'Around peg in a square hole’ is how Dave Tomlinson sometimes describes himself. But the shape of the peg in question has morphed several times in the last few decades.
If you’re looking for labels, then Tomlinson is a liberal-leaning Anglican priest, with high church tastes (he wears vestments) and a low church manner (he sometimes swears). He’s most at home when chatting over a pint, and lately it’s his ability to speak to ordinary people (who don’t care much about labels) that’s getting him noticed.
His common touch has made him a regular voice on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought. He recently led the funerals for two of the great train robbers, Ronnie Biggs and Bruce Reynolds.
He’s also the only vicar to have spoken at the Sunday Assembly (the atheist church), even becoming unofficial mentor to its founder, Sanderson Jones.
It all seems a far cry from his early days as a national leader in the charismatic renewal of the 1970s house church movement. Back then, he was being hailed as an apostolic figure alongside pioneers such as Bryn Jones and Terry Virgo.
Tomlinson laughs when revisiting those memories: ‘God help the world, it’s been downhill ever since!’ Not that he dismisses his early encounters with the Spirit. ‘My entire life probably hinges on that visit to that upstairs room,’ he says, recalling his spiritual awakening as a 17-year-old in a house church in Liverpool.
As disillusionment with the charismatic movement gradually set in, and his theological questions weren’t being answered, Tomlinson steered a new course. With his wife, Pat, and three children, he started a church in a pub for those who wanted to ask difficult questions. He wrote the influential book The Post-Evangelical (Triangle) along the way, documenting how postmodernity was challenging the certainties of evangelicalism. The name stuck and a movement was born.
Twenty years on, Tomlinson hasn’t much time for movements and labels. ‘There are people who come to St Luke’s [the church he leads]that wouldn’t have the faintest clue what an evangelical is, let alone a post-evangelical.’ In the end, it was the Anglican Church that provided a comfortable home for him, one he is keen to preserve. ‘I’m happy to be part of a fight for the heart and soul of the Church of England for comprehensiveness and inclusion,’ he says.
His most recent book, How to be a Bad Christian…and a Better Human Being (Hodder and Stoughton) is similarly inclusive in its scope, aimed at the sort of people who regularly apologise to him for not coming to church enough. ‘I don’t think God cares whether or not you come to church. I think God is more interested in who we are as people,’ says Tomlinson. ‘God has to be cleverer than to judge people by whether they tick certain boxes.’
Tomlinson has always been more accustomed to breaking out of boxes than ticking them. Questions, labels and movements aside, for now at least he seems to have found the hole he was shaped to fit.
What first drew you towards faith?
I grew up in a Brethren church background; my parents were both Christians. I’d ‘given my heart to the Lord’ when I was 13 but I don’t think I’d ever really connected spiritually. When I was 17, I went with some young women from our Brethren church who were exploring beyond the borders in an early house church. I went along to this weird thing where I heard they were speaking in tongues, and I instantly connected.
The people who took me along were sitting on the edge, watching suspiciously. Me being me, I jumped in with two feet straight away and had this incredible experience inside ? of ecstasy, I suppose, which I’d never known before. I was powerfully touched by something in that room.
You went on to become a leader in the house church movement...
It was a very exciting time in the early 70s. Pat and I and the kids moved to Yorkshire to plant a little house church and before long I was taking care of six similar groups. The house church thing was completely burgeoning and you felt like you were in the New Testament.
I linked up with other people at the time, such as Bryn Jones who started the Dales Bible Week. It grew to where I was leading a team of people giving supervision to more than 50 churches. I hadn’t really had time to work out who I was, let alone my theology, so it took me quite a while to really start questioning.
What led you to question the charismatic movement, in the end?
My naturally critical mind did begin to kick in about what I was seeing and I became more and more uncomfortable. From this very democratic beginning it quickly grew into a pyramidal structure which revolved around certain key ‘apostolic’ figures, and I was part of that pyramid.
The charismatic world had touched me very deeply, but I started feeling there was a lot of hype in it all ? the charisma of the Spirit was being confused with charisma of strength of personality. I came to the place of feeling that I didn’t fit. I appointed women elders in a world that was very male-dominated and began to ask questions about the Bible. It made a lot of people feel uncomfortable because they didn’t know which rug I was going to pull out from under them next.
So you eventually broke with the movement altogether?
It felt like career suicide at the time. At one stage we were quite tempted by the idea of buying a pub in the Yorkshire Dales and just being a landlord and landlady. It’s still waiting for us!
You did start a church in a pub ? Holy Joes. What was the idea behind it?
It was clear that there were lots of people around who wanted to ask questions. I personally think churches should be debating houses, but that’s not what we find in most of them. The people that were coming were predominantly disaffected evangelicals, charismatics, Catholics too, and also people who had no church background but fancied chewing the fat over a pint of beer.
You also became involved in the Greenbelt festival. How did your book The Post-Evangelical emerge from that?
I remember at Greenbelt late one night (I was younger then), somewhere in the discussion, the phrase ‘we post-evangelicals’ was thrown in and it lodged in me. I still don’t know who actually said it, but I remember lying in the tent that night and thinking ‘post-evangelical, what does that mean?’ But it immediately felt that you knew what it meant.
I see the phrase as a sort of pastoral device, rather than a new systematic theology. For a lot of people who would otherwise feel there was no place for them in church, suddenly this term was a symbol of hope. Obviously it connects with the wider term of ‘postmodernity’. I was trying to contextualise this critical journey that people were going on, in terms of their evangelical past, with what was happening in the wider cultural setting.
