Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

A Friday thought: Scottish independence

For a long time, I’ve chosen to stay quiet on the subject of the Scottish independence referendum. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, even though I do not get a vote, here are a few thoughts and observations as the campaign reaches its climax.

The democratic process

The wording of the question was a problem to begin with. You may recall that the initial question was posed as “Do you agree that…” which was deemed illegal as it was too leading. So that wasn’t a great start.

This was counteracted by the decision to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. In my opinion, this was a very good move and I would be keen to see it extended to other elections and referendums. I recall being annoyed that there was a general election called in 2001 as I was a few months off turning 18 and hence I couldn’t vote. Yet while my views continue to evolve, even as a 16 year old it seemed wrong to deny my age group the vote. The argument has been that we lacked enough life experience or political understanding to be able to make an informed decision. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. If we denied the vote simply on the grounds of not being well enough informed then that would cut out a great many adults.

However, the democratic process wasn’t all that well designed. The issue here is that the vote was given to those resident in Scotland but the outcome would be to affect those who were born in Scotland. In effect, those who were born there but do not currently live there would have a change of nationality enforced on them by a vote which they were not capable of taking part in. Also one has the issue of non Scots who live there voting, though I am not opposed to that. While they wouldn’t have their nationality changed, it is a significant enough change to warrant them having the vote. Others may disagree with me on that.

The question of the economy

Much of the debate has revolved around the economy and so the debate has been shifted from whether Scotland should be independent to whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country rather than part of a union. This was always going to be a big issue, as emphasised by one of the names of the ‘No’ campaign – better together. Though I couldn’t help but think about it in a utilitarian way: what result gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people? Was it a case that Scotland was being held back by the rest of the UK and would prosper alone, leaving the rest of the UK unaffected or was it a case of “we’re off, screw you”? I think the answer is the former, even if it has been portrayed as the latter by some in the ‘No’ camp. But then comes the crucial question: is it actually true? This is a question I don’t know the answer to and haven’t found either side convincing on.

When the polls started to narrow and the markets had the jitters, I saw some comments from market fundamentalists to the effect that this proved independence was bad for business. For some businesses, I don’t doubt that independence will have an adverse effect. But how bad it might be and for how long, will vary from business to business. Personally, I think most will be largely unaffected. If a small number of big employers were to signal their intention to move south as a result of a yes vote, then I would anticipate something akin to a ‘corporate tax war’ whereby the Scottish government would seek to keep (and even attract business) by undercutting the UK corporate tax rates. Though, of course, this would mean they’d have less in their treasury to spend on the social welfare state. Which brings us onto the currency.

The currency issue has ended up playing a much bigger part than it probably should have done. The reason I say that is that it could have been avoided if the ‘Yes’ campaign had had the courage to plan for a new Scottish currency. As it is, their presumption of a currency union backfired. If they had a firm and workable plan in place, then as part of the wider economic question, the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been far stronger. Though as one parody site put it, Alex Salmond’s plan was akin to someone choosing to rescind their gym membership but insist that they can continue to use the equipment afterwards.

It is my belief that the it was the failure to adequately sort out the currency issue that soured the rest of the debate, which has only gotten worse as the date of the referendum has drawn closer. Having failed to come up with an alternative currency, the team behind the ‘Yes’ vote were unwilling to reveal a plan B, which was seized upon by the ‘No’ team who were unwilling to say that negotiations could be entered into. Stubbornness on both sides did neither of them any credit.

The bitter campaigns

All this set us up for an ever more divisive campaign. Given the nature of the referendum that shouldn’t be a bad thing. But it was worse than divisive. It got tribalistic. As is often the sad case with politics, the desire to hold the higher ground often leads to a refusal to acknowledge a good point made by one’s opponents. There have also been cases of demonising the other side and accusations of foul play.

In my view, the onus should have been on the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. By and large, this has been what they’ve been aiming for, though of late a few below the belt aims seems to have had more effect. The job of the ‘No’ campaign should have been to critique the proposals. Starting with the currency issue, though, the flat denialism of the ‘Yes’ campaign, jointly with the scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign, stoked the fires that meant reason and evidence were drowned out by rhetoric and emotionalism.

The fact that the ‘No’ campaign did resort to near-threats and scaremongering did them no favours at all. It also played into the hands of the ‘Yes’ campaign by giving them room to dismiss any fair and reasonable critique as similar scaremongering. As such, the noise from both sides made it more and more difficult to assess the truthfulness of each side.

Both sides have been guilty of saying some pretty stupid things. Alex Salmond saying that Scottish independence was like ending apartheid was monumentally crass. That was matched by some comments I saw on social media likening the SNP to the BNP. They may be one letter different but their ideologies are a world apart.

The ‘No’ campaign really shot themselves in the foot when the 3 main party leaders abandoned Prime Minister’s Questions and went to Scotland in a moment of panic after one opinion poll said the referendum was closer than ever, even if the ‘Yes’ campaign did celebrate it like a landslide victory. I alluded to demonisation earlier, which was most evident here in Salmond’s cry of “Team Westminster”.

I would not deny the ‘Yes’ campaign’s claim that consecutive Westminster governments have been out of touch. I knew a similar sentiment when I lived in the north-east of England. Yet to imagine that the further away you are from Westminster, the less they care is, I believe, wrong. Having lived in London for a year, I know areas 3.5 miles from Westminster that are just as neglected by Parliament as those 350 miles away. Yet that’s not a reason to vote ‘No’. If anything, it is a reason for greater reform in our politics.

If anything, the greatest reason the ‘Yes’ campaign has is one of principle; that it is inherently correct that they should have self-determination.  But self-determination is not a guarantee of prosperity, which is why the promise of economic benefits of independence ring hollow. If there was a promise of “it is right that we should govern ourselves, and it may be tough” then that may be more honest than the vision of independence that has been sold to the Scottish people.

Yet credence has been given to the ‘Yes’ campaign by the sheer panic and late promises from the ‘No’ campaign. The mixed messages of stick and carrot have done the unionists no favours and so it is understandable that people will vote ‘Yes’ on a promise given currency (pun intended) by the flustered nature of the response.

