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Good news for bad Christians

24 August 2012

In his new book, Dave Tomlinson says that it is more important to follow Jesus than to sign up to Christianity. Stephen Tomkins asks him to explain

BOOKS written by clerics about the spiritual life do not tend to have beers named after them. Then again, those books do not tend to exhort readers to be bad Christians.

The Revd Dave Tomlinson's How To Be a Bad Christian . . . And a better human being is being launched this weekend at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, and an eponymous beer is being sold in its honour. So festivalgoers will be part of a trend-bucking experience.

"[The book] is written", he explains, "for the hordes of people who don't consider themselves good Christians, or Christians at all, but who are on a spiritual quest.

"I meet so many people who never go to church, or recite creeds - or, if they do go to church, they feel they don't fit in. Things grate; they have doubts and questions that it can be hard to voice; and they struggle with the paraphernalia of Christianity; but they are extraordinarily good human beings. These are people whom I see and recognise Christ in.

"The book is trying to affirm Christ present in such people. I'm saying: 'What happens when you think of Christianity as a verb instead of a noun? Instead of being a badge to say you're part of this club, it is a way of being in the world. You don't need to call yourself a Christian to know God and follow the way of Jesus.'

"The old Quaker idea that there is that of God in everyone is really the message of this book. I'm trying to stir up 'that of God' in people who read it."

Mr Tomlinson is perhaps best known for founding the alternative-worship community Holy Joes, for what he calls "disillusioned Christians and church misfits", which met in a pub in London. Before that, he was a leader of the Charismatic house-church movement, something that he looks back on with mixed feelings.

"There were some very, very good things about the movement, but I felt, in the end, that it became more rigid and limiting than the mainstream church cultures that it came out of."

HE LEFT the house churches feeling that he did not fit anywhere. He and his wife, Pat, started Holy Joes in 1990. "It was for people like ourselves, feeling on the fringes of the church world and trying to make sense of it all."

While he was there, he wrote The Post-Evangelical, in 1995. The book criticised Evangelicalism for being culturally out of date, restrictive, and theologically narrow. It affirmed believers who, had moved on from Evangelicalism, as he had, but wanted to keep in touch with their roots. It also introduced a new buzzword to a generation of commentators.

Is he a "post-Evangelical", I ask. He laughs. "I have an antipathy to labels; so it seems a bit odd that I threw another one in. It was intended as a pastoral device for people who were struggling with their Evangelicalism to find a way forward.

"I think I'd say, with St Paul: 'To post-Evangelicals, I'm a post-Evangelical; to liberal Catholics, I'm a liberal Catholic; to . . . well, I don't know how far I'd extend that argument."

Mr Tomlinson was ordained in the Church of England in 1997, and appointed Vicar of St Luke's, West Holloway, north London, in 2000. If someone had told him, ten years before, that he would become an Anglican priest, he says, "I would have laughed out loud. But it's one of the best things I've ever done.

"The Church of England always seemed a fuddy-duddy place of conformity, but I found that some of the most radical thinkers of recent times emerged there. It's a place of incredible diversity, this crazy family of mad extremes. I feel sorry that I've come into it at a time when that tremendous breadth seems under threat."

CLEARLY, he believes in the Church, but his characterisation of it in How To Be a Bad Christian raises a question. If many people who do not go to church have thriving spiritual lives, does that mean that the best thing the Church can do for them is to leave them alone?

"The best thing the Church can do, I think, is to engage in a positive conversation with them, for mutual enrichment. The people I'm talking about have an enormous amount to give to the Church. Just telling them 'Join the Church', full stop, isn't going to be very helpful at all. They're not going to do that. But we need to get away from the idea that that's what it's all about.

"It's amazing how often, when I talk to churchpeople - clergy, particularly - the first thing you feel they want to get round to asking is 'How many people come to your church?' The mission of the Church is to be the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world, and I'm much more interested in how that is being manifested than in how prosperous the Church is.

"I'd like to see both; but connecting with people who are manifesting God's kingdom in our communities, and becoming partners with them - that's more important."

This is not to deny that there is something to be gained from becoming a Christian. And yet, even on this question, Mr Tomlinson makes a crucial distinction. "There is a great deal to be gained from becoming a follower of Jesus. At times, I wonder how much there is to be gained from becoming a member of the Church."

