work but strangely enough I don't pray about it. If only my homosexuality could be taken away. As well as the daily office I only spend about ten minutes in prayer. What shall I do after Portsmouth? Become a Franciscan, go to New Guinea or back to Norfolk? I feel very lonely and need a wife and children.

1 May 1965 Mrs Phillips, my therapist, the Jung Lady, is horrified that I am considering having a dog, and says that it would obviously be a substitute for a lover, so I straightaway go out and buy one. 

15 January 1966  One of the Jung Lady's bright ideas is that I should mix more with healthy heterosexuals of my own age, and last month she encouraged me to go skiing with a party of young people. So I have just spent ten days in Solden, Austria. . . What an odd time, the highlights of which were the meals après ski and looking at the devastatingly handsome young instructor. Bronzed and fit, he hit the nail on the head by telling me I need to use my "boody" more.

The husband

14 December 1968 Our wedding day in Rickmansworth where Susan's parents live. After a splendid Nuptial Mass our 100 guests drive to the Bull at Gerrards Cross for the reception.

1 August 1969 Susan and I have agreed to separate as the suffering of the last few months has been intense. I walk with the dog each day around Victoria Park feeling depressed and guilty because I cannot return her love, and have no sexual feelings for her. She is moving into a flat in the West End. I am desolate.


London University chaplain

2 September 1969 Wearing my best suit I drive to Fulham Palace, park the car in the Tudor quadrangle, and ring the bell. The chaplain takes me down long corridors and into the Bishop of London's study. Robert Stopford, a fatherly pipe-smoking man not long from retirement, has no idea why I am there. I explain what has happened [to his marriage] and offer my resignation. He listens intently then there is a long silence. . . Then the Bishop refused to accept my resignation, saying that I had done nothing wrong.

1 December 1970 The SK social group which I helped found two years ago at the Wychcroft conference has been a lifesaver for me. Robert [Wilson, his partner of 46 years, who was by this time living with him in Woodford] and I go every Saturday evening. . . We have a stunningly boring handout in case the police or press raid us - along the lines that we three wonderful social workers wish to provide a space so that homosexual men can discuss their problems together. We left out the social slant as we might be accused of running a bawdy house where people meet for sex, and we did not mention the illegal bar.

18 January 1971 I speak in the Tower Hamlets Deanery debate on homosexuality and am opposed by the evangelical vicar of Spitalfields, Eddy Stride, who has the air of a shop steward about him. His speech is dominated by the horror of sodomy, and he talks of "the racked bodies" it produces, whatever that means. Lesbians must find this talk very odd. After the debate Eddy's lady worker collared me and said, "You'll be condoning sex with animals next."

15 May 1971  I had a good conversation at Fulham Palace with Bishop Stopford who asked some very searching questions about gay men and women. How do they see the Church? How do they cope with living secret lives? I felt he was very perceptive about the pain that is caused by the Church's attitude. . . The Bishop realises that many clergy are gay, and feels that a hidden ministry to them is also needed. He promised to think the matter over and see if he could help. I drove home feeling very supported and affirmed.

City rector

23 October 1973 Gerald Ellison, Bishop of Chester and the post-war vicar of my first parish, St Mark Portsea, is the new Bishop of London because +Robert has retired which saddens me as he has been so good to me.

2 February 1974 Out of the blue comes a letter from +Gerald Ellison asking if I would consider becoming rector of St Botolph Aldgate in the City of London. I took two minutes to decide.

1 December 1974  Gerald is at St Botolph's for a confirmation, and comes to lunch afterwards with Robert and me. Before the meal he takes me into the dining room, sits me down and asks if I had been married. "Bishop Robert burnt your file which was very irresponsible, tell me about yourself." So I take a deep breath and tell him the full story. He looked apprehensive, but made no comment.

10 March 1976 Bishop Gerald who visited the crypt two nights ago writes, "I am greatly impressed and proud of what you are doing."

2 April 1976 I receive an urgent summons to see the Trollopian Archdeacon of London, Sam Woodhouse, so I hurry to Amen Court. Seated on a chintz-covered sofa sipping China tea I am told that the Bishop is anxious about the Gay Christian Movement's opening service in St Botolph's tomorrow, and would I explain. "What is gay?" asks Sam.

3 April 1976 For ½ hour Gerald berates me for not asking him if an RC priest (Giles Hibbert) could preach, or if the service could or should be held. "Why don't you keep quiet? I don't tell everyone what Mrs Ellison and I do in bed." I try to explain the aims of the new organisation but carefully omit telling him they will have an office in the tower.

13 April 1976 . . . Gerald says [in a letter] that he "thinks it unwise for homosexuals to group together as it draws criticism and hostility". He wants me not to attract unnecessary attention to St Botolph's.

6 May 1976 For the last few months I have been planning a meeting of gay clergy (someone said that we would need to hire the Albert Hall) but in fact 55 of us met today at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse. Peter Elers, Douglas Rhymes and I wrote to all our friends who would appreciate such a meeting and phrased that it was for "those who are homosexual or interested in the condition". The cost was £1 for lunch and tea. Men came from as far away as Truro and Birmingham, and there were 10 hetero/bisexuals present.

