Category Archives: Personal

#CNMAC14 – a return to the christian new media conference

Pre-conference thoughts

Two years after last attending the christian new media conference and having skipped last year’s, I returned this year, after buying an early bird ticket. Also, with the advantage of having moved to London, it took little more than half an hour to get to the venue and at no additional cost. Last time I went I had the intention of trying to meet various people who I had spoken to online before, though it was all rather a stressful and draining experience. This time, I decided to stick to my more natural disposition by observing others and hiding in plain sense.

On arrival I grabbed a coffee, a welcome pack and sat down to plan what sessions I would attend. I spotted a few people I recognised come in, though such recognition was not mutual. One piece of information omitted from the agenda was to say what room the introduction was in. Thankfully, this year there was a wifi available to all (a vast improvement on 2 years ago) and my query was soon answered by someone else who was monitoring the #CNMAC14 hashtag.

So I found the main room and sat in my usual position; that is, as a way of reflecting my political views I tend to sit on the far left. I must say I thought the main room was very nice. It was far more spacious than the lecture hall we were in last time, with nice wooden beams augmented by some tasteful blue lighting.

Introductory session

The first session was given by Rachel Jordan, who is the national advisor for Mission and Evangelism in the CofE. The theme that it was her job to introduce was that of “Transformers” which has nothing to do with toys from the 80s or big budget terrible films of the last few years. Rather, it was linked to Romans 12 and the theme of transformation that one may find there.

Her key point was that transformation takes place when we meet God face to face. She used a few examples of people meeting Jesus as he was passing by and having their lives transformed as a result of those encounters. Secondary to a direct encounter is an introduction. So bringing in the aspect of the digital, she noted that the accessibility facilitated by the internet allows for more opportunities for people to meet and this then includes possibilities to meet or be introduced to Jesus. From here, the emphasis shifted to one of the busyness of modern life and how such busyness can get in the way of such encounters. Therefore, we need to get good at appropriate filtering and making the time and space to allow ourselves to be transformed.

It was a good introductory presentation, which was evidently well-rehearsed. The general impression was one of agreement, with the Twitter feed buzzing with soundbites from the talk. Though here and in most of the talks I heard during the day, there seemed to be less of a strain on the part of the speakers to generate soundbites. That had been a bit of a plague 2 years ago that detracted from well-constructed arguments. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of quotes used and generated this time round, but they didn’t feel quite so forced.

Breakout 1

After this, I headed down to a talk on crowdsourced theology. It was done in two parts, the first given by Danny Webster, the second by Marika Rose. It was a very different kind of talk, not least because the two speakers didn’t exactly agree on all points, though it wasn’t framed as a debate between the two. Danny began by noting that dissent is often the oxygen of social media. The upshot of this is that the priesthood of all believers can be abused and becomes the priesthood of the loudest voices. There can also be a temptation to think that if we garner a strong, negative or otherwise hostile response that we can convince ourselves we must be on the right track. It’s a symptom of “[if you go looking for it on the internet, you will be able to find something]” – which can lead to confirmation bias if we’re not careful.

It seems that frequently, attempts to engage on more serious issues quickly go off the rails with every Thomas, Richard and Harry jumping in with an opinion; often an opinion that hides where people come from, hiding their background theology and their agenda. So if, on the one hand, social media prioritises polarisation and isn’t very good at patience, while on the other hand, working out matters of doctrine require patience and less polarisation, then the natural conclusion is that social media isn’t the best place for discussing church doctrine. In this I would largely agree with him.

Marika’s response was characteristically robust. She began with the proposition that “Patience isn’t always a virtue.” She continued by pointing out, correctly in my view, that theology is always political. Unfortunately, she didn’t expand much on this point as that assertion could be taken in a number of different ways. Instead, she used the example of the civil rights movement to illustrate changing attitudes in that Martin Luther King was considered an extremist until Malcolm X appeared on the scene. With a caveat that analogies between civil rights and other issues including egalitarian leadership in churches and the accepting of LGB people are fragile; parallels can’t be drawn without invoking false reasoning. It’s worth noting that this caveat was later questioned by one of the members of the audience, to which there was no convincing backup of the assertion.