It has been interesting how ‘left’ v ‘right’ has played out. I’ve read some comments from the ‘Yes’ campaign that to vote ‘No’ is an act of selling out to the establishment. Yet the SNP’s socialist credentials were dealt a blow when they didn’t bother to turn up to vote on the latest bill going through to abolish the bedroom tax. There’s a very good analysis on that particular bill here.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are some very good reasons for voting ‘Yes’ and there are some equally good reasons for voting ‘No’. No one can know for certain what the result of independence might be, all we can do is guess. As highlighted above, some of those guesses are questionable. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, all we have is democracy on a subjective matter. If the opinion polls are to be believed, it will be a very tight vote. It may be interesting to see if a reasonable estimate could be made to see if the enfranchised 16 & 17 year olds make a difference.

Whichever way the vote goes, it will be interesting. I know that for saying that both sides have behaved badly that I have received some flak from ‘Yes’ campaigners and been accused of advocating a ‘No’ vote. I don’t advocate either side. If you are reading this and you have a vote, my only wish is that you exercise it.

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 4: Monday – final thoughts)

Monday

MudOn Monday, it rained. And it rained. And it rained. It was a bit of a horrible day and forced the organisers into a number of changes to the schedule. In thinking it through, I was trying to work out to what the extent the weather affected my impression of the day. It would be naive to imagine that it didn’t colour the day, but I did come away with the impression that the festival was dying out in a bit of damp squib. Looking through the programme, there weren’t the variety and number of talks I wanted to go to that there had been on Saturday. That’s not to say it was bereft of things to do, though.

Pete

With my legs and feet in tatters, I decided to take a taxi in, but that meant that I was able to make it just on time for Pete Phillips‘ 9am slot on spirituality in a digital age. I’ve heard Pete speak before at the 2012 Christian New Media Conference and his talk here was in a similar vein. The main thing that I took from it was that there is a temptation to be resisted for us to regard online communication as something inherently different from the rest of our lives. Instead of looking at that way, though, it should be seen as a valuable tool that can supplement and aid spiritual expression. There were a few videos played which I admit I struggled to see the relevance of, even if they were quite pretty. The room also had a few faces there that I hadn’t seen for a while, so it was good to catch up. I think the essence of the talk I could summarise with a conversation I had with Richard Burridge later that afternoon. Having said that it was my first time as Greenbelt, he asked me what brought me. My awareness of it came about through friendships cultivated online and I said: “Part of my reason for coming was to meet up with some friends, in some cases for the first time.” I doubt many of us will ever meet most of those who we interact with online, but it might be fun and worthwhile spending time in the company of others. I know I got to know one person much better over a cup of coffee at Greenbelt than I had in a number of interactions over the last few of years on Twitter.

After Pete’s talk, I wanted to go a session on modern monasticism. I first heard of the movement, when I was part of King’s Church Durham, around a decade ago now. The pastor, Mark Bonnington, had the mantra ‘mission and monasticism’. Now I haven’t taken any vows (with my face, celibacy is a fact of life, not a choice!) or wear robes or anything like that. Nor does Ian Mobsby, the bloke who was giving the talk. Unfortunately, it was rather crammed and I got stuck in a queue foe coffee so could only half hear. As a result I couldn’t really comment on the talk, but I did pick up his book, A New Monastic Handbook. Having eventually got a coffee, I decided to head to the next venue so I could guarantee myself a seat.

That next venue was the Jesus Arms. The event: a quiz. Those that know me well know I love quizzes and can be very competitive. I had arranged to meet a couple of folks there but we didn’t catch sight of one another. Some of the tables were being brought in from the outside and given a rub down with some kitchen roll so we could sit on them. I helped as much as I could and bagsied a table. A few random folks came along and we formed a team. When it came to team names, we were advised to pick something appropriate for the awful weather. So we opted for ‘Soggy Bottoms’ in honour of both the rain and a love of The Great British Bake Off. When we came to swap answer sheets, though, it seems that we weren’t the only ones. I wonder how many other teams who we didn’t swap with also picked the name! We managed to talk ourselves out of a few right answers and were about 8 points behind the eventual winners. It was reasonably well organised, though. I thought there was a slight lack of books on the agenda, but no one ever gets the exact questions they want.

After that I had lunch and headed back to The Table (the very wonky venue). It wasn’t so much the topic of the talk that brought me there, as it was the speaker. David Pullinger in part of my extended family (my brother-in-law’s uncle – so our nearest shared DNA is in my nieces and one of my nephews who I will be seeing this coming weekend). So I thought I’d show up in support. He was there representing Christian Connection, though more on their ‘research wing’. So while the talk was entitled ‘The Theology of Singleness’ there wasn’t much theology here. Instead it was more about demographic statistics and the issues that churches would face with a growing demographic of unmarried people. There wasn’t an awful lot of practical application here – it was more about raising awareness of the statistics and encouraging those there (where I guess single people probably formed the bulk of the audience) that late marriage is becoming the norm. I did consider asking a question, but refrained, as one of the major things that I see is that while it is now reasonable to see previously marginalised groups such as women or LGBTI in church leadership positions, outside of those churches that forbid marriage (handily ignoring 1 Tim 4:1-3) singles seem to be disproportionately under-represented. It would be interesting to know how this might vary between denominations. If I cast my mind back through the wide variety of churches I’ve been in, I can only recall 3 or 4 sermons ever that have been given by someone who wasn’t married. What I cannot tell is if my experience is unusual or if this is a ‘hidden prejudice’. I know when I’ve raised the point in the past, some have reacted very angrily at the very suggestion, which I find interesting, to say the least. The objection usually comes in the form of what-about-ery from a particular group who want to engage in a game of “I’m more marginalised than you” which is not something I have any fondness for a rarely rise to the bait.

Nadia & Sara

Following on from this, and with some of the locations changed because of the weather, I just went over the Big Top to see what was on. We got a conversation between Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sara Miles on the topic of ‘glorifying the stranger’. This was phrased in terms of contrasting it with simply ‘welcoming’. Sara said that welcoming strangers is what ‘nice’ churches do because we try to be good christians by welcoming others to do things our way (this was said with an ironic tone). Most of the conversation consisted of them giving examples of issues they’ve faced within their churches (one Lutheran, one Episcopalian) caused by having strangers in their midst. They both advocated an open communion, which I would wholly agree with, though I wasn’t so keen on their advocacy of the use of liturgy in churches. Others may take the opposite view to me there. There was some helpful advice, though I thought this was rather for those in leadership roles, or at least the decision-makers within a church. This idea was strengthened in the Q&A session, which was fairly long in comparison to the main presentation, where almost all the questioners seemed have particular roles within the church. I confess, this section gave me both the feeling of curiosity and uneasiness, as the phrasing of the questions often came with a bit of baggage, so one maybe got a little too much insight than was necessary. For them, I’m sure it was helpful, but some of the pastoral issues maybe ought not to have been aired in such a public forum. If you were there, did you get the same idea?