You’ve said that post-evangelical doesn’t mean ‘woolly liberal’. But if you’re questioning the authority of scripture, what space does a post-evangelical inhabit?
I didn’t like those labels and I still don’t. I think that ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’ are flip sides of the same coin, because they both hold the same view of truth rooted in modernity ? in a literal, scientific sort of sense. Postmodernity was challenging the whole undergirding of that way of looking at things.
The Hell's Angel said 'I've heard people have been threatening you, Dave... the boys weren't happy about that'
Liberalism has tended to be heavily intellectual, which tends to lack any real living spirituality. I go back to my experience all those years ago in the upper room in Liverpool where I experienced a spiritual awakening. I was looking to bring it together with this honesty and depth of critical thought that a liberal kind of theology represents.
How did you end up leading the funeral of Ronnie Biggs?
A year ago I took the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of the great train robbery. Ronnie Biggs was there in a wheelchair and I read out his tribute. When I heard Biggs had died, I suddenly had that feeling, ‘I’m going to take his funeral’ and sure enough the family phoned me.
I could hardly get my car to the crematorium, it was log-jammed with photographers and this crowd of quite colourful characters. I looked down at the front row of his son Michael and close family members and thought, ‘These are the people I’m speaking for here.’ It created a bond with the family.
I was invited to baptise Michael’s 3-year-old daughter. One of the guests was a Hell’s Angel who’d heard that I’d had messages from people disapproving of my taking the funeral. He said, ‘I’ve heard people have been threatening you, Dave...the boysweren’t happy about that. If you have any trouble, just get in touch!’
Is there any danger of being associated with a glamorised criminal culture?
Jesus was continually hanging out with the ‘wrong’ people, eating and drinking with prostitutes, publicans and sinners ? the rejects of the religious establishment. That’s not because Jesus was necessarily approving of things that went on in their lives, any more than I do with Ronnie Biggs. But Jesus had very few harsh words to say to those people about their life, whereasthere are chapters of ‘woes to the scribes and the Pharisees’ and the religious establishment. So, I feel very comfortable with these people actually.
Was How to be a Bad Christian written partly with that openness in mind?
Yes, absolutely. As a parish priest you’re often talking to people who feel apologetic. I found myself uncomfortable with their apology because I feel I’m dealing with people who are really just the same as the people who come to church on Sunday.
Would you rather encourage someone towards Christ than church?
There are an awful lot of things that could drive me away from Christianity, but the thing which always brings me back again is Jesus Christ. I find Jesus utterly captivating, not just as a historical figure, but as a reality in my life today. So yes, I am constantly referring people to Jesus, and I talked about him quite a lot at Ronnie Biggs’ funeral.
God has to be cleverer than to judge people by whether they tick certain boxes
I also want to point people toward the Church but not to make people feel that is how they can have a relationship with God. In my book I was aiming to show people how God is already part of their lives and how they can become more aware of that.
You’ve found your home in the Anglican Church as the vicar of St Luke’s Holloway. It’s a diverse church; what has brought people there?
So many people in so many different ways. There are particularly people from a gay background who have had very difficult experiences of Church, and they’ve been pointed in our direction. I don’t feel I need to judge people; I think you bring themonto a journey and let God work in their lives.
How significant is it to your theology that your youngest daughter is gay?
Interestingly enough it’s not very significant at all. I’d come to that point before really. When our youngest daughter came out it was a done deal in my head long ago. She came for dinner and took all evening to tell us. She said, ‘Look, I know you’re ok about this and you’ve got gay friends, but I don’t know how you feel about it being one of yours,’ and I said, ‘Well, my only problem with this is you’ve blown my neutrality.’ It was a tongue-in-cheek comment obviously, but there was some truth in it because I knew people would now say, ‘Oh, it’s his daughter’ when actually that’s got nothing to do with it. I’m extraordinarily proud of my daughter. It doesn’t matter to me whether she’s gay or not; it’s got no relevance really.
Last Easter Sunday you had an unusual speaking engagement at the Sunday Assembly, aka the atheist church, in London.
One of the founders, Sanderson Jones and I have a mutual friend, so it was suggested we got together for coffee. I’d sent him a copy of How to be a Bad Christian…and a Better Human Being and so he came along and placed the book on the café table very proudly and said, ‘I think your approach to Christianity is very similar to my approach to atheism!’ I think it meant that neither of us are fundamentalists because he’s a long way from being a Richard Dawkins. The Sunday Assembly represents something quite different. I think it’s post-new-atheism actually!
He had been plunged into massive success, so he was suddenly facing all kinds of issues which he’d never even thought about before. Afterwards he sent me a message saying, ‘Would you consider being my mentor?’ So he invited me to go and do a talk on why the Easter story still has such a powerful resonance.
Given the Sunday Assembly is trying to provide a church-like community, does it make no difference whether you have God in the mix?
I think it makes a big difference. But I don’t think it’s a case of ‘God is in this community’ and ‘God isn’t in that community’. I think that God is in that community, by whatever name. What grieves me profoundly is that so many people who never go anywhere near church of any sort are actually much closer to God, but the problem is they have all this baggage of conceptions (lots of which are true, sadly) about Christianity.
I’m about trying to shatter that stereotype and to demonstrate, whether it’s at the Sunday Assembly or Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, or at St Luke’s on a Sunday, that actually there’s something beyond all this paraphernalia that’s become bound up with Christianity. To me that takes me back to the person of Jesus and who he was and what he really represented.