She further contended, contrary to Danny, that asking for patience is equivalent to taking sides with the status quo. Harking back to Martin Luther King again, the response to the demand for change that is worded as “not yet” is really just a “no” put a little more politely. She also queried whether polarisation was necessarily a bad thing or something to be avoided. A very interesting point that resonated with me, though I’d never quite enunciated as such, was that the prophetic speaks with a harsh voice, while the pastoral speaks with a softer voice. This was backed up by noting that Paul could be firm with those he addressed his letters to and that the Old Testament prophets hardly adopted a softly-softly approach to dealing with the sin of a nation.

Breakout 2

The second breakout session was on the subject of church websites. And who better to present this than Sara Batts? The session didn’t get off to a great start as we were invited to turn to our near neighbours and discuss two questions with them. Those who know me know that I find such things to be really quite tortuous and in my own church it is the one thing I dread more than any other.

The two questions were: 1) What sort of thing might a visitor to your church website be looking for? and 2) What information does your church website have on it?

It was put to us that these two lists of information may not coincide. We were shown a few examples of good church websites though Sara stayed away from showing a bad church website (possibly because there was a risk that the creator of such a website might be in the audience). The key warnings were to avoid the mentality that information should be there “in case someone might want to know”. There was also a warning against the essence of traditionalism: we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

One of the responses from the audience to the first question was “to find out what sort of church it is” which I think was a much better answer than the person who posited that the most important information is about weddings, funerals and baptisms (which indicates that they probably came from one particular denomination!). One of the other topics that cropped up was the question over membership logins. I am very firmly against these, as they seem exclusive and divisive. The church where I grew up (but haven’t been a part of for many years) hides the recordings of its sermons behind a login, so anyone who wants to sample the teaching of the church are prevented from doing so online, as a conscious act of the church, which I find a bizarre way of sharing the gospel.

Speaking to someone afterwards, they shared my impression that this was overall a bit of a ‘beginner level’ talk; that this was all fairly basic things that constitute competent website design, not necessarily exceptional design. So it might be an improvement to have the agenda labelled a bit more clearly (ironically enough) to say who the target audience is. I’m sure it will have helped quite a few people there, though the impression given was that the digital surgeries were more designed for beginner level.

Probably the most pertinent point was that 16% of all adults in the UK have some level of difficulty with reading and that if our websites are too text-heavy then we run the risk of excluding them.

So with that we headed off for lunch. I must say it was quite disappointing. There was nowhere on site and we weren’t permitted to bring food in from the outside so we all piled into an eatery next door. Unfortunately, I’d developed quite a headache so nipped to get some paracetemol first, which put me rather far back in the queue. So we were late in being served and they ran out of various dishes so I had to wait for them to do another batch of mine; even then they added mushrooms which I had to pick out. I mean, why ruin perfectly good food by adding a fungus to it?

Transformative Technology

Coming back from lunch, we had 3 short talks entitled ‘Transforming Technology’, ‘Transforming Mobility’ and ‘Transforming Humanity’ given by Alastair Somerville (Acuity Design), Paul Johnston (Padajo) and Pete Philips (CODEC) respectively.

The first of these focused on the ‘sensory web’ which was essentially technology that we wear and beacons that detect when a suitable device is nearby and automatically send messages to it. The purpose of these is mainly advertising, so you would be bombarded with shoe ads any time you get near a shoe shop, which I find to be an extremely annoying prospect. The idea here, though, was that they could be used to augment a space you are travelling through (say, within a building) and to then create an alternative experience of pilgrimage. It was an interesting idea, but it struck me as a case of IT-itis. i.e. what *can* we do instead of what *should* we do. I’ll touch on this theme again below.