After this, I went wandering around a little bit. It took ages, but I couldn’t get very far as I was on my last legs. I ended up in a venue I hadn’t been in before, The Playhouse. This was mostly because I thought it was a children’s venue, but it turns out it was more for theatrical productions. I had kind of forgotten that word ‘play’ had dual meaning! I came in after there had been a showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. There was a sort of interview done later with Richard Burridge entitled ‘What Have The Pythons Ever Done For Us?’ This came from a conference that took place at King’s College, London earlier in the summer – which is where Richard is a Dean as well as a professor of biblical interpretation. Apparently, Michael Palin had been invited to Greenbelt to take part, but wasn’t able to come due to a prior booking commitment. It was good to hear it expressed that if Life of Brian were released today, then “the church” wouldn’t react in the same way, though I couldn’t help but get the impression that when Richard spoke of “the church” that he actually meant the CofE rather than “the Church” as a whole. I still think some quarters would object to the film, even if would be more likely to be Christian Voice than any mainstream or otherwise representative group.

And with that, I think Greenbelt was sort of over for me. A lot of people had gone already, so the site felt relatively empty compared to earlier in the weekend. I wandered around as much as I was physically able, but apart from visiting the bookstore (not for the first time in the weekend) I couldn’t find an enticing reason to hang around. I had a look at my programme but nothing leapt out at me. Because of the bad weather, some of the transport arrangements were screwed up. Also, because there was no mobile signal on site, I couldn’t ask for a taxi and I was in no fit state to walk back to the hotel. So my plan was to get the shuttle bus to its only destination: the train station. The plan was to pick up a taxi from there. There was, however, a snag. Having been told the shuttle bus was running all day until 10pm, when I eventually got to the box office from where I had also been told it started, it turns out it wasn’t starting until 7pm.Yet I got there about 5:30! So I sat and flicked through the introductions to some of the books I had bought, whilst people slowly found their own cars and made their own way off the site. Sat by myself, in a tent in the pouring rain was not how I had envisioned the festival. It went some way to washing off the good memories, which is partly why I wrote this fairly lengthy series – in order to re-grasp what I thought at the time. With so much going on each day, it would be easy for it all to fade and that even 2 months down the line, I wouldn’t recall some of the talks or they’d merge into one another.

Sold Out

Looking back, a few days on

So then, as I write this nearly a week after the festival, what were the lasting impressions and things I got out of it? Unfortunately, one of the lasting marks seems to a scar on my leg. Though it is healing now, the tissue is somewhat different from normal skin. I was trying to think if I would return next year. If the shuttle bus continues to only go between the station and the site, omitting where people are actually staying, then I would probably stay away on that basis. There was much to value there, but I would probably opt for the podcasts. Even though I would miss out on the camaraderie (yes, there was a lot of that), it would be necessary to literally save my skin.

In terms of the talks, I think it might have been good to have slightly fewer bookselling agendas. Though I appreciate the need to do so (a fair chunk of my salary is derived from book sales) some greater variety might be in order. A few others noted a slight anti-evangelical tone in some parts of the festival, so a few more evangelical speakers would be add to the variety, though on the whole it was fairly varied. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t dabble enough in other expressions of christianity. Going Quaker for an afternoon was as daring as I got. I know there was a Taize service, though when I went to one in the past I hated having orders barked at me and being told, “no, no, you’re doing it all wrong” because I turned anti-clockwise instead of clockwise. Or there could have been the goth communion, but at my age, I don’t have the stamina to stay up til midnight much.

One thing that I looked for, but found little on, was much talk on the theology of finance. I admit, that’s a particular interest of mine, but short of submitting a paper and trying to get myself on the speaking platform, I’m not sure who we might get to speak. But I think I’m more likely to become a Quaker than ever be invited to speak at any christian gathering.

Having had a couple of days back in London, it’s been odd adapting back to city life. It seems a world away. I go back into my habit of coping with the multitude by seeing people as objects to be dodged around and walked past rather than individuals with their own hopes and dreams, histories and stories to learn from. Or as members of a community with a collective memory and unique cultural expressions. I’m not advocating that my “London” view is healthy, but it’s just how I live in the city. Getting back into the swing of work was interesting. I think my head was still at Greenbelt, mulling over some of the things I’ve heard and which I’ve endeavoured to convey onto you. As such, I admit that the first few days haven’t been the most productive.

I picked up 5 books which I shall get round to reading sometime. In total, the stack of unread books I’ve got on my living room floor right now could keep me busy for the next year even if I don’t get any more. So don’t expect reviews of the 5 immediately. I have plenty of others to be getting on with. Only time will tell as to how much truly sinks in and whether those around me notice a significant difference in my theology, my praxis, my questions. Where possible, I’ve tried to draw some links between the talks I went to, perhaps in the hope that this loose web may help capture some wider insight.

One point I might revisit, as a critique of the festival as a whole, is that it really isn’t all that ‘green’. The lack of adequate public transport meant that it was only really accessible for those who came in their own private transport. For those like me, who make the choice, based on their personal ethics, to use their own legs or only public transport, the festival was unnecessarily hard to get to. So perhaps in future, there could be a greater effort into providing alternatives so that people could have a reasonable alternative to bringing their cars.

At times I got the impression that ‘changing the world’ was considered easy – as exemplified by one of the “ethical stores” on site, which had a slogan on their side to the effect of: “[if you buy are products, you will make the world a better place]”. I remain cynical about such claims. I saw the birth no great movement here, and if any movement was already in place it was that of the celebrity christian – a movement that has some good and some drawbacks. I would hope that my motivations for the talks I went to was based primarily on the topics and secondarily on the speakers, though with so much choice I picked the talks I went to more on instinct than by a fully rational process. As I commented to someone at the time, I could have done with a spreadsheet to help me.

There are more of you I met than I have detailed in this little series of blog posts. So apologies if you were not named. It was a delight to meet you all, and I think I’ve updated my Twitter list of ‘Folks I’ve met’ so I hope you don’t mind being added to it.

So as we all go back to our own homes and settle back into our routines and rhythms, however irregular they may be, what was your take on Greenbelt? I’m sure there are things I’ve written which you disagree with, so please feel free to engage (some have done this on Twitter already). Having looked through the Flickr page of the festival, there was much that I seem to have missed. I’m sure you could gather half a dozen people and find minimal overlaps in their experience. So this is just my testimony; one of many thousands. What’s yours?

