1) I think this was my seventh Greenbelt, and (obviously) the first at Boughton House, which I thought was a stunningly good venue. For me, the benefit was crystallised on the Sunday afternoon – when there wasn’t much on that I wanted to take part in – and I was able to spend an hour in the shade of a tree looking across the grounds and drink in the simplicity and beauty. The bustle of the festival was just a background hum, and it was a matter of a few minutes walk to re-engage, but that opportunity to indulge in natural refreshment was priceless and for me justified the move completely. Having said that, there are clearly teething problems with the site, and I ended up leaving the festival mid-Monday morning because of the weather and the knock-on effects on talks – and that was obviously a prudent move on my part! I’m sure those problems will get sorted though.
2) I went to more talks than last year, for various reasons. A particular highlight was when Vicky Beeching was given a spontaneous standing ovation, that was really moving (and that talk was pretty good too – I definitely will purchase Robert Song’s book). I have a new intellectual crush…
Her talks were all good, and the session on ‘Does the Church of England have a future’ was very stimulating – I might do a post entirely on that theme in the next week or two; I definitely want to do a Learning Church session on it.
3) As I have come to expect, one of the most important features of Greenbelt is catching up with old friends and making new ones, and this year didn’t disappoint. Friday night was particularly good as I had three different conversations in succession in the Jesus Arms! I am more and more conscious that Greenbelt is becoming my ‘tribe’ religiously speaking – generously Christian, but with very fuzzy boundaries; non-denominational, inclusive, curious, artistic, passionate. All things that I would like to develop more. As I despair more about the central institution of the CofE I rejoice more in the faith itself and what small groups of believers are able to accomplish together.
4) One final thought, following from that. I am sure that I am not the only person who identifies more with GB than with other Christian badges, and I wonder how far the GB leadership committee have explored the “expansion of the brand”. There are lots of hazards to this, but – especially in the light of the access problems – lots of advantages too. I’m thinking of something like taking over a hotel for a weekend and turning it into a single venue like the Pagoda – a limited number of tickets, one or two key speakers – like a conference but done according to GB principles. Have one just for CofE clergy mid-week! I think an awful lot of productive engagement would come out of such a thing.
Anyhow, loved it – not quite as much as last year, but there were particular reasons why last year worked so wonderfully for me, which will probably (hopefully!) never be repeated. I’m definitely going back next year – but I might do the glamping option…
I really like Greenbelt, even though I feel I’m ‘in the closet’ a lot of the time (politically, not otherwise!). A very different experience this year as I took my eldest, and saw a different and very positive side to the festival (not least that the portaloos are kept to a much cleaner standard in early curfew as compared to general camping!). Also: the TTT should be renamed the Pricy Tea Tent – £2 for hot water and a teabag!! Xn Aid tent was £1.50 YMCA was £1…. Best bits were people-related, and a particular moment in Soul Space with Ignatian prayer – more on that another time.
There seems to be a very large group of people for whom faith is a real and central part of their lives, but for whom the institutional church is a spirituality-killer – and for whom Greenbelt is their ‘church’.
Thought one: you can’t be a Christian on your own. Thought two: you don’t need an insitution to be a Christian. Thought three: how long before Greenbelt itself becomes an institution that ‘believers’ need to break away from in order to be authentic to themselves.
Got back from Greenbelt last night, having shared the journey there and back with a friend which made time fly much more quickly than if I had gone on my own (especially since some thieves stole the car stereo!)
Overall impression: second time there, still love the festival, and will definitely go back next year, but am now more aware of things that can be improved, especially the worship. These are some of the things I got up to:
Friday night, a talk from Dave Tomlinson about how to believe, whereby he basically channelled Lindbeck’s understanding of religious belief. That was fine, but nothing especially new to me. Pity Dave had to go away for a long holiday straight after that night as I would have enjoyed catching up with him.