The second was on mobility, but this was nothing to do with accessibility for the disabled. The only point I really picked up on was that if messages become free to send, then they can lose their value. Our tendency to regard anything as slow if it is not instant creates impatience that has subsequently shortened our attention spans. This results in the idea that messages that are created quickly also fade quickly. In my head, the contrast that was conjured up was the difference between a Snapchat message and a stone engraving.

Pete’s talk on transhumanism rather passed me by as I was scribbling notes from the previous talks. Also the live Twitter stream on screen had been hijacked by a load of spammers, so quite a few were trying to alert the tech team that their filters had failed. The most seized upon soundbite was that “we are all cyborgs” though the follow up to this appeared to verge on bullying one of Pete’s colleagues on the CODEC team. [Late edit: To clarify, this last reference is to the follow up to the talk, not the content of it. This should not be taken as any statement or hint of anything untoward from any member of the CODEC team]

Between the three talks, they all had their interesting points, but I couldn’t see much that was very applicable here. It was more a session of tentative prophecies, some of which may look quite out of date in just a few years; only time will tell.

Breakout 3

I had a change of mind about the 3rd breakout session. Having seen a session that posed a question of “How should Christians react to militant atheists and people of other faiths who challenge their beliefs?” I was rather turned off by the use of the phrase ‘militant atheists’ so I had planned instead to go to Chris Juby‘s session on digital engagement with the scriptures. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind and decided to give the apologetics talk a go. As it turned out, it was very popular and was in one of the smallest rooms, so we were rather squeezed and one or two latecomers turned back or else had to stand by the exit.

The talk was given by Ruth Jackson of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and who also runs the social media for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. As might be predicted for a talk on apologetics, there was a strong focus on 1 Peter 3:15, though I wasn’t familiar with the version used. I suspect it was The Message, the New Living or some other paraphrase. This particular version began with the phrase “If any asks you…” with the emphasis put on the ‘if’. i.e. we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but we ought to be willing to answer anyone who asks.

Ruth did put a qualifier near the start of the talk which was to define what she had meant by the term ‘militant atheist’. She confessed that she hated the term but that it was a shorthand for the kind of person who instead of having their atheism as a default position or apathy, it’s the kind of person who frequents social media and where the majority of their output is concentrated on their atheism and who sometimes take a hostile or otherwise highly negative view of anything vaguely religious.

Ruth advocated the idea that “I don’t know” is a powerfully honest and highly respectable answer. While I would like to agree with her, my experience of discussing christianity online is vastly different. It’s taken as a fob off whereby one goes away to find a clever christian apologist to rabbit back at the atheist. Though in fairness, any atheist who says that God is our imaginary friend or is a sky fairy is themselves merely rabbiting a line that is far from original.

It’s important to remember that behind every profile is a person (or people, I might add). This is the antidote to dehumanisation. She gave an example using The Wee Flea blog, where some hostile commentators had found their way to the site, but where the host was far more interested in them as people rather than in trying to satisfy his own ego by winning an argument. [n.b. a quick search of the site didn’t yield anything resembling the conversation Ruth describes and I would not endorse some of the content of that blog]

A recommendation that was put to us was that online discussions should avoid denominational or controversial issues. This wasn’t really expanded on, so it was open to (mis) interpretation. Harking back to the 1st breakout session, I wonder what Marika Rose would’ve thought of Ruth’s advice.

There were some fairly fundamental points that anyone wishing to engage in online apologetics should take as lesson 1. These included listening to objections and trying to understand someone else’s point of view, so as to avoid constructing a strawman argument. She pointed out some atheist memes (oh the irony of the origin of the term ‘meme‘!) and how they demonstrate a lack of understanding of christian issues, but rather than use the same kind of mockery that is sometimes encouraged of atheists to use against christians, she encouraged us to be more serious-minded and engage with the issues at hand in a mature manner. In trying to understand someone else’s views, that includes being able to spot the clichéd fallacies that get churned out from time to time including assertions that faith is blind belief or misleading notions of the nature of God.

