*** DEBUG END ***

Was Ronnie Biggs repentant?

17 January 2014

It is God who decides, says Dave Tomlinson, who conducted his funeral


Tribute: the hearse carrying Ronnie Biggs's coffin, at his funeral on 3 January

Tribute: the hearse carrying Ronnie Biggs's coffin, at his funeral on 3 January

"SO, YOU are the villains' priest, eh?", a burly man asked, when I arrived at Golders Green Crematorium for Ronnie Biggs's funeral.

His friend chipped in: "That's what you should call your autobiography, Father: The Villains' Priest. I'd buy that."

I grinned, taking this as a compliment.

Meanwhile, traffic outside was at a standstill. Banks of photographers with stepladders and long lenses lined the pavement. Ronnie Biggs was still massive news.

It was not my first Great Train Robber's funeral: I helped to conduct the service for Bruce Reynolds (the man credited with masterminding the robbery), almost a year ago.

On one level, the funerals of Biggs and Reynolds are no different from anyone else's. Yet it is hard to overlook who these men were: the perpetrators of one of the most audacious crimes of the century. And although it is more than 50 years since it took place, the culprits still arouse heated reactions.

After taking each of the funerals, I received emails and messages criticising me for getting involved. I was accused of "glorifying criminals",of presiding over immoral celebrations of unrepentant men, and of shaming the Church, God, and myself.

This is an entirely mistaken line of argument. Conducting a person's funeral in no way implies approval of that person's life. If it did, we should take far fewer funerals. I might struggle to find someone to take my own funeral.

YET what really troubles me about these sorts of reactions is the arrogant judgementalism. Some people appear not to notice that Jesus did not usually associate with religious goody-goodies; he mostly gave them a hard time.

His extensive litany of "woes" in Matthew 23, for example, is directed entirely at the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious hoity-toity, whom he describes as whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of filth.

In contrast, Jesus seemed comfortable spending time with sinners - so much so that he was accused of being their friend, of eating and drinking with them, and of being a glutton and a drunkard himself (Matthew 11.19). He invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax-collector, where he was accused of being "a guest of one who is a sinner" (Luke 19.7). This rankled with Jesus so much that he told the Temple authorities that the tax-collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of heaven before them (Matthew 21.31).

But were these sinners all repentant? Perhaps that is why he was comfortable with them. It is not always clear. It was, however, the presence of Jesus that brought them to repentance. The sort of attitude that says: "You're welcome in our midst, provided you come on our terms," is the antithesis of what Jesus stood for.

CONSTANTLY I hear people refer to Ronnie Biggs as unrepentant. But how are we to know? That is God's call. In his autobiography, Biggs strongly denies the accusation that he had no regrets: "I have always regretted the hurt I caused by my actions," he writes.

He also makes it clear that he (and, he believes, everyone involved in the robbery) absolutely regrets that Jack Mills, the train driver, was injured during the robbery, and was put under such pressure during and after the trial. He apologises to Mr Mills and his family, and to everyone else affected by what happened on 8 August 1963. He speaks of wishing that he could turn the clock back, and says that it is time to take responsibility for his life.

It is not for me to say whether this constitutes repentance. But I dislike the niggardly attitude that concentrates on the specks in other people's eyes, while ignoring the planks in our own. There are those who appear to imagine that being moralistic and judgemental is a way of being faithful to Christ.

A simplistic interpretation of the parable about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) envisages judgement day as a straightforward dividing of "goodies" and "baddies". But the reality is that there is a sheep and a goat in all of us - certainly within me. Divine judgement hasto be more sophisticated than simply telling the Biggses of this world to stand on one side, and people like me to stand on theother.

After the Biggs funeral, many of us piled into a pub around the corner, where I had a stream of conversations with people whom many would classify as "sinners". Yet what I discovered was a great deal of goodness, love, and openness towards this particular man of the cloth's talking about Jesus.

They represented the hordes of people who know that their lives are a bit screwed up, who make no claim to being squeaky-clean Christians, but whose hearts are open to God, in all sorts of ways.

It is a sad fact that many people will never appear in church because they feel judged by those of us who call ourselves Christians. Meanwhile, Christ's arms remain open to all.

The Revd Dave Tomlinson is the Vicar of St Luke's, West Holloway, in London. His latest book is  How to Be a Bad Christian - And a Better Human Being (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013).

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)

*Until the end of June: we’re doubling the number of free articles to eight, to celebrate the publication of our Platinum Jubilee double issue.