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'People are looking for something that connects with them as human beings'

Vicar and author Dave Tomlinson talks church for the outsider – and why he remains in the Church of England. Interview by Alex Baker  



You have an interest in people on the fringe, especially those in the church. What drew you to them first?
I think probably, for at least 25 years now, I would say that my focus and concern has been with people on the fringes. And that’s why I wrote The Post-Evangelical. It was for people who had come through the evangelical passage but for whom it had run out of steam or it had created problems. I felt that it conjured up the sense of ‘this is real Christianity, not the rest’.

Quite often I noticed that when people found that evangelical theology and spirituality didn’t work for them, they’d end up at the end of the road and they’d give up altogether. I wrote The Post-Evangelical partly to say that there are other ways, other pathways, other traditions – keep going, keep exploring.

I suppose that’s partly because if I go back to that sort of period when I gave up being a house group leader in this country, I didn’t know where I belong. That was linked to a sort of crisis in my own mind where I was asking, ‘Do I believe any of this really?’. And that coincided with launching Holy Joes – a church in a pub for people like me who were struggling to make sense of things.

I think I gained an empathy for people who were hanging on by their fingernails, trying to help them to find another way, another interpretation. Interestingly, over the years, a steady stream of people have come to me to talk about their doubts and faith crises. And in a lot of instances, they’ve been clergymen of all denominations - a little bit like Nicodemus at night, in secrecy! They want to talk to someone anonymously who can hopefully offer some direction and guidance.
I think too that in becoming the vicar of St Luke’s, I suddenly found out something which I didn’t know before, which is that the actually functioning of a parish, of being a church for a community, with legal obligations and so on – I thought that was some archaic thing from the past, but actually discovered that it has a lot of mileage in it.

Suddenly, my focus went from the people on the outside hanging on to keep in, to the people on the outside who don’t seem to be able to find an effective way in.

Hordes of people are on their own spiritual journeys who never dream of going to church, but when they meet someone through a wedding or a funeral who is half human, they say almost apologetically, “I’m afraid I’m not very religious.”

I would say, “Why are you feeling guilty? I think most people are like this. I don’t think God really cares whether you come to church or not. I think God is more concerned with who you are as a person than what you do with your Sunday mornings.”

And I suppose there is a bit of reverse psychology in it – the vicar saying you don’t have to come to church! People were intrigued, and a lot of people who are now regulars at St Luke’s were not previous churchgoers. We haven’t really gone out to evangelise, but I think people have felt that this is somewhere they can belong.

The Post Evangelical

You have said in the past that sometimes you feel you don’t have a lot in common with other Christians. A lot of what you say could be viewed as controversial within the Church of England, yet you choose to remain. Do you think that’s an important statement to make?
I think the thing that attracted me to Church of England (CofE) was the notion of this ‘broad church’ - this dysfunctional family of people who are so incongruous with each other and yet over the centuries have found a common place under one umbrella.

I think the umbrella is becoming a bit threadbare now and it’s beginning to fall apart. I think there are people who once perhaps accepted this diversity, this comprehensiveness who now seem more bent on making it into a sect that has one particular understanding of the Bible and God. I regret that, because I believe that the heart and soul of the Church of England is this diversity.

So, I think that while there are people in the CofE who would probably think I’m on the road to hell, really dislike what I’m saying, there are also huge numbers of people who love it and a lot of clergy who often come to talk to me, who wish that they could be as honest and forthright about what they think as I am.

To me, I think the CofE gives me a place to belong where I feel I can actually be myself. And I think I’ve found a home in a tradition that is very rich and still has a lot to offer. This can be seen in particular things like: there was a convergence of me moving into the Anglican church with my own spiritual journey which was becoming more sacramental, for instance, which is actually based on an MA dissertation I did on the Hermeneutics of Ecological Theology - thinking about different models of ecological theology. In it, I concluded that a view of the world as a sacrament, as a mediation of the divine was an ecological model I could embrace.

So I became an intellectual sacramentalitist before I really experienced the spirituality of it. But now, to me, the Eucharist is a really important part of not just my spiritual life, but the life of our church -  we have a very inclusive approach to it: I say that this is the table of Jesus Christ, where everyone is welcome, no one is turned away. So, we offer communion to every single person in our church without exception.

I think that the Eucharist at communion is actually a proclamation of the gospel and divine inclusion and acceptance. There are things about the tradition of the CofE that have hugely enriched my personal life. For example, the bishop of London, Richard Chartres (now retired), who has personally guided me into ordination: when he finally checked me out and agreed to lay his hands on me, he said to me, “Dave, you’re going to find the Church of England very frustrating and there will be many things that you will be critical of, and the church will benefit from your criticism.” That was a very generous thing to say.

And, of course, he’s right – there’s an awful lot to get frustrated about, but an awful lot to be blessed and enriched by.

Do you wish more churches were like yours?
Oh of course, absolutely! Apart from anything else, it would help for when people ask me (for what feels like the thousandth time in a week), “where is there a church where I live like yours?”. 