However, Ruth went a little bit further than this. She advocated that we christians should try to make sure that “the ball is in the other court” and we do this by enquiring of atheists what their views are. Now, any time I’ve tried this, I’ve found not only evasion on the part of the person who I’m talking to but also an accusation that I am the one avoiding the issue. For example, if someone asks a question of me, I think it is at least courteous to attempt a response. Sometimes people will try to ask 6 part questions where several conflate various issues. This is what should be regarded as “trolling” though that term has somewhat morphed away the meaning it used to have online (meaning a time waster or someone who was simply trying to get a rise out of you) into a term to describe abuse – which ought to be known as “flaming”. Yet I do think that avoiding answering a question by asking them back is no less an element of trolling than the original question (or series thereof) might have been.

One of the little things that caught my eye was that Ruth put up a screenshot of various resources she recommended and I noticed a reference to the book that so riled me that it prompted me to write a review of it, which gave birth to the current incarnation of this very blog: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews.

The final point was that in all online apologetics we mustn’t forget to pray. It can be easy to get drawn into debates and there’s a great temptation to forget graciousness and idolise the idea of being right. But if the lesson of the Wee Flea above is heeded, it is better to lose an argument if you win the person – though on reflection I wonder if that soundbite actually makes sense!

Breakout 4

The final breakout session I went to was on the topic of creating community. I was surprised to not see many of the faces I thought would be there, as I know quite a few people treat the online world as a community in its own right and would want to listen to this talk. It was given by Jason Ham who was simply described on the agenda as “Church Online Leader”. In fact, he’s a facilitator for the online dealings of a particular church in Exeter as well as being responsible for the social media output of God TV.

The opening gambit was to look at what sort of communities can be created by social media. He used the example of the American megachurch, Saddleback to demonstrate an example of people posting prayer requests on Facebook. However, using that example didn’t make it seem very close to home. If, in a church of that size and fame, a prayer request could generate about a dozen responses of people saying that they were praying, how would that translate to a church of more modest size and of no great fame? Then there’s also the question of privacy which wasn’t addressed at all.

Again, we had demonstrations of IT-itis, whereby lots of possibilities were shown but there didn’t seem to any kind of coherence to it, or really a questioning of what the needs were of the potential audience (see breakout 2) of the church and then trying to address them. We were shown a bookclub that consisted of members in the UK, USA, Australia and another couple of countries I missed as I was writing notes. The impression that we were given was that just because you can connect with people from across the globe, that is an inherently good thing and therefore is to be embraced.

But as I sat listening, I couldn’t help but think that this was an indirect indictment of the local churches. After all, I had agreed with Danny Webster earlier when he said that if you hold opinion X, it is easy to go online in search of someone who agrees with you and who will back you up. If someone is relying on a community that is so disparate, does it not imply that either there is a failing in their local community to adequately look out for the needs of someone who is potentially isolated in plain sight?

One of the other examples used was that the church in Exeter which Jason is a part of rebroadcasts its services 67 times per week. While having the availability of an online service can be valuable to those who are elderly, disabled or otherwise have difficulty getting to a meeting, this was not clear at all from the talk. Instead, what seemed to be advocated was a wholly new, and rather haphazard, way of doing church. i.e. it was more of a substitute than a supplement.

I think the root of my issue was the question of isolation. It’s possible to be physically isolated but digitally connected, in which case some of the ideas of open forums, Skype, etc. are valuable tools which can be used to address the need of these kinds of isolations. But instead, what was advocated was the provision of online services because they can be provided. It certainly wasn’t clear that there was a need to which these were a solution. Instead, there was more of a mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There was a muted acknowledgement of the limitations of online community, but there was no solution proposed. There was a Q&A at the end, where the tone seemed to be mildly hostile, as was the question I wanted to ask but which ran out of time. So somebody asked about safeguarding vulnerable people online, particularly as one of the forums demonstrated allowed posting without any kind of sign-up process to it. So people could just come and go. In a church where the congregation is so transient, can there really be adequate pastoral care given to someone who hasn’t been around for the last month? How would such people be noticed?

