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


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.

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

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