If you were in the Cheltenham area on Saturday then you would have witnessed a downpour of rain which was almost Old Testament in its proportions. The racecourse with its 20,000 campers was almost submerged; Greenbelt became Mud-belt and the stewards and organisers did an amazing job to keep the whole thing going.
The rain did lead to some interesting theological comments: some said it was God’s punishment to Greenbelt for inviting Peter Tatchell to speak. Others said the scale of the deluge was the most Biblical thing they witnessed at the festival for years.
Just after the rain stopped, I was taking part in a panel discussion on the recession. I was representing a Christian perspective alongside a very thoughtful Rabbi (Shoshana Boyd Gelfand) and a very passionate Muslim activist (Abdul-Rehman Malik). However the turnout was slightly affected by the marquee getting completely waterlogged. With nowhere to sit down, the audience was limited only to those who were either highly committed or who brought their own chair.
The marmite festival
Probably more than any other Christian event Greenbelt cheerfully polarises opinion.
Many love and cherish its open and generous spirit with a passionate intensity. Going to Greenbelt is like an annual pilgrimage which shapes their whole year. A rare place to connect with those of a similar mind, a spiritual home which sustains and shapes their faith.
Others find it annoyingly right-on, too politically correct and altogether too cynical about faith. Too much Justice and not enough Jesus. Resistance, yes – but where is the renewal? Instead of finding the range of views exciting and energising, some come away perplexed and disturbed.
Engaging with the real world
For me, Greenbelt remains my favourite Christian festival because of the space and challenge it offers Christians to engage in the real world. Unlike other Christian events it does not operate inside a bubble or ghetto.
At its best, Greenbelt brings together different Christian views in critical engagement. You can see this in the stories and teaching shared this year by people like Shane Claibourne, Tom Wright and Tony Campolo. These are thinkers and activists who challenge the tribal divisions between conservative and liberal which scar the church:
At its worst Greenbelt reinforces these divisions. Normally this happens whenever contributors and participants become entrenched in dogmatically liberal positions that fail to appreciate other perspectives. I am saddened when I hear the easy sneering or dismissing of anything which is more conservative.
A bit of something naughty
Part of Greenbelt’s mission to give a platform to speakers who don’t represent mainstream Christian opinion – to provoke and challenge. And many of the punters are clearly much more conservative than the speakers they listen to. In this way Greenbelt operates a bit like a theological version of naughty weekend away. It’s a chance to get away from the mundane, to experiment and experience things more edgy and provocative than you would at your home church. Vicars can slip off the dog collar, have a few pints in the ‘Jesus Arms’ (Greenbelt’s post-ironic pub), express doubts, swear a bit and be affirmed in their struggle.
All couples (especially those with kids) will know the benefits of a weekend away alone with your partner ‘to keep the magic alive’. At its best, I think this is what Greenbelt does for people’s faith. It’s what it has done for mine – and I bet most of the 20,000-odd participants return home to their communities and churches more energised and encouraged to live out their Christian faith in the real world.
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