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‘Called to listen to one another’

04 September 2015

Madeleine Davies, Tim Wyatt, Mike Truman, and Sarah Brush report from the festival’s second year at Boughton House

alison whitlock

WHAT Greenbelt lacked in size this year — from a peak of 20,000 festival-goers in the 1980s, is was down to 8000 — it made up for in enthusiasm.

From intense discussions about Labour’s prospects overheard in the Christian Aid café (the novelist A. L. Kennedy observed later that it was “nice to be at a festival where one in four people look like Jeremy Corbyn”) to couples aged three to 60-plus dancing in the Big Top on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere was a spirited one.

Familiar faces were back in force, the Jesus Arms was as packed as ever, and a smaller site seemed to have helped to prevent some logistical failings found last year. Punters who are understood to have let it lie fallow for one year can rest assured that, if they come back in 2016, they will find a festival in good health.



INSTITUTIONAL introspection was on the menu again this year, as speakers explored where Churches were going wrong. They had forgotten how to talk within themselves, John Bell suggested. Instead of pursuing top-down preaching on the same old “religious” topics, why not build dialogue within the pews around issues that affect wider society? “I believe the Church is called not just to adversarial positions, but to listen to one another,” he said.

Setting free churchgoers to discuss among themselves ideas such as what to do about climate change or how to make a difference among those with mental-health problems could be profoundly transformative. “Jesus does not allow people to put their private piety above public justice,” he argued. This meant that the Church could not hide away from engaging with big societal issues.

Another way of speaking into the culture was on raising children: responding to a call from the Labour MP Frank Field to engage with a generation of people who have never had any good experience of loving and disciplined parenting. “We need to talk about the common good, and not just at Greenbelt,” he concluded.

There was huge applause for the “Greenbelt virgin” Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, who, like his quoted Harvey Milk, was conducting a recruitment drive. His target: straight people. It was time for them to come out and speak out against homophobia, “one of the powers and principalities of darkness” in the Church.

Evangelicals were not the enemy, he argued. Even those who disagreed with him tended to be “more personable, kind, and genuinely interested in my thriving” than the liberals who constituted his enemies. It was the latter who presided over homophobic institutions and procedures, including the disciplinary process, he said; and their private expressions of support did not cut it.

It was a passionate, eloquent, deeply personal talk, largely to the choir, as he acknowledged. It had the weight of a sort of watershed-marker: a call to arms delivered at a time of transition.

The Professor of Physics at Durham University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Tom McLeish had doubts about the current “noisy shouting match” about religion and science. We needed a theology of science, and science needed a story, he argued. He shares with another famous scientist engaged in public understanding an infectious passion for his subject. Science was not the arid domain of experts bent on “unweaving the rainbow”, but “emotional, romantic, glorious, creative”. Crucially, he argued, it was a gift from God: our means of mending our broken relationship with the natural world.

Giles Fraser likes St Augustine because he finds in him a fellow “bastard”. His Big Top talk on helplessness was deeply personal: an illustration perhaps of his utter conviction that we need to celebrate the vulnerability that is at the core of our humanity. It was, in part, a response to his Freudian psychotherapist’s argument that Freud and Christianity are incompatible. Freud’s belief that we are all recovering from the trauma of “original helplessness” was, on the contrary, completely in line with the Augustinian concept of sin, brokenness, and our dependence on God, he argued.

In a sense, there was little that was new here: many Christians will have been taught about human frailty and our need for grace. But Canon Fraser’s connection of this to the current debate on assisted dying and the fear of being reliant on others was a powerful one. “I want to be a bloody burden and I want my Mum to be a bloody burden to me!” he announced, to much applause.

Gemma Dunning, a youth worker from Bournemouth, embarked on a bold attempt to persuade her audience to make her and her colleagues redundant by closing their youth groups. Before laying out her radical vision of integrating ministry with children and teenagers into the wider church, she gave a familiar if depressing overview of the way things are.

Children felt isolated and unknown by anyone other than the youth worker, believing church to be irrelevant and boring, before becoming lost in the post-18 transition, she said. The definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, she told the packed tent. Instead of continuing the failed experiment in “professionalised youth work”, her church had begun a youth group meeting midweek with all the normal trappings — pool table, PlayStation, etc. — but no age requirements. The youngest was a babe-in-arms and the oldest were in their eighties, and it worked, she said. With adults mentoring young people and no barriers between the two, youth could be drafted into a community they felt they belonged to.

