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Obituary: The Revd David Johnson

08 May 2020

A correspondent writes:

THE Revd David William Johnson once called George Carey “a man of scheming ambition concealed behind imperfect dentistry”. This is just one example among many that explain why such a talented man failed to achieve high office in the Church of England. His florid eloquence, biting wit, and unparalleled skill for satire were coupled to an apparently unquenchable capacity for self-destruction.

David’s singularity had already been noted in the reading room in the Literary and Philosophical Society at Newcastle in the early 1970s, before he went up to Selwyn College, Cambridge, to read divinity. He was President of the Cambridge Union in 1976, and his skill for oratory was unsurpassed. For years, he was known as a superb raconteur with a perfect sense of comic timing; he was an insatiable purveyor of practical jokes, and much in demand as a speaker.

His recommendation for training came as a happy surprise; David entered Ripon College in the same cohort as the late Roly Bain. A starry path seemed to beckon; after his curacy, David went to Church House as Communications Secretary to the Board of Mission and Unity, where his brief included involvement in the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982. He much preferred dealing with scarlet cardinals to grey Nonconformists, and later became a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

Those years were also a time of Anglican flux; in September 1981, he co-produced Not the Church Times — a one-off razor-sharp parody of the state of the Church of England on the morning after Graham Leonard’s enthronement as Bishop of London. It was written entirely in Church Times house-style, with the ecumenical headline “Church to covenant with Vanatu head-hunters”. In 1987, David took his lively pen and finely honed sense of the ludicrous to the countryside.

With him, also, went a taste for the flamboyant, and a strong streak of determined intransigence. From his rural rectory — and from the safety of his freehold — he baited mandarins for sport. His practice was to do something outrageous and then tell the diocese about it afterwards, just to see what happened. One year, for the patronal festival, he booked liturgical fire-eaters; a sign at the end of his drive read “No Hawkers, Circulars, or Archdeacons”.

In the early 1990s, with Toby Forward, David wrote, under the pseudonym Francis Wagstaffe, several naughty letters to members of the episcopal bench: requesting assistance in some outlandish scheme; asking for a favour well beyond the recipient’s ability to oblige; or, in one instance, begging to know where his quarry had acquired such a convincing toupee. They were tear-jerkingly funny, but not universally well-received — when they appeared later as The Spiritual Quest of Francis Wagstaffe (Gracewing, 1994), it was obvious that several senior figures had made fools of themselves.

In 1992, the General Synod voted to press ahead with the ordination of women to the priesthood. David remained unconvinced, but stayed put. In any case, Roman Catholicism was unthinkable; he was High Church, High Tory, and firmly on the square. Francis Wagstaffe, however, threw in his lot with the Old Northern Catholick Church of the East Riding, an imaginary tinpot vagans patriarchate run out of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Beverley. He soon rose to be its Metropolitan, and the mischief resumed.

David’s perfect mimicry of the Church Times earned him a stint as its TV reviewer; it lasted longer than many of his other projects. Even the worthiest foundered, sacrificed to a chaotic existence that was almost entirely reliant on the bottle. He drove away friends who sought to support him, and his increasingly constant drunkenness — to say nothing of the indiscretions that accompanied it — became a source of open scandal. Matters came to a catastrophic head in 1995; he was pensioned off at the age of 42, and went to live in Oxford.

In retirement, David cut a sad and eccentric figure in shovel-hat, stalking cape, and buckled shoes; with characteristic absurdity he called his terraced house in landlocked Cowley “Seaview Cottage”. He professed not to like people, but could scarcely bear to be alone. He propped up the bar at the Union, where he was “The Vicar”; to the University Conservative Association he was “The Dean”. He needed an audience and would talk at length, frequently outrageously, to anyone who would listen. To many students, the fact that he built up a body of friends who were devoted to him was a surprise — but he did, and they were loyal to the end.

David Johnson died on 22 April aged 66; he had not eaten for some time, and had almost stopped drinking. Those who remember him in his prime recall his prodigious capabilities of tongue and quill, and private acts of personal kindness; all have marvelled that he lived as long as he did. His health collapsed a few years ago, and a series of strokes gradually robbed him of his mobility and his distinct, clipped voice. It was a cruel end to a tragic life, of which his own assessment, echoing Cyril Connolly, was that “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”

May he now, at last, find peace.

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