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 3: Sunday – sermons & discussions)

Sunday

On Sunday morning, I headed back to the site for what was really the one event they had going on then, the communion service. I will write more about that separately on another site (late edit: it may now be found here), but here’s a brief precis:

I got to the site at about 9:30, though having been told by a friend where to meet, I couldn’t find the location mentioned, so I just parked my butt and said where I was. Though it was meant to be a multi-denominational service, it struck me as all rather Anglican in nature. There was some shamanistic chanting and those behind the communion table donned those scarf-like things that you get in very conservative churches. That said, one Anglican I spoke to afterwards said it was still rather different from what they had at their regular Sunday service. So I wonder if in trying to appeal to all and sundry, there was quite widespread alienation.

Communion

On the flip side of the high church stuff there was some happy clappy elements, it even threatened to turn into a barn dance at one point. Depending on your view, either the highlight or the nadir was a song I’d never heard before called “This little light of mine” which was so off-the-scale in terms of happy clappy, it made Shine Jesus Shine seem like Allegri’s Miserere. If my church ever sings it, expect me to excuse myself for a few minutes.

Though probably the biggest disappointment (and I know I’m not alone in this) was the “sermon”. Having noted that quite a few of the talks I attended the previous day were in some ways related to books that people had out, I was hoping for a more normal Sunday message where we could get a reasonable exposition of a passage of scripture, with practical application for how to apply it to our lives. Instead, though, we got another book plug. It was out of place and a sore misjudgment on the part of the speaker (and the organisers, if they knew that that was the message that was going to be preached). And the less said about the content of the sermon the better.

The site

But I did manage to get some good sermons, as afterwards I headed to the venue known as The Mount, which is where the Quaker service had been the previous afternoon. Well, given the venue name, it was kind of inevitable that there would be sermons there at some point. This was sort of relay sermons with some great songs in between. If I could get hold of the songs, I would love to direct them to you. Imagine Billy Bragg were a christian, passionate about social justice and inclusion, then you’d get a fair impression of what we had. The other sermons we had were from Nadia Bolz-Weber and Padraig O Tuama (A transcript of Nadia’s is available here). While each did their own part, and I didn’t manage to take notes, the overall impression I left with was one of the down-to-earth practicality of christian belief. It was a call to action, without any hectoring tone, of a need to be gracious and live lives that reflect the best of humanity.

Mpho Tutu

After a lateish lunch, I went over to the Big Top to continue a quest to hear of the best of humanity by listening to Mpho Tutu and Richard Burridge in conversation. Mpho seemed, on the basis of the billing, to be the guest of honour. She had spoken a little at communion earlier, giving a blessing to the congregation in Xhosa, though it was a pity there was no one to translate. The conversation largely revolved around Mpho’s father, Desmond Tutu. During the talk, we had a few clips played from a video he did about the notion of Ubuntu. Not the operating system, but the original word from which it is derived. Richard spoke about his own dealings with Desmond and the history of Greenbelt’s involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. As such, I felt that we didn’t really get to hear Mpho much, which was a bit of a shame. What I did get was that her big idea is that forgiveness is a process that we must go through. So simply say “I forgive you” is not exactly the same as enacting forgiveness. In other words, it’s not something switched on and off like a light. I couldn’t help but think of a parallel with Bonhoeffer’s notion of costly grace. I’ve read some who have said that they can never forgive those who have wronged them. To those, I would direct them to Mpho’s testimony.

Afterwards, I met up with a friend who I knew through Twitter. We’d exchanged numbers earlier and went off for coffee and a chat. After this, I headed to the main stage to listen to a DJ set by Gilles Peterson. If you’ve not come across him before, Gilles is to jazz what John Peel was to rock. He seems to be round for a while, as I recall listening to his Worldwide show at midnight between Wednesdays and Thursdays when I was a teenager. He opened up a whole new side of music that you could just never hear anywhere else. Different styles, odd vocalisations, rhythms that were alien to the usual fare of Radio 1 stuff.

Politics debate

After this, I went to sit in the Pagoda, awaiting a 5:30 discussion which featured a couple of guys I used to know. In my days at sixth form college, I would frequent an Anglican church town in the neighbouring town and afterwards a few of us would head up to the cemetery for hot chocolate and toasted sandwiches. Two of the panel of 5 used to live there. The motion proposed was: “This house believes that the 2015 Election will make no significant difference to the future of Britain.” At the start of the meeting we took a straw poll which came out 50/50. Another poll was made at the end, but more of that later. On the ‘for’ side were Louise Donkin of SPEAK and Martin Newell of the Catholic Worker Network. On the ‘against’ side were Pippa Morgan of the LibDem Christian Forum and Gavin Shuker, the Labour Co-Op MP for Luton South. The chair was Andy Flannagan who is the head of Christians on the Left, formerly known as the Christian Socialist Movement. It may strike you, as it did many in the tent that this was a particularly left-leaning panel (though there was an amusing moment when, in reference to physical location, Louise was said to be “on the far right”). It was noted that Conservative representation was sought but that no one was available to come to Greenbelt to represent them. All four candidates spoke very well. From my point of view, I thought Louise probably came off as the most reasonable. Martin was good, though I thought his views were a little simplistic. For example, why I would agree that the scrapping of Trident would be a good idea, I think careful planning would need to be done so as to not unnecessarily increase unemployment or do to the towns which house Trident workers what Thatcher did the mining towns in the north of England. Yet I wouldn’t hold that the threat of unemployment should prevent discussion of nuclear disarmament. On the against side, I have to say that Gavin rather outshone Pippa; his experience of debating showing. I know Sarah Teather was around on site on the day, so I did wonder why she didn’t represent the Lib Dems here.  The question really hung on the term ‘significant’. No one denied that the outcome of the election would make a difference, but whether there were big enough differences between the parties was what I doubted. After the debate had gone through some prepared questions, the floor was opened up so the audience got to participate. The questions here varied in quality, often straying away from the main topic at hand and into more general politics (like an edition of Question Time, only without a token comedian, Daily Mail columnist or Nigel Farage). After a few had been asked, I decided to raise my hand to ask a question, about a topic that I feel quite strongly about. I can’t recall exactly how I worded it, but it was something like this: “[One of the causes for disillusionment with politics is the perception that politicians have greater loyalty to their party whips than to their constituents. Would you agree that the whips should be either abolished or reformed?]” (for an earlier take on it, see here). To make it a bit more specific, I wanted to ask the elected members of the panel (which turned out to just be Gavin) if they had voted against their party lines on the basis of representation received from one or more constituents. Louise and Martin both agreed with my premise, that whips are undemocratic and should be scrapped. To focus on Gavin’s response, though, he named a number of bills that had passed that had been subject to a whip, including the founding of the NHS. In effect, though, his answer was a variation of “[the end justifies the means]” which I found quite unsatisfactory. In fairness, though, he did say that he had voted against his party, though that was on his own conscience rather than on the basis of representing his constituents. The vote was taken again at the end and this time it was not a draw. While I remained voting on the ‘for’ side, I was now in the minority. As I left, I remained unconvinced, but my hope is that young politicians like Gavin and Pippa do not allow Westminster life to jade them, as both showed a decent level of integrity. Probably the strongest point made, harking back to one made by Owen Jones the day before, was the potential of the election to be changed by those who don’t currently vote but who are entitled to. My personal idea is that if there is to be any increase in voter turnout, it may be for UKIP and which may dilute the Tory vote, favouring Labour in some marginal seats.