While making a compelling case for abandoning the old model, Ms Dunning perhaps could have left more time to explore her alternative in greater detail.

Professor Mona Siddiqui’s plea for a “more sophisticated” debate about freedom of expression went sadly unheeded on Sunday afternoon, in an Ekklesia debate on whether the right to offend was sacred.

One of the weaknesses of Greenbelt is the tendency to assemble panels of people who largely agree both with one another and with the audience. In this instance, here were four people of faith more offended by injustice than cartoons. While this was an admirable sentiment, their reflections on the Charlie Hebdo killings added little to our understanding of the dynamics at play.

As Professor Siddiqui observed, all four had grown up in the West, where an understanding that freedom of expression is paramount was the true test of assimilation. Much more nuanced and challenging explorations of what this means in practice have been offered by thinkers such as the former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who are willing to discuss power and precisely why drawings have such an incendiary quality.

From The Jihad of Jesus, Glade Big Top, we learnt that, like many people, Dave Andrews was saddened by how everything had changed for his Muslim friends after 9/11, as they became defined by an “us and them” narrative. Unlike most people, he was determined to do something about it.

He observed that when the two religions talked to each other in terms of competing truth-claims, no resolution could be achieved. When the conversation was framed in terms of a loving God, then progress was possible. So Andrews had visited a local mosque, looking for people of peace with whom to talk. Together, they had organised a mixed group of Christians and Muslims to learn from one another. The first discussions had been about fasting and prayer, and the conversation had developed from there.

He emphasised the need for an appreciative approach to such conversations, looking for the good in adherents of other faiths rather than trying to “fix” them so that they were acceptable to Christians. The critical focus of reflection should be on the faults in our own religion’s beliefs and practices.

He pointed out the paradox that Muslims and Christians had spent significant parts of the past millennium in a cycle of holy war, but, on the other hand, there had also been extended periods when the Abrahamic faiths had coexisted peacefully. Religious communities could escalate tension by being closed and defensive, or be a resource for good by being open and inclusive.

A returning Greenbelt event, the Daily Mirror was part newspaper review and part Question Time. The journalist Cole Moreton compèred a wide-ranging debate in front of a few hundred Greenbelters on the day’s news. Perhaps foreseeing a one-sided argument, he asked whether anyone present read The Daily Mail: “We’re a bunch of woolly liberal lefties, and I need someone to stand up and give the opposite view.”

Andy, who confessed he voted Green in May, volunteered to join Giles Fraser and the prison activist Sara Hyde on the panel as a token Mail reader. After touching upon Cliff Richard’s latest calendar and a Sun story in which a Mexican man claimed to possess the world’s longest penis, the debate landed on an article about prisoners surreptitiously smuggling their girlfriends into prison to have sex. Ms Hyde said that while conjugal visits were banned in Britain, they were a common part of other countries’ justice systems. Asked if conjugal visits were a “human right”, one brave audience member stood up to defend the status quo: “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he suggested.

After a brief musical interlude from the singer-songwriter Iain Archer, the discussion turned to the migrant crisis and the dehumanising language used by some of the tabloid press. The occasionally predictable debate was invigorated by an intervention from a self-confessed “economic migrant” from Romania, who said that she had considered handing back her British passport in protest.

Fraser also commented thoughtfully on the difficulty of any newspaper, including The Guardian, for whom he writes, to report news without any bias from its political agenda. Another courageous audience member stood up to suggest that the panel and crowd were in danger of dehumanising those who read (and wrote) the right-wing press, as much as the same press dehumanised migrants. “We need to show a little bit more generosity, imagination, and understanding,” when it came to the immigration debate, he argued.

Marika Rose impressed the Leaves tent on Sunday evening with her reflections on angels and cyborgs: a whirlwind tour exploring “what does it mean to be human?” which took in the sixth-century Syrian theologian Dionysius and Star Trek, via St Thomas Aquinas and Doctor Who.

Work, she suggested, was central to the question. Where once “economy” had meant a system in which all were connected by God’s love and the work of glorifying him, today it signified the all-consuming pursuit of profit, which demanded our very souls. Who were we serving and worshipping when we worked? she asked.