I’m not a franchiser, but I think it’s to do with humanity, people are looking for something that connects with them as human beings – that might be high church or evangelical or it might be all sorts of things.

St Lukes

But what people often experience is something that is quite inhumane. And it’s not just one section of the church that is like that - a lot of evangelical churches, despite being evangelical and wanting to get people through the doors, by drawing the big distinction between saved and unsaved ‘innies’ and ‘outies’, that actually gives the message to outsiders that this is an exclusive club they don’t want to be a part of.

More high churches get so caught up with their own form of liturgical fundamentalism, if you like, but also are precious about how everything has to be done: what you wear etc, it becomes a little theatrical performance that doesn’t really draw people it – it’s more for the converted who are already there.

I think all sections of the church need to look at themselves and ask “Why do we exist?”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The church is only the church when it exists for others…” and I think if we could start from this point and say from a ‘customer satisfaction’ point of view ‘why would people want to come here? What do they find when they come here? What difference it is going to make to their lives?’ That would not be a bad starting point.

You’ve spoken about some of your frustrations with some of the critics in the Anglican community or hecklers during a talk. Do you see where they are coming from?
Absolutely. I think in the moment I sometimes forget that I was actually once sitting where they are now. I think it’s important not to be high-minded and arrogant about this, thinking ‘I’ve arrived somewhere and you haven’t’. We are all on a journey, and the important thing is to be open to fresh thoughts and ideas and experiences wherever we are along that journey.

There are things that I feel passionately and strongly about and those I will proclaim as loudly and hard as I can, but not in the sort of judgemental way that is saying ‘unless you join my new club then you’re an outsider’.

I do understand where people are coming from. I think quite a lot of it is fear. I think that church communities can generate a kind of fear – fear of ‘stepping out of line’ or taking a different view, and when that fear is reinforced with the idea of ‘you are disobeying God’ or rebelling against God by taking this different point of view, or by pursuing your gayness, or whatever it may be - that becomes a very powerful thing and I believe it can very seriously damage and wreck people’s lives.

I think a lot of therapists have benefited from this in people coming to them looking for help, because God connected with a dogmatic point of view is very powerful stuff.

I am more interested in proclaiming passionately what I believe, but then also giving people space to disagree and have different points of view – I do encourage people to heckle me, actually, and there are some regulars who do and I think that’s a great thing!

There is a church in Cheapside, London which has two pulpits which I have always found fascinating – apparently, there was a vicar or rector back in the 19th century who thought that sermons should be more dialogues rather than monologues. Now, I don’t know if that ever worked or not, but I kinda like the idea of it and there is a principle there – not to have two pulpits – but to open it up and say that sermons can have a more dialogical element to them. I think that’s a great thing.

Now, it doesn’t easily work in the contrived environment of a Sunday church service, but I think that’s why we need more places like Holy Joes - more places of dialogue, discussion and even argument, where people can disagree without having someone slap them down or put them right by the end of the evening. I think we need more of that.

People need to be able to find their own views and opinions, and find the confidence to express them. I believe in that: trying to encourage heresy in a positive sense!   

Greenbelt has its own particular ethos and philosophy - in terms of your own ethos as its been refined over the years, do you feel that it is has got closer to Greenbelt over time?

Yes, I’ve been on quite a journey and in the earlier part of my life when I was a leader in the house church movement (quite different to where I am now), I would speak at many of the major Christian events that were around, dragging my family with me – it’s interesting that Greenbelt was the only one where I wasn’t taking part, but we paid to come as a family because we all enjoyed being at Greenbelt.

I remember one time on the feedback form the question was asked, ‘Who would you like to see speaking at Greenbelt?’ and I put my own name down saying that I’d love to speak at Greenbelt…I don’t think it worked!

Greenbelt 705

But it was soon after that that I began to be a regular contributor and I think that it’s a sort of symbiotic relationship. For me, it is a place that I come feeling I am among friends, but it is also a place where I can try out my thoughts and ideas among good thinking people, and I’ve valued the feedback from people.

And actually, as it happens, for 12 or more years, Greenbelt was based in the church where I am the vicar. This was prior to me - they moved out more or less when I took over, which was just how circumstances were.

But Greenbelt has had a profound effect on the nature and ethos of St Luke’s as a church – it is a church that, although we’ve moved a long way on from there, is based on a very strong Greenbelt ethos of the arts and culture and social justice. A lot of people speak of it as ‘The Greenbelt Church’.

So, Greenbelt does feel like home - home in a field! 


Dave Tomlinson is a vicar and writer whose books include The Post-Evangelical, How To Be A Bad Christian, and Black Sheep and Prodigals. He also regularly contributes to BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show. Described as a liberal evangelist, Dave founded Holy Joes, a church in a pub in south London.

Alex Baker is a former sub-editor and movie reviewer of The Baptist Times who now works as a photographer www.alexbakerphotography.com

Baptist Times, 28/11/2017
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