My question was going to along these lines: For anyone who regularly visits an online church, what efforts are made by that church to put them in touch with an offline, local church who can provide what the online community cannot?

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t answers to these questions, but the relentless optimism generated by IT-itis seems short-sighted. If anything, it is an issue that pervades the whole christian new media conference, in that while there are some fantastic tools to enhance our spiritual lives and help to connect those who might otherwise be isolated, the increasing reliance on the digital realm creates its own form of isolation: digital isolation.

If there were any topic I’d like to see addressed in the next conference as a burning issue, it is this one. Looking around my church, nearly all the over 15s have a mobile phone and access to the internet, about half have a Facebook account, maybe about a dozen are on Twitter, but for the most part there isn’t as much focus on what can be done as there is at the conference. It is my fear that if we pile more and more resources into creating the best digital spaces that we can, then all we do is create a great space for a few people who are very interested in it at the expense of ignoring a great many people. One obvious comeback is to become evangelists for what can be done digitally and try to get as many people interested in our particular way of doing things as we can. Yet this runs into two problems: 1) Not everyone will be interested and it is arrogant to suppose that because we see good in a given tool that someone else will; and 2) if we are to evangelise, then should that not be evangelism to the wider world about gospel of crucified and resurrected Messiah? These two could be summarised by the phrase: misdirected effort.

Final session

The final session was billed as a cross between Songs of Praise and the Graham Norton show. To an extent this true. It consisted of 3 guests having short interviews by the host (Vicky Walker) and each guest was then to showcase their work. As with guests on Graham Norton, they only seemed to have gone there to plug their products. We had a rapper called Faith Child who performed his forthcoming single, a subversive artist (think a christian version of Banksy) called Micah Purnell who was launching a new website and a singer called Tabitha Webb who was launching a new musical. By the end of the day, and having been less than impressed at the previous session, it’s fair to say I was in a cynical mood. This final session just came across as a series of commercial plugs. OK, rap music isn’t my thing so I can’t say whether, given that particular artistic medium, it was very good or not. The subversive art was quite good as was Tabitha’s singing, though I couldn’t help but think of Danny Webster’s piece on the christian reviews of her musical as I watched.

It seemed that the whole concept of transformations which began the day and had been key to the mini sessions just after lunch was by now out of the window and forgotten about. I noted this on the Twitter stream and had a couple of responses which advocated the idea that the purpose of the session was to show how digital means had been used to transform creativity particularly in how these 3 people marketed their material. I could kind of see that, but it was heavily buried under the immediate promotion that they were making here, in person, to the audience of around 500 people.

As we ended fairly promptly, I stuck around for 5 minutes in case there was anyone who wanted to quickly chat, but I just stood around looking like a lemon so I shot off and headed back for home.

Conclusions

So with all that observed, what were the impressions I left with and which I have dwelt on in the 30 hours since leaving?

My strongest thought on leaving was on the issue of digital isolation mentioned above. It may have been addressed in other sessions which I didn’t attend, though it wasn’t plain from the agenda summaries. Unless that issue is addressed then new media will fail to live up to the prophetic hopes which surround it and become a clique for the initiated and those who have grown up with it. Yet there remain a generation of people who form an integral and loved part of the church for whom this generates little excitement and we must not leave them behind or exclude them in any way.

Looking back, trying to draw the threads together, I think the theme of confirmation bias, of looking for things that back up your views, that came out in the first breakout session can be seen in several of the other talks. We might project onto others our ‘ideal’ visitor to a church website and miss the real people who find us in their searchings. In the Transforming Technology session, it came across as all too easy to think that because something is new that it is inherently good. This was also true of the final breakout session. Of course, one could react the other way and think that anything new is inherently bad.  In the third session one could see this idea of bias in seeking out argumentation, where we may have a presumption of how someone arrived at their expressions of atheism and to argue to those presumptions rather than love the person who may hold a very different and more nuanced view.