Saturday morning – tried to get in to Rob Bell but failed miserably (as did Jon, who I bumped into very briefly), as I hadn’t started to queue up an hour in advance, so wandered about before going to a talk on what to show children on TV, called “Dr Who behind the sofa”, with various luminaries from the comics industry. This was unsatisfying, principally because it was a rambling discussion that didn’t have a particular focus – fine, but left me wanting a lot more. I had bumped into Justin on the Friday, which was great, and we had arranged to catch up with each other in the Beer Tent prior to the Beer’n’Hymns, which was really good – and the Beer’n’Hymns was something I’d always wanted to experience, so now I can say ‘done that’. Much to reflect on from it; not sure how far it’s entirely a model for worship though 🙂
I caught a bit of Alister McGrath, but I was too familiar with his material, so I went straight back to the beer tent (where I spent most of the middle of the Saturday! very expensive – nearly £4 a pint) for a brief but good chat with several people involved in the SPCK campaign, including fellow priestly blogger Dave Keen. Stayed on after that to catch up with some other friends and succumbed to a nice massage from one of the lovely ladies offering them around. (Which reminds me – a very nice blog-reader gave me the t-shirt that you see me wearing there and, in a severly crap fashion, I never properly thanked them (and have now completely lost their contact details) – so if you’re reading this, a) sorry, and b) thank you very much!!!)
Main activity of the evening was watching ‘The Age of Stupid’ which I thought was a stupid film – crass, heavy handed and counter-productive, barely 3/5. Went back past the main stage, where Royksopp were performing. Didn’t stay long, but could hear the entire set quite well from my tent! (Same with Duke Special the next day)
Sunday morning was dominated by the main communal act of worship, this year geared around the struggle of the Palestinians against Zionist oppression. Evidence of my hardness of heart can be found in that I wasn’t greatly moved by this – not that I doubt that the Zionist state does horrible things, I just wonder why Western middle classes get so exercised by this example of injustice, and not so much by the (arguably greater) injustices in, eg, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Burma etc. Anyhow, the worship itself was middling-to-incompetent with all effort to generate atmosphere destroyed by an incredibly crass and insensitive distorting of some traditional hymn-tunes. It’s not good when people who are supposed to be singing a hymn end up laughing instead. This worship was redeemed by a subversive act of Holy Communion shared with good friends at the end.
After some time catching up with some more friends I went to the second Marvel Comics session, which repeated the experience of the first, and then caught Gareth Davies-Jones at the Performance Cafe. He was good, and things were starting to look up. Then came one of the highlights of the weekend for me, with Vic Thiessen giving a talk on the book of Ecclesiastes with reference to several modern films, including my favourite Magnolia. I’m now going to subscribe to his blog on films; he was great, and my mood brightened. The mood continued to get better by catching Rob Bell at last, in a Q and A session. I’m quite familiar with his work, so nothing ground-breaking, but it was good to get a sense of him in the flesh. After this I went to hear Mark Vernon on the ills of self-help ideologies which I thought was excellent (and hopefully he’ll release a book on this before too long), and then stayed in place for a panel discussion with, inter alia Mark, Maggi and Peter Rollins which was good, but, as a friend, said, was a bit like a trailer for a film that looked really good. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it. Monday was brief, as I was heading home at lunchtime, but I managed to get to the Taize service in the morning, which did good things, and then I caught Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Sarcastic Lutheran, giving a great talk on the compatibility between being emergent and denominational. Amongst many things which got me thinking, she said that we should ‘pastor our own tribe’ and ‘go where you don’t feel fractured, where you can be completely yourself in your ministry’. Hmmm…..
Well, what to say about this? A thoroughly positive experience all told, and next year I intend to be back with family – and with a slightly different agenda for the four days! Not only had I never been to Greenbelt before, I’d never even been to a festival before, so I had very little real idea of what to expect. Some random comments, with photos, in chronological order.
The journey to Cheltenham from Wales was a long one, and quite difficult, so I arrived at around 2 o’clock just in time to join a staggeringly long queue for entry onto the site. Prudently deciding to abandon the car for a couple of hours and wander around I bumped into a clergy colleague – my ‘next door neighbour’ who took pity on this poor neophyte and invited me to set up my tent next to his, which I duly did. So far, so positive.
It then took me ages to try and find a copy of the programme for the four days. This seemed to me to be a significant failure on the part of the organisation – I would have thought this material should be sent to every ticket holder in advance, to facilitate their planning. It would certainly have helped me. Having to trek about and then pay £7 or so for the programme seemed a bit rude, to be honest.
Anyhow, I got myself established on the campsite – in a place that seemed a long way away from the main action! – and then wandered in to see what was happening. I started listening to John Bell’s first talk, but – as I’m quite a fan of his – I felt that I knew what he was going to say, so I carried on exploring, and made contact with a few friends in time to watch Billy Bragg on the main stage. This was good – really good – but not quite as good as the gig I went to in Cambridge a while back. We then spent some time at the Tiny Tea Tent, where Paul Trathen stumbled across us. As you do. I felt exhausted, so I went to bed pretty quick.
