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


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.


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.

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