Of course, this theme isn’t really linked to transformations. Maybe that’s indicative of how loosely that theme permeated the day. Yes, it was strong in the introduction and after lunch, but it was tenuous at best elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case that the theme was decided independently of the proposals for each session. I can only speculate at that.

Only time will tell what ultimately sticks. One of the noticeable things was at how little emphasis there was on personal blogging. It’s been noted by many that some have given up their blogs while others have merged or stepped back. Is it possible that the day of the blog is over? I can’t say there was much there that seemed of imminent practical use. Of course, there were useful reminders of basic issues that could be immensely useful to the newcomer to new media.

So those are my thoughts. Over to you now:

  • Were you there?
  • Did you go to any of the same sessions?
  • What was your overall impression?
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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.

(Guest Post) The housing bubble: a homeowner’s perspective

In response to my piece last week on the housing bubble from a would-be first time buyer’s perspective, my brother-in-law, Radionotme, has written from a homeowner’s perspective. 

Used under creative commons license. Picture by walknboston.

Used under creative commons license. Picture by walknboston.

As someone on the other side of the divide, as Simon puts it, I have to say I broadly agree with what he says. As with most things though, it’s not quite that simple.
To own your own home is an aspiration for most of us, although oddly in some cultures this isn’t the case at all. French, German and Japanese home ownership rates are less than 50% for example.
It is an aspiration I share, and am currently working towards.
Some would say that since I live in a house that I have a mortgage on, that I own that home. I’ll even refer to myself as a homeowner most of the time, but of course the truth is that I do not own the home. The bank, and in turn the institutions that the bank has borrowed from, own the home. If I miss a payment, then my home is at risk of being taken away from me. If I miss several, then this is virtually guaranteed. As such, I do not think I can truthfully say that I own my own home at this stage.
What I can say, is that I am fortunate enough to be on the property ladder. I agree with Simon, that renting is inherently more expensive that buying, but for different reasons. Renting is usually cheaper to start with than buying, but whereas rental costs will increase over time (dependent on market conditions), the price you have paid for a house is final, and the only changes to the monthly payments relate to the interest rate, which can go either up or down (though you may be forgiven for not realising that up is a potential direction for interest rates given the last few years!).
I am currently able to ‘enjoy’ the low interest rates in terms of how it affects my monthly payments, although I remain opposed to them when considering how they affect the wider economy. Even so, my mortgage payments take up between 30 and 40% of my take home pay.
When I first bought my home, and locked into a 6% interest rate for 5 years (oh, what a mistake with the benefit of hindsight), my mortgage payments were over half of my take home pay.
I expected however, and have so far fortunately been proven correct, that my take home pay would increase over time, and so that percentage of my salary that the mortgage payments took up, would decrease.
This plays into Simon’s figures, once you have the relevant context. Mortgages on average take up a smaller proportion of salaries, however that is in part due to people towards the end of their mortgage term won’t be paying much, when compared to those just starting out. Those people are often paying significantly more than their renting peers.
I’d also disagree that 5-10 years ago, prices were ‘cheap’. They may look that now, however even in 2003 there were warnings of an impending house price crash, and reports that houses were out of pace with wage growth. Although I’m on the property ladder, I jumped on years after some of my friends, and years before others. The ones who jumped on earlier were able to make more from the house price rises than I could, even though I bought 10 years ago, and they bought 13-14 years ago.
Finally, I take issue with the rather flippant comment that those on the property ladder don’t care about those not on it. We do, both for selfish reasons, and unselfish. I care deeply that my younger siblings, have and will have considerable difficulty getting on the ladder. I worry for my son, and whether he will be able to own the roof above his head when he grows up. I worry about the wider economy, and how the unending house price rises give rise to buy to let landlords, who have no interest but to make as much money as possible.
I agree that something needs to be done, but I have little faith that any of the main government parties are up to the challenge, or even that it is a problem that government alone can tackle. Whatever the solution though, it has to start with more ‘normal’ interest rates, that can encourage people to save, as well as to borrow.