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
Festival in Cheltenham, and an eponymous beer is being sold in
its honour. So festivalgoers will be part of a trend-bucking
"[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
"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
"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 The book criticised Evangelicalism for being culturally out
of date, restrictive, and theologically narrow.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
"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
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
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.
Free p&p on UK online CT Bookshop purchases throughout