4 ladies

I had a bit of a break for dinner (a lovely Goan fish curry) before heading to a talk I had been more or less instructed to go to. 4 friends were doing a discussion about ‘transition’. Now, this had been a little ambiguously worded, which was unfortunate as I was led to believe that some thought it was a talk on being transgendered. In fact, it was 4 stages of going through being an Anglican minister. One had just left their career to start their training. One had just finished training and was now a vicar. One had just finished their first vicaring job and had moved onto a new parish. The last had just a parish to go and work in a cathedral. I freely admit, and I said it to their faces, that it was almost wholly irrelevant to me. I’m not an Anglican and have no intentions of becoming one any time soon. I still haven’t got my head round all the various ranks within the hierarchy, but I think lay reader is lower than deacon which is lower than rector, but I’m not sure if there are in between steps. Even one of the participants (@goodinparts – imagine Hyacinth Bucket but with all the haughty pretension replaced by gentle charm) admitted that she didn’t really know what a canon pastor does – and she is one! Congregational and presbyterian structures are so much simpler! Anyway, before the talk started in a very packed tent, I was surprised when someone knelt down next to where I was sitting and said, “You must be Simon!” in a very cheerful manner. I must admit, I’m not accustomed to being accosted, so was slightly taken aback. It turns out it was @losthaystacks who for some reason I thought had either a Northern Irish or Western Scottish accent. So it took a few moments for me to come round to anything civility and actually say hello. Later, after the talk, I also got to say hello to @ClareLissaman who was hosting in one of the venues, but who I had wholly failed to recognise due to her wearing a hat. Back to the 4-way talk – the conversation was very interesting and bore the hallmarks of its origins – a chat in a pub.

After this, the whole site geared up for the headline act: Sinead O Connor. I was not particularly fussed about seeing her, but I had been offered a lift back to the hotel, so after the injuries sustained earlier, I was going to stick around to listen to the set and avoid walking back in the dark. She was OK. One could have predicted that some of the language would be a bit fruity (though having listened to Nadia Bolz-Weber earlier, this would not have been the first time the air turned blue at Greenbelt). Some people had let their small children stay up to listen but quickly moved off after the first song referenced “pissing in your coffee”. Even the next morning, I heard some small children talking about the swearing. Mid way through the set, I went off to grab myself a drink and ran into a few friends. But we all managed to get outside for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which everyone joined in with. Sinead was clearly the most professional of the musicians we had, and in general the quality of the music on Sunday was better than that which we had on Saturday. But I had no urge to stick around and shout encore. I joined a steady stream of people who were filing away into the dark, but this time I remembered my torch, which helped to prevent me from turning my ankle on a divet.

So I got back to the hotel, looked at the weather forecast and got myself ready for a very soggy Monday.

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 2: Saturday – lots of talks)

Saturday

I got the distinct impression that Saturday was the main day for going to talks. It was certainly more intense than any other day. I set off from the hotel just before a quarter to 8 in the morning, having worked out the right route and was hoping I could cover the distance in an hour and a quarter to get to Bex Lewis‘ 9am talk. As it was, I underestimated how badly injured I was, but this soon became apparent as I headed down the road. It took me an hour to do the first 3 miles, but I was in a lot of pain and had slowed to a limp. As I was on the last stretch of the road, somebody stopped to offer me a lift to the site, which I was grateful to accept. I got to the site just after 9, but I thought I would have kedgeree for breakfast and go in for the second half of the 1st talk. Unfortunately, I made a bit of a false assumption. Having seen the timetable was split into hourly sessions, I thought each talk would be 50-60 minutes, just like university lectures were. So I got into the right tent at 9:25, only to find that everyone was in the middle of an exercise involving sticking bits of paper together. This was to the be the end of the session which ended at 9:30.

So I stuck around for a bit and had a chat to a few people, before heading on to the next venue in plenty of time. I went to The Table, which was a marvelously wonky venue. The stage looked at though it was tilted, though in fact that was a trick of perspective, as the whole tent was on a slope, so everything was wonky apart from the stage. So you had to sit on the right hand side of the tables or else you’d risk falling over backwards. Anyway, I was there for a talk on myth given by Naomi Millner. I’d not heard of her before, but she made a fairly good impression. The talk wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but that’s no bad thing. The dominant points I got out of it were that the word myth has a long history to it, but that it really has very little etymology. It just means what it means, with no part of the word referring to any other ideas. In addition to this, there was an interesting take on the nature of testimony, whereby she said that testimony is filling in the gaps left by more systematic study. Where I disagreed with her slightly was about the identification of who are “oppressors”. This came up in the context of telling the stories, the myths, the identity-creating narratives of groups that have been oppressed in the past. While I would acknowledge that as a white, straight, middle-class male, I am part of a demographic that has historically been in the role of the oppressor – a role which has been diminished somewhat in recent decades, but which has not wholly been undone, I would resist the identification of each individual, including myself, friends and family, with the whole of the demographic group. So while I may try to give voice to those who have been voiceless, it is not as reparation for any wrongdoing on my part.