Saturday started for me with a chance to listen to James Alison, definitely one of my theological heroes. I’d love to get one of his T-shirts! As with John Bell, though, I had a strong sense of ‘I know what you are saying here’, even though this time I stayed to the end. I then tried to get into Paula Gooder’s talk on the New Testament – she’s someone I know slightly from Uni – but it was completely full, so I wandered up to the chill out place in the Panorama cafe, which was handy. I then managed to get to the Centaur (great venue) to hear Martyn Joseph’s ‘The Rising’, which was really good, and definitely the first highlight. Lots of very interesting thoughts from the assembled, but two things really imprinted themselves on me. The first was Billy Bragg’s story of the song ‘We Laughed’ (see here) which made me cry, the second was one contributor talking about pursuing a career in song-writing and saying ‘fall in love with the process’ – ie don’t get hung up on results. I think that holds to all sorts of writing, and is certainly a maxim I’m going to try and follow.
I then went off and enjoyed lunch with some friends – great selection of food available at the festival, that was one of the really impressive aspects – and took in some Matt Redman songs. I love ‘Blessed be your name’. After this, I went to listen to a couple more talks – John Bell on the vocation to protest (up to his usual high standard) and then John Smith on Pop McWorship, which was ‘right on’ in all sorts of senses. I loved the way he described Greenbelt as the place where the Sanhedrin were absent. That made sense in all sorts of ways. After a bit more food (!), we finally managed to track down a place that sold beer, where some of us listened to a moderately good stand up performer, and then towards the end of Saturday, I took in part of Kanda Bongo Man’s set, which was really good, but I was too tired to really appreciate it, so I headed back for the tent to crash. Sunday began with something that I had been really looking forward to – the Greenbelt Communion service, and I was particularly pleased that the two groups of people that I knew at the festival were combined in a little group for the service. As for the service itself, my reaction was mixed. Possibly I had got my hopes up too far, but it wasn’t as good or uplifting as it could have been. First the positives: gathering the thousands together; the way communion itself was done; the releasing of the red balloons. Negatives: music was weak; talk was moderately good but no better; a distinct sense that it could have been more unashamedly Christian (tone more than words – something glorious). It wasn’t so much that it was bad, it was more that it could – and perhaps should? – have been really, really good. Anyhow, I’ll still look forward to next year’s.
So, after this (which took up most of the morning), I managed to get some time with some new friends, which was great, and after a bit more food, went off to wander around and soak up the atmosphere – definitely one of the best things about the whole experience for me. The rest of the day passed quite strangely. To begin with some of the group now had to leave (boo!) and I missed them, and then a planned meeting fell through, and I spent quite a while – probably too long – wandering around on my own, getting caught up in a fire alarm at one point. I went back to the tent early and read a book into the night.
Monday was the best day, a really wonderful time. It began with the Taize service which fed me where I was really feeling hungry, and I then went to hear Theo Hobson talk about George and the Dragon and the meaning of ritual. This was really interesting and has provoked a lot of thought about liturgy and worship and related matters. I then fell in with some friends at the Tiny Tea Tent (again!) and had a really good natter. After that, probably the best talk I listened to of the whole weekend, by Mark Yaconelli – very entertaining, and sufficiently thought provoking. That was followed by another lengthy conversation; then – at long last – I managed to track down Dave Walker and force a beer into his hand (he was most unwilling). That was good fun, and it’s good to have a human sense of what lies behind the cartoons. That was rapidly followed by a dash to listen to After The Fire, with West Mersea Church’s favourite guitarist (grin). It was clearly a great gig – unfortunately I couldn’t really appreciate it as the sound quality at the back of the marquee was quite poor (try a YouTube video here). After that – a bit more beer with Paul and his good lady, and my new friends, all very cheery, then more food, then sampling Duke Special – moderately special – and five minutes of Delirious – not my cup of tea – and finally a quiet pint with the guy who probably did most to get me to come in the first place.
Now that I’ve been, I’ll have a very different agenda for next year. Lots of things I didn’t do, but that seems par for the course. In 2008 I’ll want to a) go to talks given by people on topics I don’t know much about, rather than my ‘heroes’; b) go to a lot more worship events; c) pack properly – like taking toilet paper; d) plan more time for the conversations, which were what really made Greenbelt for me. And I will definitely ensure that I am in place for the beer and hymns… And oh yes – I came away with a lot of books, various presents, and a drum. Which is doing me a lot of good!
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