The joys of a dirty weekend away: Greenbelt 2012

Photo by Jonathon Watkins

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.

Related articles: When Two Tribes Go To War

16 thoughts on “The joys of a dirty weekend away: Greenbelt 2012”

  1. Jon – sent this by Mrs C – I don’t do blogs – but this is really good – ie I agree with it all(!) We almost came this year – but looking at the pictures am maybe glad we didn’t – not the best way to expose Mrs C to the joys of camping. As a ‘conservative’ still – what I loved about Greenbelt (at its best) is its willingness to ask questions and so make me think. Why are so many scared of that?

    thank you for the blog – and clear writing – might look in again!


    1. Thanks for your message David – its a good question you raise. I think the area where we do have to be careful with too much questioning and not enough teaching is youth work. I wonder if this is why Christian youth work is done more effectively by ‘conservative’ sides of the church – children’s and youth work thrives on a clear message. Many liberal Christian youth groups, networks and camps have simply faded and died.


  2. Enjoyed the post! I love Greenbelt because I can have friendly conversations with people I disagree with, clean or muddy.

    I agree it’s not a cosy other worldly bubble, but surely a festival where the only newspapers on sale are the Guardian and the Church Times is a bubble of a different kind?


  3. Hi Jon,

    Are you referring to New Wine and Soul Survivor when you mention Christian Festivals that exist in a bubble? If so, I would encourage you to take a walk through the Marketplace at New Wine and see the vast number of societies engaging with poverty, the environment and ministry in the hard places. Soul Survivor has changed the direction of thousands of young lives this year.
    My experience of some friends returning from New Wine is that they have come back more cynical and arrogant, priding themselves on appreciating the ‘intelligence’ (not the Christ-likeness) of Peter Tatchell and sneering at people who go to other places. I know you are not like that, nor are many who go to GB, but my impression is that year by year GB is becoming more post-evangelical and post-Christian, rather than radically Christian. I hope I’m wrong!



  4. I think this is a really good, really interesting and really helpful post and discussion. I am a fan of New Wine, Soul Survivor and Greenbelt. I think all have a valid place and expression. Greenbelt appeals for its breadth and depth and diversity and its ethos and outlook but so to do the others. To say One is more valid or important than the other is to me saying that either a school teacher or a sunday school teacher are more important than the other and they are not. Whole life and a wholistic approach has room for both/and rather than either/or. Its also true that so called ‘evangelical’ events/movements etc are in a ‘bubble’ but they are really engaging in the real world just as Greenbelt is more often perceived to be


  5. Thanks Matt and Martin for your comments. I would agree with you Matt with your summary – I think each has an important space and as I mention earlier about youth work I think Soul Survivor have done an amazing job in both galvinising young people to follow Christ and make a difference in the world. One of the interesting things I see in my youth work, especially at Lee Abbey Camp, is that the younger generation are not operating within these silos – people like Shane Claibourne have had massive influence among those in their early twenties.

    And as Ben N commented earlier, GB operates within a different kind of bubble. Greenbelt and New Wine would have loads of the same development organisations and charities booking space in their Marketplace or G-Source area – and this will have always been the case – and its the same for Spring Harvest. I think the difference is that the more conservative world places great standing on ‘who is given a platform’ at such events – where as GB is happy to offer a very wide breadth e.g. Peter Tatchell and Tom Wright occupy extremely different views on both faith and sexuality – and I think this offers something challenging but important.


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