Owen Jones

I had to duck out of the Q&A session as I wanted to head over to the Big Top, the largest of the indoor venues, to hear Owen Jones speak on the politics of hope. The tent was pretty packed and I only managed to get a spot near the back, mostly behind people who had brought camping chairs with them and so blocked the view of most of us who had to sit on the grass. But that didn’t bother me too much; I was here to listen, not to see. Owen is someone whose political views I broadly agree with, though I do find his rhetoric at times go a little over the top. I had thought that like many of the Greenbelt speakers, he was here to plug his new book. But he didn’t bring it along with him, nor did he even mention it. Given the title of the book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, I did wonder if the talk was a summary of it, but I couldn’t say for certain until I read the book, which probably won’t be for some time. For someone my age, Owen is certainly a confident and able speaker. He didn’t need any notes and spoke from the heart, with good recall of facts. The gist that I got was that it was an invective against the current coalition government with some loose ideas for possible policies to undo the harm inflicted on the populace. One of the phrases that stuck in my head was his assertion that (I paraphrase) we have “[socialism for the rich, dog-eat-dog sink-or-swim capitalism for everyone  else]“. If you want to read more on this, he more or else copied it out in article published in the Guardian a few days later. His plea was that if we wanted to enact change, we needn’t wait for polling day. He encouraged us to join a political party (he didn’t specify or point people to any one in particular) or to look into a cross-party grouping he is involved with, The People’s Assembly. While I applaud the encouragement to be more politically involved, I am tads more cynical. It is not out of laziness that I don’t join a political party, it is a matter of principle. I have heard all too often that you can enact change from the inside, but being unable to do that even in a small church, I doubt the reality of that in a national party. If anything, my ideas are most closely aligned to the Green Party (who seemed to be well represented at Greenbelt) but I disagree on their stance over nuclear power as an alternative source of energy. Given the poor system of democracy we have at the moment, I also tend to vote tactically and I am of the view that a vote for any of the parties that don’t sit in the top 2 in any given constituency is probably a wasted vote. At the end of the talk, Owen was gracious enough to open the floor to give a voice to others, which actually tied in quite well with the view advocated by Naomi Millner just an hour earlier. It wasn’t really a Q&A session, just a chance for people to have a voice. There was quite an amusing intake of breath when one chap admitted to being a member of the Liberal Democrats.

The intention was then to head off for lunch. I managed to meet Dyfed Wyn Roberts, appropriately enough whilst I was tucking into a Welsh lamb burger. I had planned to take it easy until Brian McLaren’s talk in the afternoon on the main stage, but Dyfed suggested we head off to hear Linda Woodhead on the topic of ‘The Crisis Of Religion In The UK: History, Causes, Consequences’. From the outset, it was made clear that the title was rather misleading. Rather than use the word ‘crisis’ in the conventional sense, this was to be understood more as a tipping point, a crux. The point being that crisis should not be thought necessarily be thought of as a bad thing. The focus of the talk was on demographics with a fairly broad-brush approach to societal trends. An interesting point that I picked up was the family is no longer the norm. So with particular reference to the recent Conservative announcement that they would make their policies family-friendly (or in other words, single un-friendly – way to get my vote!), it is based on a view of British society that is out-of-date and becoming less and less reflective of reality. It was asserted that religious populations have followed trends increased liberalisation that we see in society (with some variation between religions & denominations), but that the leadership hasn’t followed the trend, which creates a gap. It is this gap which has created the ‘crisis’. The talk and a couple of the questions were a little sour, not least with the “well the house of laity [in the Church of England] doesn’t represent the laity”, a dig at so-called “conservative evangelical” churches, which was quite lacking in grace and a fairly flat dismissal of all Christian Unions in all colleges and universities. So for all the good that the talk had, the tone amongst the audience, which Woodhead didn’t make much effort to counter, had rather an anti-evangelical prejudice which left a bit of bad taste in my mouth (nothing to do with the Welsh lamb, that was lovely). The other thing that gave me pause for thought was Woodhead’s definition of liberalism. It was very much aligned with John Stuart Mill’s view which was pretty much synonymous with individualism. So I wonder if that kind of liberalism ought to have much place in such a communal setting as a church.

Brian McLaren

After that I went to park my butt on a spare patch of grass by the main stage to listen to Brian McLaren. He is someone I’ve heard of before, but had never heard before. His book, A Generous Orthodoxy, has been on my reading list for some time, but unfortunately, it wasn’t on sale at the bookshop. They had several others of his, including ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha And Mohammed Cross The Road?‘ which I later bought and managed to get signed.

The reason I chose that particular book was because it seemed to expand upon the theme of the talk, which largely revolved around how christians relate to those of other faiths. There is a danger in reading such a book as I found Brian’s talk to be probably the most agreeable; that is, the one where the views espoused were aligned most closely with my own. So if you want to get a fair impression of my view, but put more eloquently than I can, then please do listen to the talk (I think all talks can be purchased from the Greenbelt website). As such, there was little there to challenge me directly or cause me to think thoughts that I hadn’t already thought before. During the talk, the clouds did come over and we had a bit of a miserable shower. Though everyone was prepared for it, and we just put on our raincoats or popped up umbrellas, much as you might see at Lord’s or Wimbledon in the summer months, earning us a collective compliment of, “you guys don’t miss a beat” as the stage from which Brian was speaking was covered, so he remained dry as a bone. The rest of us did impressions of cows by staying put in order to keep dry the patch of ground on which we were sat. One of the interesting things that Brian alluded to was also mentioned in his billing as ‘one of the world’s 25 most influential evangelicals’. Leaving aside the issue of the merit or usefulness of such lists, he said this his “credentials” as an evangelical were under threat. When I spoke to him afterwards, I was keen to encourage him not to abandon the label if he felt pressured to do so, but to simply be evangelical as he sees it. I may write more about this another time, as given the reference in Woodhead’s talk above, it may be useful to look at the growing tide of anti-evangelicalism amongst some christians, and see where this hateful prejudice against one’s own brethren stems from and how it might be turned around.

The downside of having seen Brian McLaren is that I gave up on going to see Michael Northcott speak on the political theology of climate change (also the title of a book he has out), which was on in the Pagoda (which resembles the Great British Bake Off tent more than an actual pagoda) at the same time. But I planned to head over to the Pagoda afterwards for a talk by Dave Tomlinson entitled “The Bad Christian’s Manifesto” which again, is also the title of his book – are you picking up a theme here?

