Malcolm Johnson At St Botolph’s
Dan Jones’ painting of Malcolm Johnson at Botolph’s, Aldgate 1982
These days, with his gentle blue eyes and white locks, Reverend Dr Malcolm Johnson is one of the most even-tempered radicals that you could meet, yet the work he did at St Botolph’s in Aldgate was truly extraordinary in its bold and compassionate nature. From 1974 until 1992, Malcolm was responsible for the ‘wet’ shelter that operated in the crypt, offering sustenance, showers and moral support to those that everyone else turned away. While other shelters refused admission to homeless people with alcohol or drugs in their possession, St Botolph’s did not and when I sought further, asking Malcolm to explain the origin of this decision, he simply said, “I believe you have to accept people as they are.”
The project at St Botolph’s was eminently pragmatic, working with people individually to find long-term accommodation in hostels and providing support in establishing a life beyond their homelessness and addiction. But shortly after Malcolm left St Botolph’s in 1992, the shelter was closed by his successor and it has sat unused for the past twenty years, making it a disappointing experience for Malcolm to return and be confronted with the shadow of his former works.
“I can’t tell you how upsetting it is, seeing it like this – it used to be such a wonderful place, full of energy and life, and now its just a store” he admitted to me when Photographer David Hoffman & I accompanied him on a visit to the disused crypt last week. Yet it proved to be a pertinent moment for reflection, as Malcolm told me the story of how it all happened.
“I had been Chaplain at Queen Mary University for seven years and specialised in counselling gay and lesbian people, so the Bishop thought I needed a quiet City parish where I could get on with my writing next. But, when I arrived. the crypt had been operating for five years and was catering for seventy homeless people each night, and I felt that wasn’t enough. I realised that we were here in the City of London surrounded by big companies, so I went to ask their assistance and I was lucky because they helped me, and I persuaded the City of London Corporation to give us seventy-thousand pounds a year too. The volunteers were all sorts, housewives, city workers after a day at the office and students from the polytechnic. I decided that it would be a wet crypt and we wouldn’t charge for food.
I was the rector upstairs and the director down here in the crypt – I believed the church had to be one outfit, upstairs and down. I went to Eddy Stride at Christ Church Spitalfields to ask what I should do, I had no experience so I had to learn. Over time, we expanded the shelter, we had quite a lot of full-time workers and we established four long-term hostels in Hackney. We were getting about two to three hundred people a night and it was quite an experience, but I was never frightened. Only once did a man take a swing at me, and all the others gathered round and grabbed him.
I missed this place so desperately when I left because you never knew what was going to happen when you walked through the door, it was wonderful, but I felt eighteen years was enough. Then, quite suddenly after I left in 1992, my successor closed the crypt and they said it went bankrupt, although I never understood what happened because we’d done a benefit at the Bank of England shortly before and, if there had been problems, I know my City friends would have come in to save it.”
The crypt of St Botolph’s is still equipped as a homeless shelter, functional but abandoned, pretty much as Malcolm left it and still harbouring emotive memories of those who passed through, many of whom are now dead. Encouragingly, Malcolm told me the current rector is considering whether it could be reopened.
This would itself be sufficient story and achievement for one man, yet there was another side to Malcolm Johnson’s ministry. As one of the first in the Church of England to come out as gay in 1969, he established the office of the Gay & Lesbian Christian Movement at St Botolph’s and even became known as the Pink Bishop for his campaigning work.
“I had always thought that if clergy can bless battleships and budgerigars, we could bless two people in love,” was his eloquent justification for his blessing of gay couples. Unsurprisingly, it was a subject that met opposition within the Church of England but, by the mid-eighties, the subject of AIDS became an unavoidable one and St Botolph’s was the first church to appoint a full-time minister to care for those affected by the HIV virus, as well as opening a dedicated hostel for this purpose.
In spite of his sadness at the closure of his shelter in the crypt, it was inspiring to meet Malcolm Johnson, a man with an open heart and a keen intelligence, who had the moral courage to recognise the truth of his own experience and apply that knowledge to better the lives of others.
“If clergy can bless battleships and budgerigars, we could bless two people in love…”
At St Botolph’s, 1978
Malcolm Johnson recalls the wet shelter in the crypt, now disused
At St Botolph’s, 1978
“I believe you have to accept people as they are.”
At St Botolph’s, 1978
“I can’t tell you how upsetting it is seeing it like this, it used to be such a wonderful place full of energy and life, and now it’s just a store”
Malcolm Johnson stands left at this midnight mass for the homeless at St Dunstan’s Stepney in 1978
Photographs copyright © David Hoffman
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