CONSEQUENTLY, How To Be a Bad Christian, besides affirming those outside and on the fringes of the Church, calls on the Church to find better ways to connect with people. "People need to feel that the Church is somewhere they will be spiritually nourished, instead of an institution of conformity. But there isn't one single way of connecting with everybody out there. Churches need to be umbrellas under which lots of things are going on.

"Church on a Sunday morning is one way, but it has terribly limited appeal. It doesn't bother me - and I don't think it bothers God - whether people come there or not. The Church needs to offer more to the life of its community through the week. Sometimes the way is to connect with people through their needs as families; sometimes through their pastoral needs.

"At St Luke's, we run courses on the Enneagram, which is a system for personal development, and find that lots of people who will never come into church on a Sunday morning are hungry to know how they can grow as people. And we need to recover the vibrant liberal progressive presence there was at universities and colleges in the '50s and '60s."

The book is full of references to incidents and conversations at funerals, suggesting that such times offer another point of connection. Its author agrees. "Some of my best experiences as a priest have been in connection with funerals. There's an openness to spiritual growth at these important junctures of people's lives.

"I didn't appreciate the notion of parish when I was first ordained - it seemed a hangover from the past. But it offers such fruitful opportunities to connect with people, because, for now at least, we are still the place where people come.

"If churches can become communities of refuge in the stressed and difficult world we live in, people will want to come to us. I'm not pessimistic about the Church. I'm a vicar, and it's the best job in the world."

The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 24 to 27 August at Cheltenham Racecourse. www.greenbelt.org.uk

That's the spirit

WHEN Andrew first appeared at Holy Joes, he announced that he was a Wiccan, and part of a pagan group, Philoso-Forum, which also met in a pub in south London. He was an open-minded man, with an excellent understanding of Christianity, who contributed construc-tively to the group. After some months, he suggested that Holy Joes and Philoso-Forum meet for dialogue.

During one of our meetings, people from both groups talked about their first spiritual experience. Andrew spoke of an occasion when he was 11, walking in some woods during the summer holidays. As he paused in a glade, he was overwhelmed by a sense of oneness with everything around him - the trees and flowers, the sound of the birds, the smell of the woods. Unaccountably, he just stood there, crying with joy.

When he enthusiastically told his Sunday-school teacher about the experience, he talked of feeling surrounded by the spirits in the trees, the flowers, and the birds. The grim-faced teacher clearly disapproved, telling the young boy that talk of spirits in nature was pagan, and dangerous.

Andrew didn't go to church after this. But, ironically, he eventually became a pagan. Reflecting on the experience, he said that, had his teacher encouraged him to understand the "spirits" as the presence of God in nature, he would probably still be a Christian.

Andrew bumped into God in the woods in a way he never did in church. And he is far from alone: many people feel closer to God in nature - or sharing a meal with friends, or watching a film, or whatever - than they do in a religious gathering.

What Andrew experienced in the woods is the kind of mystical encounter found within all the world's religious traditions: when a person catches a glimpse beyond the outward world of objects and events to get a peek of a greater reality that exists all around and within us: in the words of the classic 1999 film American Beauty, "the entire life behind things and . . . this incredibly benevolent force".

Most of the time, we are unaware of this greater reality behind things. We are immersed in the mundane, preoccupied with the outward world. The interior or spiritual dimension remains hidden; God seems absent. Yet a mystic loiters within each of us, waiting to be noticed and nurtured.

Life is packed with moments of Godness, but, mostly, we walk by on the other side, anxious about a meeting, hurrying to catch a bus, wondering what to do tonight, dreaming about the weekend, falling asleep on the inside.

Faith is a way of interpreting the world, of making sense of the God-moments, as well as finding hope in the dark times. But increasingly religious explanations seem hollow or outdated or irrelevant. Most of us never think to go to church, because we have no confidence that it will offer any sort of vision of God or of the universe that is compelling, or inspiring, or useful. But the questions persist - albeit frequently shoved to the back of our minds.

This is an edited extract from How To Be a Bad Christian: . . . And a better human being, by Dave Tomlinson, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-444-70382-5, and appears by permission.

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