Nick Spencer

Alas, by the time I got there, the place was packed and even at the door, for want of a better word for an opening flap in a tent, people were stacked several rows back, trying to get in. Clearly a popular talk and I stood no chance of getting in. So I looked for any talks starting in half an hour’s time that I might like to go to and which I may have a chance of going to see. So I cross over the path and went to the Treehouse (probably my favourite venue of the weekend) to see Nick Spencer of the Theos think tank give a brief history of atheism. A while ago, I bought a book on the very topic by Gavin Hyman, but haven’t got round to reading it yet. So it won’t be until some time after I’ve done that that I may get round to reading Nick’s book on the topic. But it was interesting to listen to him nonetheless. Like me, he admitted that this was the first time he had been to Greenbelt, but it was clearly not his first time at public speaking. I had expected him to make mention of the early christians being referred to as atheists, but he didn’t do that. Instead, harking back to Naomi Millner’s talk earlier in the day, he gave us a creation myth. This was a creation myth “according to some modern atheists”. It was certainly a caricature, and a very amusing one at that, though I wondered how it might be received by any atheists. If there were any present, they certainly didn’t make themselves known. From here, though, the talk became a lot more academic in style, but enthralling nonetheless. So what did I get out of the talk? The lasting impression is that atheism as we know it is not one thing, but comes from a number of sources. Like a river, it may have many tributaries that feed into it, with a fair bit churned up along the way. Yet in terms of the so-called “New Atheism”, there is very little that is new about it, other than the shrillness of the rhetoric. But you probably knew that already. The real interest was the characters between the likes of Hume and Voltaire who I was less familiar with. So while I picked up the gist of the history, I will have to educate myself a bit more to become as familiar with it as Nick has.

After all this, I though I had had my fill of listening. Just as you might have had your fill of reading by now. But if you’ve stayed with me, thank you for your patience. So I wanted to do something different and even try something new. One group I have long admired from a distance is the Quakers, and they had a meeting at 6pm that afternoon. I’d never been to a Quaker meeting before, being rather intimidated by the prospect of just turning up in a way one generally isn’t in a more conventional church. The local group to me meets just once a month and the address on the website is residential, so I wouldn’t want to just turn up on someone’s front door and ask to be let into their living room. So this was an opportuity to try it out. I ventured up the short hill (very slowly, given the state of my feet and legs), and parked myself just under a canopy that had been erected. On the ground were two leaflets. One was entitled ‘Your first time at a Quaker meeting’ and the other was a longer one with some guidelines for the Quaker ethos. They were both immensely helpful and I read through them both before it got underway. It was very good of them to lay on provision for newcomers. I cannot say how different it was from a normal meeting, though clearly some things were changed. For example, I understood that the meeting was usually deemed to start when two or three gather. Yet we had a spoken introduction before moving into a time of silence. Well, I say silence. There was a lot of noise coming from the main stage. I think it was supposed to be music, but on the whole I was unimpressed with the musical offerings on the Saturday. It was just disjointed a cacophonous. This unpleasant combination of sounds drifted across to where we were, making real silence impossible. Nonetheless, no one spoke for some time, before a few people spoke, either reading from the little red booklet of Advices and Queries or sharing thoughts. What struck me was how similar this was to my own experience of charismatic churches. Often there is a space made for people to speak. This might be referred to as speaking in tongues, giving a word of knowledge or of prophecy. However you generally phrase it, it comes down to being a prompting from the Holy Spirit. The only difference is that the Quakers do it silently, whereas the charismatic churches are more vocal. Yet the theological praxes are remarkably alike. I wonder if a Quaker going to a charismatic church for the first time might feel the same thing. If you want to try, you are welcome! I’ve a lot more to learn about Quakerism, but I do have an anthology of Quaker writings that is gradually getting nearer the top of my reading pile (it’s about 12th from the top), so I can read it with at least a pinch of experience.

With that, I decided to call it a day. I had been intrigued by the idea of the midnight goth eucharist, but it was not even 7pm and, having been nonplussed by the music on offer, there was little to entice me to stay around. So I decided to make my own slow way back to the hotel and try to get some rest before heading back in the morning.

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 1: Friday – getting there)

Introduction

This year, I attended the Greenbelt festival for the first time in my life. It was the first time I had chosen to go to any kind of festival, let alone a specifically christian one. Well, I say specifically christian. It is certainly christian in ethos, but it is by no means exclusive. There was a fair smattering of secular material on offer as well as offerings from other religions.

I had intended to just give a gist of each talk and what I did each day, though I confess I got a bit carried away with writing and didn’t have time to edit it down. So it’s a bit of a blow-by-blow account (particularly Friday), but I hope you find it helpful to read. It may be an interesting experiment to see if the key points percolated through.

Friday

I arrived at Kettering station after an uneventful journey and set about going for my hotel. I knew the approximate route, but wanted to do some checking along the way. The landmarks that were most useful were in fact the churches. I could tell straight away that the town had quite a diverse christian ethos. The first shop I came across was a small christian book store and what seemed to be the town centre was populated by a church group in purple t-shirts that had a slogan something along the lines of “[Bible for life week]” while they had a PA system set up playing some fairly cheesy worship tunes that I probably hadn’t heard for the better part of 15 years.

I found a Quaker meeting house, the Salvation Army and a more conformist church (I think it was St Andrews, but I didn’t check the sign too closely). The trouble was, the road signs were all a bit funny. The most common direction was ‘All Other Routes’ which wasn’t all that helpful. I was aiming for the Rockingham Road and I thought I was on it, but none of the junctions with the side streets had the name of the main road on it. So it was that the plain speaking Baptists came to my rescue, as I walked past Rockingham Road Baptist Church and so finally confirmed that my sense of direction was intact. One of the things I forgot to do before I left was print out street maps. I had an OS map in my pocket, but they are pretty useless in urban areas. I had bought it with the intention of navigating my way cross country from the hotel, rather than find the hotel in the first place.

I got to my room and made a quick change before heading on towards the festival. This was where I began to run into problems. I had planned to walk alongside one road to get to a village from where I could pick up a public footpath. Only it turns out that this road had small amounts of fairly fast-moving traffic on it and no pavement. So I had to make a detour and head into a residential area. I could roughly see where I needed to go, but I had to rely on my compass to make sure I was headed in the right direction. What was so absurd it was almost amusing was the fact that I ended up walking along a crescent road with no way to turn off it. So whilst I was happy that I was walking in a south-easterly direction, the road just slowly bent round and as it did so, a growing wave of panic grew within me, as the compass then told me I was heading more south than east, then slightly to the west until I did eventually get to a junction when I was walking full-west, in the complete opposite direction to that which I wished to head in.

Eventually, I found where I was, having done an extra 2.5-3 miles after missing a turning quite early on and having walked halfway through the town of Kettering. So I eventually arrived at the village of Warkton. This was quite a pretty little place, not unlike what some might conjure up in their minds if you ask them to imagine a ‘typical’ English village. Just beyond the village, though, the pavement runs out. This time, though, I was prepared for it. The road was not as busy as that which I had abandoned earlier, nor was it as conducive to quite so high a speed of vehicle. I kept to my usual walkers’ routine of staying on the right hand side of the road so as to face the oncoming traffic, only changing if there was a right hand bend so I would not be on the apex of the corner.

