The villains’ vicar
Dave Tomlinson talks to Stephen Tomkins about train robbers and pub ministry
The Revd Dave Tomlinson found himself on the front page of the papers, and in the frontline for vitriolic criticism, after he took the funeral of the train robber Ronnie Biggs in December. He is not new to controversy. His career has taken him from leading the charismatic house church movement, via the pub church Holy Joes, to Anglican parish ministry, and he is a mentor for the leaders of the “godless church” movement, the Sunday Assembly.* His latest book, How to Be a Bad Christian… And a better human being (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) provoked some Amazon.co.uk reviewers to comment: “Very dangerous and misleading”, “proud of not believing the Bible” and “not a Christian at all”. On the other hand, the author Mike Riddell said that Tomlinson’s book “allows humanity and grace to escape the shackles of pious pedants”. Unusually for a Christian book, I think, Bad Christian has even had a beer named after it.
Reform visited this friend of publicans and sinners at his church in Holloway, London.
*Interviewed in Reform: “How Great Thou Aren’t”, November 2013
Was Ronnie Biggs’ funeral any different from the hundreds of others you’ve done?
On one level, it’s just a thing I do almost every week of my life. But on another level, it was a very big gig. You could hardly get down the road for photographers and film crews. It was this massive gathering of colourful-looking people. You were aware there were a lot of eyes on you, and you’re likely to be quoted.
But I counted it a privilege. A year ago I took [the train robber] Bruce Reynolds’ funeral, and I met Ronnie there. We couldn’t easily communicate because he couldn’t speak, but I read out his tribute. I met his son, Michael, who I formed quite a bond of friendship with. If you’re going to take someone’s funeral, if you’re going to commend them into the hand of God, you’ve got to have some kind of empathy, I think, with what they’ve done in their life.
You received some criticism.
Definitely. I had some Facebook messages and emails from people, some quite harsh really. The Sunday afterwards, this big Hells Angel who’d been at the funeral, came to church and said: “We hear you’ve been getting threats.” I said: “Oh, it’s nothing serious.” He said: “Well, tell us if it is, because we don’t like you getting threats.” Interesting!
Is it hard for you?
Not really. Criticism is not something that I’m unfamiliar with. I get it on all sorts of fronts. It depends how you feel on a given day really – sometimes I find it quite difficult.
I don’t get it, because what I think about Ronnie Biggs has got no bearing on taking his funeral. I think a lot of the things people say about him are not true, but taking someone’s funeral isn’t saying that you approve of their life.
There are a lot of funerals in How to Be a Bad Christian. Do you find them an important way of connecting with people?
I do, yes. When I came to the Church of England, quite late in my life, I wasn’t at all sure being a parish priest was what I wanted; but it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. And one of the big surprises was to discover how alive the whole experience of parish still is. I thought this was some irrelevant, archaic leftover, but the Church of England is still where many people turn for a Christian funeral. I have one this morning. It’s a time of vulnerability and openness. There’s a quality connection you get with people – actually mostly in the pub afterwards. People really want to talk. It’s amazing how many have a batch of questions they want to ask a vicar, and they’re not likely to go and ring the doorbell, but when they’re having a pint or two after a funeral, they’ve got a captive vicar.
So it’s important for a minister to spend as much time as possible in the pub.
I think so, don’t you? Jesus spent a lot of time in the equivalent of the pub, with the Ronnie Biggses of this world. Sometimes I write sermons there, and people will come over and talk. I’ve prayed with people many times.
Is the book itself a way of connecting with people?
Definitely. And the really gratifying thing is the feedback I’ve had from those people. There’s a funeral story in the book, a young man I knew who had Aids, and he came one day and wanted to make a confession in a way, and a month later he ODed in an underground car park. His mother was broken-hearted – a lovely, lovely lady. I told their story in the book and gave his sister a copy. I bumped into her a couple of weeks later. She said: “Your book, your book, Dave. My dad couldn’t put it down. It’s the first book he’s ever read in his life.” That’s pretty good really. He’s the sort of person I wrote this book for. People who are not part of this religious conversation.
Why do you think the churches generally aren’t making that connection?
Part of the problem is these walls. We end up feeling that it’s all in here. That’s another thing that I like about the notion of parish: I have to treat people outside the church as part of this community. That’s a principle that not only the Church of England but all Christian communities need to get a fresh purpose on. Stop thinking God is present in here and we’re trying to get people out there to come in. Jesus didn’t have a building; he was in the marketplace, having meals with prostitutes and publicans. His church was out there.
Is it just about going out there, or also about rethinking what happens in here?
Yes, it’s both. This building is a resource. We want these spaces to feel hospitable. Theatre groups rehearse here; in the winter, homeless people sleep here; there’s a community choral society based in St Luke’s – and there’s no attempt to get them to come to church. That said, some do. It’s about connecting with the world outside and making this place hospitable.