What were we doing to the thousands of Chinese workers spending every day scrolling through our Facebook posts for inappropriate content? Why had the technology originally developed to help autistic people interpret facial expressions been redirected to enabling shops to manipulate browsing customers?

Unashamedly ideological, she offered a compelling, often dystopian vision of how capitalism had (dis)enchanted the world.

Gary Hall, a lecturer from the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, in Birmingham, invited us to reflect on what Thomas Merton’s life and writings have to teach us today.

Merton’s challenge not to action and protest in the face of poverty and inequality in the world but rather to self-imposed poverty and contemplation, first in the isolation of a Trappist community, and then in a solitary hermitage, received much criticism from protesters such as Joni Mitchell.

Hall’s reflections at the Treehouse were interspersed with extended selections from Merton’s writings, allowing us to hear his voice for ourselves. Eschewing spirituality as the practice of those who were too preoccupied with other things to be spiritual, Merton’s voice is strongly challenging to us: “I walk in the woods out of necessity. I am a prisoner and an escaped prisoner. . . What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. . . The wind comes through the trees and you breathe it.”

Hall’s advice to his listeners was: “If you want to know where to begin with Merton, begin at the end” (instead of The Seven Storey Mountain, try Confessions of a Guilty Bystander from 1966).

The first ever female Anglican bishop in Asia, the Bishop of Nandyal in the Church of South India, Pushpa Lalitha, told her life story. Born into a family of Dalits, also known as untouchables, she smashed barriers to first complete an education at a USPG school, before then gaining a degree, becoming a priest in the 1980s, and finally becoming bishop in 2013, in the face of fierce opposition.

“Jesus came to give hope to the untouchables,” she told the packed Treehouse tent. Linking her own life with the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, Bishop Lalitha reminded the audience of how Jesus used “vessels of clay”: people who were “wounded and broken . . . This radical mission demands that we are the Church of the marginalised.”

Responding to questions, she explained how the Church in India was particularly active in standing up for women in a culture that often oppressed and isolated them. The Church did this especially through education and by providing them with livelihoods through training.

Maya Evans encouraged listeners to “fly a kite instead of a drone”, and told stories of normal life in Afghanistan and the psychological impact of drones not only on those who see them hovering above their homes, but also on remote-controlled drone pilots themselves.

One pilot had told the story of one particular man that he had been instructed to watch and target, saying: “I don’t know if he was an insurgent, but I know he was a good father.” There was an opportunity for plenty of questions, and Evans and members of the audience talked about opportunities to take action in this country to protest against drone usage, in the hope that popular protest might, as with landmines, lead to a ban.



ESSENTIALLY a synopsis of his enlarged autobiography of Pope Francis, the Church Times columnist Paul Vallely gave a 45-minute bird’s-eye view of the shape of the Roman Catholic Church two years after the Pope’s election. Vallely’s talk covered changes at the scandal-hit Vatican bank, reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, the child-sexual-abuse crisis, the role of women, and transforming the way the RC Church makes decisions.

“Orthodox in his theology, but radical in his application,” was his summary of Francis, describing a man determined to change the Church’s culture rather than dramatically alter traditional teaching. Cleaning out the Vatican bank and firing corrupt Vatican officials had been broadly successful, but the Pope had achieved less in other areas. Attempts to create a new body to tackle child abuse had been largely stymied by internal opposition, and the Pope had yet to embrace the promotion of women with much enthusiasm, even if his rhetoric was more positive.

Vallely ended with the warning that conservative opposition to Pope Francis and the “confusion” (code for reform opposed by hardliners) he had brought was growing, particularly in the United States.



PETER BAZELY’s comedy set, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe, was incredibly dry, which was much needed, after heavy rain. This 20-minute set was described as “not so much comedy, more a cry for help”. Bazely mixed songs, poems, jokes, and a comic twist on evangelism. His masterful, self-deprecating, and droll tone brought tears of laughter to those in the Canopy Stage.

Barbara Nice returned to Greenbelt with her four-star Edinburgh Festival show from 2014, Squirrel-Proof. One of the spiritual highlights for some Greenbelters, she brought comedy that focused on bringing people together into a joyful community of laughter. To the stunned capacity crowd at the Playhouse, she crowd-surfed, led an angel choir in song, and got everyone involved in teams of squirrels. Even those who were reluctant at first were won over by her warmth and charm.