1 December 1976  I wanted to have some input into the church working party who are preparing a report [the Gloucester report] on homosexuality, so I sat down and wrote out the names of 100 clergy I know well who are predominantly or exclusively gay. . . Forty-four of the 100 live in London which must help loneliness a little because of other gay clergy being near, and gay meeting places being more accessible.

Weathering storms

12 May 1982 The News of the World runs several reports about gay literature on sale at St Botolph's, which causes a flurry of interest and headaches for me. I have to explain that GCM sell their literature in their tower office, and that the only pamphlets for sale in the church are academic lectures on the subject. The Bishop comes to look and says that the pamphlets are boring.

1 January 1986 HIV/AIDS hangs over us like a black cloud. The Royal College of Nursing estimate that there will be 1m cases in 5 years. Last year I travelled to the Statesto talk to clergy and counsellors about how Christians should be responding, and when I returned I called together what has become known as the Ministers' Group to share experience and plan events such as services of healing. It's a marvellous mixture of hospital chaplains, maverick priests like Bill Kirkpatrick and me.

25 September 1986 I was told to be at London House at 9.30 and having been given no explanation was trembling in my shoes. What have I done? It turned out that the London bishops wanted to discuss HIV/AIDS particularly amongst the clergy. +Graham asked me if the gay clergy were being more careful, i.e. celibate which threw me so I said that the younger, red-blooded ones were probably not. The bishops all talked at once, but at last I got a chance to speak so said that I thought that there are at least 200 gay/bisexual clergy in the diocese, and that I already knew three who were HIV positive. Guessing wildly but using DHSS estimates I suggest over the next three years it is possible there would be 14 affected by the virus, maybe more. I asked what could be done about early retirement, pension and medical care - would St Luke's Hospital for the clergy admit HIV-positive clergy? . . . I was enormously impressed by them all. "We must not give in to hysteria and stand firm against prejudice."

7 January 1988 Yesterday at the press conference to welcome the new theologically conservative, anti-women's ordination Dean of St Paul's, Eric Evans, a reporter asked if he realises that a City church is the HQ of the LGCM. [The Archdeacon of London, George] Cassidy replied, and said that he was taking steps to remove them. All the papers have this on their front page, and I am rung up at 7.20am for a comment. At 10am I read a statement in front of the cameras saying that 11 years ago GCM rented a room in our church tower, and a year ago the PCC decided to draw up a legal agreement and apply to the Chancellor for a faculty. This has been done and the only objection comes from Archdeacon Cassidy. The PCC feel that having this office on church premises: "is a powerful symbol that gay people are welcome in the Church", and should help them put their faith and sexuality together. I say that St Botolph's main work is with the homeless because 200-300 visit us each weekday for help. They are on the fringes of society, and so are homosexuals.

7 May 1988 A letter of support and a cheque arrives from Rowan Williams in Oxford who is to issue a press release on "this wretched business". In response to my request he offers to be a witness if the case comes to court.

9 May 1988 I am at a whole day's hearing before Chancellor Newsome, now 79, in Westminster which was a mixture of Toytown, Trollope and Alice in Wonderland. I ask for leave to withdraw the application (because I have been advised we cannot win). It was very humiliating. The Chancellor said, "The rector must throw himself on the mercy of the Court; much evil has flowed from his actions." I suggest to him that as this is a Christian court it should be concerned with pastoral responsibilities I have for the members of LGCM, but he is not impressed. At 3.30 he asks if the proceedings could end soon because his train to Sevenoaks leaves at 5pm.

10 September 1988 A triumphant Service of Exodus at St Botolph's to mark LGCM moving to new offices in Oxford House, Bethnal Green. The special liturgy moved through the recognition of oppression and the need for reconciliation. Ken Leech preaches and the story is told in prayer, dance and song and the sharing of the Eucharistic meal - food for the journey. We moved out of the church and the LGCM statement of Conviction is read on the steps. The whole sorry affair need not have happened. At the very time when homosexuals need affirmation and acceptance, Graham Leonard, George Cassidy and George Newsome have slammed the Church door in our face. May God forgive them, I can't.

Civil partner

21 December 2005 Civil partnerships become legal today, so Robet and I go to Walton Registry Office where we say we don't want a ceremony, thanks. After 36 years it seems rather unnecessary although we have lunch afterwards with John Gaskell and Roland Macleod, our witnesses. . . . Both of us are "company directors" on the form as there has been a lot of press interest even in Surrey and although I am a has-been priest I am still a priest. In the evening I write to Tony Blair to thank him for this momentous move; if anyone ten or twenty years ago had told me this would happen I would have laughed in their face.

Diary of a Gay Priest: The tightrope walker by Malcolm Johnson is published by Christian Alternative at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9 - Use code CT577 ), and is reviewed on page 32. This edited extract appears by kind permission of the publishers.

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