On 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.
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.
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.
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?