"SO, YOU are the villains' priest, eh?", a burly man asked, when
I arrived at Golders Green Crematorium for Ronnie Biggs's
His friend chipped in: "That's what you should call your
autobiography, Father: The Villains' Priest. I'd buy
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
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
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
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
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,