Since the 7th century St Botolph has been the patron saint of wayfarers. I painted this ‘Last Supper’ for this Church. It’s a teasing portrait of my friend, the Reverend Dr Malcolm Johnson, the quiet radical and extraordinary Anglican priest who used to work in this beautiful church. For 18 years Malcolm was the Vicar upstairs in the church and the Social Worker downstairs in the Crypt, directing a programme for rough sleepers in St Botolph’s “Wet Shelter” which was largely run by volunteers, offering cover, food, hot showers and support to literally hundreds of homeless people every day. Some, like characters in my painting, carrying alcohol or drugs.
Back in the 70’s, when I was a youth worker in the East End, Malcolm helped us start the Kipper Project which investigated local teenage homelessness, ran youth club sessions at St Bots and set up a crash pad for homeless youngsters in Stepney. Kipper survived and 30 years later runs a fine hostel in Mile End for homeless teenagers, some coming from out of care, others fleeing abuse.
I think Malcolm was the first vicar in the Church of England to come out as gay. In this Church he set up the Gay & Lesbian Christian Movement. In the early 80’s St Botolph’s was the first church to appoint a full-time minister to care for those affected by the HIV/AIDs virus and helped set up a hostel for its sufferers. Malcolm was one of the first Anglican priests to bless gay couples getting married. Under attack for this, he said:
“I had always thought if clergy can bless battleships and budgerigars, we can surely bless two people in love!”
Malcolm was castigated and labelled ‘ the Pink Bishop’, possibly in The Sun or the delectable Daily Mail, for his campaigning work for LGBTI rights.
When I began this painting I hadn’t a clue what Anglican priests wore on ceremonial liturgical occasions. I persuaded Malcolm to pose for me in his church dressed in full clerical raiment. He explained the Roman and Greek origins of each of his vestments as he peeled them off garment by garment. First he took his gorgeous mitre off his head, then his chasuble – the highly decorated outer garment that changes colour in differerent seasons of the Church’s Year, then his cassock, his alb and stole, then we were down to his cope, then to his surplice over his underwear. At that moment, Oh my God, a wayfaring stranger walked into the nave holding a camera. I could envisage the headline, story and photo in the ‘East London Advertiser’ with us clearly about to be in flagrante delecto.
We weren’t. It wasn’t. It didn’t. And here’s my picture.