I arrived at the site exit, but since I was on foot, I thought “Blow it!” I’m not walking another mile down the road to get to the ‘proper’ entrance. After all, the entrances and exits were primarily devised for those who had their cars (so much for the motto of “travelling light”, eh?) with next to no thought given to pedestrians. The path was rather dusty and I passed some cars that were leaving the site, presumably because they had dropped people off and weren’t staying. Thankfully the stewards that were posted around had been provided with masks. The dust track from the main road up to the site seemed to go on forever. When I had come off the road, I had thought, “at last, we’re here”. But this seems to have been a premature idea. After about another quarter of an hour of walking, I saw other people walking along a track. Some were walking with one or two bags, others had large, rainbow-canvassed wheelbarrows.

The further I got, the greater the size of the crowd swelled, so, having traipsed for a total of nigh on ten miles by myself, I now finally started to feel as though I might be a part of something. OK, a lot of people were walking in the other direction (back to their cars, as I later found out) which somewhat spoiled the aesthetic, but the general drift towards the main site had a great sense of pilgrimage to it. It felt far more ‘together’ than the communion service on the Sunday morning.

Then it was that the path narrowed slightly, with a natural gap appearing in a line of trees. And through that gap one could just glimpse the fields of tents. Now it felt like I had arrived at a festival. So where to now?

I just joined in the crowd and tried to follow the greatest throng of people, hoping that they were heading in the right direction and that we weren’t just imitating a line of ants that get stuck in a giant circle of death. There was an information point handing out the pre-bought programmes. I picked mine up with a little bag that was loaded with too many leaflets and a random plastic packet of laundry liquid, before looking for the programme and a reasonable map of the site. There was a map on the back of one of the programmes, but it wasn’t terribly useful, as it only showed the locations of the venues. The campsite was only partially included and the car park was wholly absent. So in spite of being sat on a patch of grass near a numbered junction, there was no clue as to where I actually was or where I needed to go.

After a 10 minute sit down, I got up again and tried to follow the crowd, passing a tent that was advertised as being the weekend home of the Franciscans. There was a big sign a bit further down with a map on it, with the header “You are here”. At any one time, about half a dozen people were gathered by it. For a “You are here” map, though, it lacked one crucial feature: an indication on the map itself of where actually where in relation to everything else. It was just a header above the map, thus making it rather useless. It was only a careful inspection that showed two small curved walls that marked the entrance to the venues which was just behind where the sign was situated.

Jesus Arms

I wandered in and had a little exploration of the festival site. It turns out I didn’t actually go that far, as I was to find out later. But I spied out some places to eat, found the main stage and, importantly, the pop-up pub on site, the Jesus Arms. I grabbed myself a gin and parked myself on an outside bench so I could take a closer look at the programme to investigate what talks looked most interesting. While I sat there, a few friends came in but short of waving like a madman, I tried to catch their eye. I’ve never been good at subtly getting people’s attention.

The stupidest thing was that when I had checked into the hotel and moved things between my two bags, I had forgotten to put the torch I had into the backpack; it was still in the hotel. I tried to look for the Milk & Honey store which I knew to be on site but which wasn’t clearly marked on the map. It wasn’t until later that I looked at Dave Walker’s alternative map that I found it. Even then, though, they weren’t selling torches that I could use that night. So having penciled in a few ideas of things to do that evening, I just grabbed some fish n’chips (yay, how adventurous!) and head back to the hotel before it got dark.

So I left the site rather deflated on the first day. All I had achieved was picking up the programme. No talks had been attended, the first band were late. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Hummons who played in the meantime. When the Hackney Colliery Band did arrive and get on stage, they were so awful it was a good prompting to leave.

By the time I got back, I was rather limping, having walked quite some distance that day. Having been advised that it was good to bring your own loo roll, I had had to sacrifice bringing my first aid kit as there wasn’t enough room for both. In hindsight, I probably ought to have skimped on a t-shirt instead. Not only were my feet plagued with blisters up to an inch long, but having put on some weight recently, the tops of my thighs had rubbed together a lot. Someone later said that this was “chafing” though a better word for it would be “flaying” as I had actually lost a few square inches of skin and was bleeding a fair bit. So it was good that I had access to a shower to keep the wound clean, but it did make for an uncomfortable night and I dreaded having to walk back in the morning. Though at least, I now knew the right route, so I wouldn’t take an unnecessary detour.

Coming up next…

Well, that actually contained very little of the festival itself. Tomorrow, I’ll give a rundown of the activities on Saturday, which I promise will contain less walking, more talks and a few reflections on those talks.

Book Review: Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart

This has been my “coffee table” book for the last few months, following on from Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants to be Eaten. This is because it’s full of lots of little bits, with no overall narrative. It’s not quite a school exercise book, but it does have quite a lot of puzzles for you to think through, some of which require some scribbling with some pen & paper or plugging numbers into a calculator. As well as these, there are lots of little vignettes of mathematical thought which inform but require less input from the reader.

So my initial advice for any readers of this would be get a notepad and some pens and keep them nearby. Fans of recreational mathematics will find much that is familiar here, as some problems recur in just about every such ‘popular’ level book on maths, such as the problem of the bridges of Konigsberg or lots of factoids about pi.

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but there is a depth of mathematics on display here that is rather splendid. Many of the ideas are really quite profound, yet the way they are presented makes them quite accessible. A non mathematician might disagree with me, but it may be interesting to find out from others if there are areas where they get stuck.

There is a general trend for the puzzles to get a little bit more difficult later on in the book. So we are given some treats that will be unfamiliar even to those who did maths at A-level. We deal with topics ranging from geometry, number theory, topology and even some complexity is thrown in at the end.

I probably ought to add that for any sections that ask questions there are answers provided at the back of the book. Most are pretty good, though if the book does have any weaknesses, it is here, where some of the answers are given with not enough explanation. Though for recreational mathematics, one of the litmus tests has to be how well the solution to the Monty Hall problem is described and this one is very fair.

There is a follow-up book that Ian Stewart wrote, in the same vein but with a different set of problems. Given the quality of this work, I will be reading that as well, so you can look forward to seeing another review like this in a few months. For my next coffee table book, though, I will be turning to Plato and a Platypus; a book I searched for for some years but only got my hands on recently.