There’s a chapter in the book called: “Church without walls”. We can’t literally knock the walls down because the roof would fall on your head, but we need a church without borders, that doesn’t have an in/out feel to it. I want people to be able to find a place in this community without being handed a list of beliefs they need to sign up to.
And would you like them to become Christians?
Yeah. My life and the lives of my friends are hugely enriched by our faith in God through the person of Jesus. That’s something I want to share, but that’s not the motivating factor behind what I do – that turns you into a salesperson rather than a human being. I say to people when they apologetically tell me they’re not very good Christians: “You don’t have to apologise to me. I don’t think God cares whether you come to church or not. I do – I’m a vicar and I want you to come – but I don’t think that’s how God looks at people.” God has to be cleverer than to judge people by whether they belong to this Sunday club. Even I can see there’s more to people than that.
Does it matter if the church survives in the West then?
Jesus uses the word “church” two or three times in the Gospels; his passion is the Kingdom of God, which is a state of being, a culture of life, hope and liberation. The church is here to be the agency of the Kingdom of God. Insofar as the church does that, it’s really important that it survives; to be this institution that struggles to survive for its own sake, no, I don’t think that matters much at all.
You provided a home for the Sunday Assembly at one point, I think.
I got to know Sanderson Jones when he was just starting it. He read How to Be a Bad Christian and liked it very much. He was plunged into the business of being a vicar really without any training, so he asked me to be his mentor, give them some ideas for spiritual practices. I’ve preached – as it were – at the Sunday Assembly. After they were kicked out of the church they were at, I said they could use this one. It turned out they didn’t need to – and probably for the best. My concern wasn’t for me. I would certainly get criticism for that – I got so much hate mail from around the world for doing a talk at the Sunday Assembly – but I was more concerned that meeting in a working church wasn’t the best thing for them.
What kind of spiritual practices do you recommend to an atheist?
The Sunday Assembly is this burgeoning movement that’s gone global, and it’s about community but also about their own kind of spirituality, so that means thinking about rituals that help people to cultivate their inner life. I use all kinds of physical things. Stones, for example. After taking Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, on Sunday I baptised his granddaughter Lilly, and I said to people – most of whom, overwhelmingly, are not churchgoing – “I’d like you now to pray for Lilly. You may not believe in God, but a prayer is really a wish from the depths of your heart, so I invite you to take one of these lovely stones and drop it into the water. Think about it as a prayer if you want to. You might want to say a prayer for Ronnie.” Regularly, when I do that, I see people weeping. It’s an idea that can work either side of the fence of belief and not-belief.
You’ve had quite a long and winding road, religiously. You were brought up in the Plymouth Brethren. What was the culture like?
A very fundamentalist kind of Christianity – a new Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Scripture. The Bible was everything. I interpret the Bible now in an entirely different way, but they gave me a knowledge of the Bible that has been a great resource throughout my life. But it was a narrow culture with a suspicious view of the world outside. I got unhappy because I loved the Beatles and Liverpool Football Club and girls.
So I was on the edge of that when in my teens I came across what would become the charismatic movement. That was the first time I sensed that God was real. My spirit was awakened in a way it had never been. I became a national leader in the house church movement of the 70s.
Are there things that have stayed with you from the charismatic renewal?
Yes. The liberal/progressive expressions of church which I identify with can be very heady, and often lack a nourishing spirituality. I can’t see a future for religion that doesn’t engage the emotions and the human spirit. Also, from the evangelical movement generally, the sense that there is a message to proclaim which is often lost in the more liberal side of the church. At Greenbelt [festival] last year, someone said I was like a liberal evangelist. I like that! There’s something to share here.
Holy Joes, the church that you set up in a pub, was a kind of hostel for battered Christians, wasn’t it? How did that happen?
It was, definitely. The end of my life in the house church movement, was a painful time, because it was career suicide. To step out of that successful role without knowing where I did belong was a big step. My wife and I felt inclined towards buying a pub in the Yorkshire dales and selling Old Peculier. Instead we started a little regular gathering for our teenage children and their friends who were disaffected with church, briefly in our home, then in the cellar of some offices in Brixton. We did acoustic concerts, but people wanted to talk about their struggles with Christianity, so it turned into a discussion forum. We were soon too big for this room, so people said “Let’s go to a pub.” In the early 90s there was a recession, so pubs were glad to give us a room for nothing. Over 10 years, hundreds of people came through Holy Joes, who were trying to make sense of faith. Churches are controlled environments, they need much more space for genuine debate, where people aren’t, at the end of the evening, coerced into the right answer. That’s what Holy Joes was.
Do you still provide something like that here at
I try to. We have forums for debate, but I’ve been thinking there are a lot of people who would like something like that but would never come in here for it. So my goal for 2014 is to establish something like Holy Joes in the local pub. Pub church could be part of the answer for the future.
This article was published in the March 2014 edition of Reform.