Aug 2011 Greenbelt 2011: What I Made of It

So I have come to the end of my first visit to the summer festival of choice for the angstful christian with liberal/lefty leanings; the festival where there's a place for all, however dubious about the faith, however young or old, however idiosyncratic their taste in music, worship style or tea - particularly if they are middle-class and white, and find themselves somewhere around stage 3 of their faith journey (perplexity) according to Brian Mclaren's definition. I say 'my first visit' advisedly, since we seem to have decided already to come back again if Greenbelt will have us. Let's be honest, I fit the demographic pretty much on all counts, and I had a great time.

What did I make of it as a newcomer? Here’s something I noticed: Greenbelt is clearly a much-loved event, yet it is also one where the people who love it complain a lot: they complain about the queues, about having to pay for a programme (or app if they are of an electronic inclination), about the noise, about those who complain about the noise, about beer and hymns, or the lack of it, about the acceptableness or authenticity of this or that event. We met an elderly lady who spoke warmly of how she felt that her annual visit "set her up" to meet the trials of the coming year; but when we asked her what she thought of the big mainstage Sunday morning Eucharist, one of our highlights, she shuddered as though we had mentioned something filthy. "Didn't go near it!" she said, "I've been caught by that one before!"

At first I was surprised by the complaints, but later I was charmed by them. I believe that love and criticism go hand-in-hand wherever there is intimacy: for instance I love my family but I also know their faults, and may tell them so without loving them any less. So it is, I think, with Greenbelt. There seems to be a sense of belonging and even of ownership of the festival amongst the attenders, particularly those who have been going for a number of years. There is enormous potential for personal involvement as a contributor, as a volunteer or as a funder, and perhaps that explains it in part. I’m already wondering what I might contribute next time. I want to part-own Greenbelt too, without excluding anyone else.

Church generally is a place that is bedevilled by the ownership of the few. Whether it's the vicar, or a clique of subversive flower-arrangers, or the hierarchy, or heterosexual men, or let's say power-hungry women (I add this category in the hope of appearing even-handed), there is usually someone who acts as if they own the church: and they make it hard or even impossible for others to join or to stay. I have a theory, on which I shall no doubt expand at some point, that this question of ownership is at the heart of nearly all church conflict. Greenbelt seems to be a place where it's possible for everyone to feel enough of a sense of ownership to speak up about what they don’t like without being excluded, so hallelujah on that one.

As for me I missed more good stuff than I managed to get to, laughed more than I had forseen, enjoyed meeting old friends more than I can say, was challenged, cold, comforted, exhausted, missed home, and can’t wait for next year. And I want to belong. So, if the veterans will allow me sufficient ownership, here are my complaints:

  • How can there be a talk about the fact that suicide is the second most common cause of death in young males at the same event where a shy 17-year old is taunted about his sexuality over the course of an hour by an alleged comedian (‘Get Up, Stand Up’ Hebron, Sunday night) who also appears to think talking in a ‘camp’ voice is intrinsically funny? Isn’t there some kind of ‘on message’ policy at this festival?
  • Sweet chilli tea in the Tiny Tea Tent: what a waste of money. Sounded great, tasted like hot water + saccharine.
  • Beer only allowed in the Jesus Arms?  Come on, Greenbelt!
  • My husband also wishes to own Greenbelt, and adds: “I had my guts wrenched out in the Performance Café by the story of a 70-year old Afghan refugee who told through his son how he had only survived being machine-gunned by the Taliban by playing dead; the son himself had escaped by tricking his guards and digging his way into a latrine. I listened as this elderly man struggled against shoulder pain to wow us with music from his 2-stringed butan and sang in a straining voice the most wonderful love poetry, translated by the son who was so obviously devoted to him. Whilst trying to choke back tears I was joined by a beardy rucksack-carrying sandalled ****ing middle-class expensive-bush-hatted prat who only arrived for the last song and proceeded to talk all through it.”

Et in arcadia ego.