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Why I don’t go to Greenbelt

29 August 2014

SO HERE I am again, wondering why I never made it to Greenbelt last weekend to sample the artists, thinkers, activists, and people of passion who were signed up to perform at the great spiritual festival. I know people will come back invigorated, having had a good time, talking (like the Bethlehem shepherds or the Emmaus disciples) about the things that they have heard and seen.

I expect I would enjoy parts of it, too, and so my reluctance to go puzzles me. I no longer have the excuse that I do not do camping under any circumstances (except for one long night, long ago in the Sinai desert), as it is perfectly possible to stay in B&Bs and hotels near by.

This year, I would have been intrigued to see the intense, barmy Sinéad O'Connor in action (Features, 22 August). Best of all, I love the whole idea of beer and hymns (although mine is more normally a glass of chilled Chablis). I am not terribly enthusiastic about the communion arrangements, which seem to me to tip the delicate balance of Anglican eucharistic understanding too far towards Zwinglian memorialism, but, hey, it is all part of the rich mix, and would not keep me away, if I really wanted to go.

I suppose the thing that really puts me off is whole idea of a "Christian" festival. The festival season is part of the summer, and you can take your pick of pop or world or folk or literary, with wellies and waterproofs. The problem is that having a Christian festival alongside all this suggests that Christianity has become no more than a leisure interest, a hobby for like-minded enthusiasts.

It has been said that Greenbelt is now normative Christianity, or at least normative Anglicanism (although it did not start that way), and I find this mildly depressing. Stir in a mix of challenging (guilt-inducing?) speakers and the inevitable Fairtrade coffee, and I might as well be in church for a whole weekend.

Of course, real church is not like Greenbelt, and cannot be. I go to real church a great deal, but I do not go there to meet my friends. I find real church quite challenging because it is there that I am bound to meet difference: profound alienation, suffering, unexpected humility, naïve faith, and arrogant disbelief. The only thing that holds all this together is worship. The aims of Greenbelt are laudable, but to me its spirit is sectarian. Even so, I ought to go. I might, after all, be wrong: perhaps next year.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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