So we're back - but not really! All week our spirits have been in the Northamptonshire fields where the Greenbelt Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary last weekend. We meet a few old friends there but we know that others look at the website without drilling down further than the headline music! So why are we so enthusiastic about this space?
For a few days we rub shoulders with some people who are (mostly!) very different from ourselves! Both speakers and performers are largely outside our normal frame of reference True, there is not as much racial diversity as we would like but...Many LGBTQ+ people obviously felt welcome in this place. It reminds us how often they feel unwelcome in Christian spaces. There were many people with various physical challenges somehow getting themselves around the rough terrain – an inspiration. There are young families and very senior citizens, many much older than us! Tentloads of young people in various stages of dress or undress.
And then there are the questions. We’ve lived much of our lives in communities both secular and religious where, at least in public, the majority of people seem to ask fewer questions than we do! At Greenbelt, people are asking far more questions than we are. It’s a place where our assumptions are challenged, where open-minded people gather around speakers who care about all aspects of social justice*. It’s place to check whether our minds are like umbrellas, most useful when open!
Greenbelt remains a broadly Christian festival, though a left-of centre one, and so there is a fair amount of faith discussion from a variety of perspectives. Two lecturers from Sarum College looked at the roots of the cost of living crisis and the benefits of sabbath keeping and jubilee as an antidote to toxic productivity. A panel on the implications of Artificial Intelligence asked the question, ‘What does it mean for faith to be human? What does it mean to have a soul?’ Lots of sessions discussing poverty as a moral issue and looking at its roots in greed – the contrast between thriving and acquiring – and always the challenge, ‘What do I need to relinquish in order for the world to prosper?’ and the vital question, ‘Who’s asking who to give up what?’
Sometimes together, sometimes in different sessions, we heard Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care doctor, with helpful words after the recent and sudden loss of our dear friend, John. We listened to members of the L’Arche communities for those with learning difficulties who described what they are learning as they recover from the shocking revelations of the sexual indiscretions of their revered founder Jean Vanier. They asked, ‘How can we make sure that the greater someone’s charisma, the more spiritual their aura, the greater the strong safeguarding accountability we provide?’ A question for many religious communities.
There was Jolyon Maugham, the pioneer without a single backer and no staff who founded the Good Law Project(GLP) to challenge cases where the rich and powerful use the courts for their own ends. The GLP was instrumental in holding Boris Johnson and his cronies to account over the illegal prorogation of parliament. There was a brilliant and hilarious drama on the allocation of local government budgets, sessions on freedom of information and the collapse of some of the Covid narratives surrounding school closures and social distancing.
Of course, we missed about 98% of the festival because we had chosen to be in another audience. And that included the massive Sunday morning communion attended by the majority of the 11,000 people who attended the Festival. We opted for the ‘Quiet’ communion in a different part of the site where there were only about three hundred people! But one of the delights of Greenbelt is casual conversations while waiting for speakers or in queues for food or the loo or theatre sessions – there you catch up with what people have heard elsewhere, who is worth hearing and who is not. Various fascinating chance conversations and much learning to be had there too as well as with the many activist groups eager to sign up new recruits looking to put into practice the social action they have heard about. And then, of course, there’s the bookshop.... a dangerous place - we managed only to buy one book this year!
The festival lasts three days and frankly that is about as much physical, intellectual and spiritual challenge as we can manage. Since we left the closing worship event with Taize chants in a palely lit and crowded marquee, our heads are still bulging.
Greenbelt fans some flames which might otherwise flicker into mere smoke.