Ronnie Biggs was an 'extraordinary' man, says the unrepentant Reverend who took train robber's funeral
Adam Sherwin meets the Reverend Dave Tomlinson, whose inclusive approach to Christianity has angered some conservative members of the Church of England
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
But officiating over the funeral of Ronnie Biggs and hailing the Great Train Robber an "extraordinary" man is an interpretation of the Gospel which has prompted a very un-Christian backlash against the Rev Dave Tomlinson.
"People said, 'Shame on you for taking Ronnie Biggs' funeral. You've disgraced the church, you've insulted God,'" said Tomlinson, the unorthodox Church of England vicar whose all-embracing approach to Christianity had made him the go-to cleric for criminals who have served their earthly term.
"I say: 'You don't know what you're talking about. Who are you to put yourself in the place of God and make those kind of judgements?' Judge not, that ye be not judged."
It is a verse which Tomlinson, vicar of a thriving congregation at St Luke's parish church in Holloway, north London, has tweeted back to his critics since he accepted the Biggs family's request to take last week's funeral at Golders Green Crematorium. "Jesus didn't hang out with hoity-toity, holier-than-thou religious people," he told the mourners paying respects to the former fugitive, who died aged 84. "He seemed much more at home with the sinners. At the end of the day, we are all sinners."
Tomlinson, author of a book How to Be a Bad Christian, has embarked upon a mission to sweep up the disaffected hordes who would never step foot in a church by urging them to ditch religion and its dogmatic "paraphernalia" in favour of a creed based on generosity and compassion.
A former charismatic house church leader from Liverpool, who set up a church for Christian dropouts called Holy Joe's above a pub, Tomlinson also officiated at the funeral last year of Bruce Reynolds, mastermind of the 1963 robbery, where he met an ailing Biggs.
"I read out Ronnie's tribute to Reynolds. He couldn't speak so it wasn't a great conversation," said Tomlinson, 65. Although he did not hear Biggs' final confession, he refuses to demonise the thief, who spent three decades on the run and showed little repentance for his actions.
"He was an extraordinary man, that's indisputable," Tomlinson maintains. "I didn't have a moment's hesitation in saying yes to the funeral. Biggs himself has said there were a number of things about his life that he would have changed. I don't think the Great Train Robbery was one of them.
"We draw our conclusions from a relatively small event, a very long time ago, which had massive consequences for him and other people. But there was clearly an awful lot more to this man's life than just that. We are presented with a cardboard cut-out version."
It was a "small event" which ultimately resulted in the death of train driver Jack Mills, who was coshed, supposedly by Biggs. "There are things I would have liked to have challenged him on and help see in another light," said the vicar, who argues that his purpose in officiating for criminal figures is to help immediate families deal with their loss rather than to celebrate their lives.
The list of figures he would refuse to bury, despite their crimes, is "very short", he accepts. "I don't have to be God. No human being in my mind is entirely good or bad. Jesus stated that he didn't come for the righteous; he came for the sinners. He hung out with the unsavoury people in society. He ate and drank with prostitutes and publicans. Actually, I don't really like the word 'sinners'. It's got a whole pile of baggage that goes with it."
Tomlinson, who has held communion at Glastonbury and offers "ambient multi-media worship" at St Luke's, reserves his ire for dogma-spouting pew-fillers. "Christianity is seen as an exclusive club for the faithful, the holier-than-thou gang, with a list of rules," he said.
"A lot of the paraphernalia drives me bonkers. I don't know how many people who come to St Luke's believe in God. I'm more interested in what is going in people's lives. Sometimes I don't have an awful lot in common with people who are Christians. My interest is the fringes, the people who would never come near a church."
The church hierarchy has encouraged his spiritual journey - Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, calls Tomlinson a "convincing and compassionate pastor" - and a media career beckons, with Vanessa Feltz giving him a residency spot on her Radio 2 show. "Thought For The Day hasn't called yet though," he laments.
Tomlinson, married with three children, has held communion at Glastonbury and his Scouse wit must prove an asset during sermons. "I buried another, less famous Ronnie the same week as Ronnie Biggs," he noted. "The Two Ronnies - so it's goodbye from him, and goodbye from him."
He also identifies with Rev, the BBC comedy series starring Tom Hollander as a conflicted urban vicar. "Rev is fantastic. The episode where he has a crisis of faith was extremely insightful in terms of what it's like to live as a -reverend. I've even got a Colin [the comedy congregation's unemployable lost soul] at the end of my road."
By reinventing Christianity as a spiritual practice, stripped of doctrine and religious trappings, is there a danger of reducing the faith to a simple "be good to each other".
"Be good to each other is not wishy-washy. It would be a good start if we had more of that. I'm still obsessed with Christian theology but it's not what's of ultimate importance. Jesus said what really matters is that we live in a state of love. All the rest is window dressing."
With that, the Rev Dave leaves to prepare for another funeral. "It is another criminal, but he's not as famous as Ronnie Biggs."
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