Performing arts 

FRESH from a month at the Edinburgh Fringe, the World Poetry Slam Champion Harry Baker performed his Sunshine Kid set in front of at least 500 eager festival-goers, who spilled out of the Canopy stage in huge numbers.

Tracing his journey from upper-middle-class medical student to freestyle rapper and poet, the fresh-faced and quick-witted Baker (Features, 21 August) thrilled the audience with dazzlingly inventive poems on everything from prime numbers to the board game Monopoly. As he wove absurdist rhymes and puns around rapier-sharp social commentary and personal reflection, the delighted crowd whooped and cheered at every punchline.

At times side-splittingly funny as well as thoughtful, Mr Baker’s poetry was lapped up with rapturous applause. Highlights included a re-writing of Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” so that every line included a dessert-based pun, as well as the poem that won him the World Poetry Slam title in Paris: “Paper People”.

“I wouldn’t wanna deal with all the paper people politics

Paper politicians with their paper-thin policies

Broken promises without appropriate apologies

There’d be a little paper me, and a little paper you

And we could watch paper TV and it would all be pay-per-view . . .”


Billed as a blend of acrobatics and dance-theatre, Acrojou’s show Frantic drew a large crowd at the Playhouse venue, including dozens of children sitting cross-legged at the foot of the stage. The duo gave the audience a surrealist and abstract 20-minute meditation on busyness and stress. Set to an ethereal soundtrack of ambient noise, the wordless production featured the pair dressing in office wear, and undressing again, and writhing around while throwing sand at each other, before breaking out of a large wheel-like structure, which rolled from side to side across the stage as they leapt through and around it. At one point, a shower of water cascaded over the stage, soaking the first few rows of presumably baffled children.

While occasionally visually impressive, this often impenetrable interpretative mime largely failed to engage either head or heart.



OLDTIME NURSERY,at the Canopy Stage on Saturday morning, delighted children, parents, and grandparents alike with their five-piece band, including two junior backing singers. Their selection of traditional nursery rhymes and similar new songs for families to learn and sing together brought a different aspect to the homely feel for which the Canopy stage is so well known and loved.

With double bass, accordion, stylophone, keyboards, and drums, “The wheels on the bus”, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, and other favourites were given new life and energy and joined by new delights like “Zoom, zoom, zoom, We’re going to the moon”.



TOM BUTLER, a shyly handsome singer-songwriter from Seattle, entertained a relaxed crowd on the Canopy stage for an hour with a mixture of covers and his own tunes. Switching between softly spoken ballads pleading for his girl to come fishing, and moving songs telling his father how much he loves him, Mr Butler strummed through a dozen or so tracks.

Each one was punctuated with a self-deprecating and slightly awkward one-sided conversation with the bemused audience, which gradually petered out before the next song began. But when the music took over the shyness fell away. “We were meant for freedom,” he sang in his soft American accent, each chorus both soaring and immaculately controlled over his delicate acoustic guitar work. As well as his own deceptively simple but thoughtful tunes, including, he promised, his mum’s favourite, he played a handful of better-known covers, including Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz hits.

Endearing and with a captivating voice that deserves a much bigger audience, this balladeer is surely heading for greater things.

Duke Special wove a gorgeous spell over the Big Top on Friday night, with his response to a commission by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to compose reflections on the work of American pioneers of photography.

Before each song, accompanied by a string quartet, he explained the story behind each image on screen, from the Irish washerwoman caught unawares to the Cuban heiress with a penchant for elderly husbands, piquing the audience’s curiosity and conveying his connection, across the centuries, with fellow artists. It was magical. Perhaps most poignant was “Georgia O’Keefe”, an ode to the artist whose hands, stomach, collarbones, and breasts Alfred Stieglitz captured lovingly on film.

The story of a 17-year-old miner in 19th-century Halifax, Patience Kershaw (“Great big muscles on my legs, Baldy patch upon my head”) was among the bewitching songs performed by The Unthanks on Sunday night. Combining Northumbrian folk music with other genres, including trumpet-led jazz that has won comparisons with Miles Davies, the group created several spell-binding moments, including an eerie performance of “Magpie”, an ode to superstition, set to the drone of a harmonium. Like Duke Special, they have perfected the art of conjuring up the past and place, to charm a crowd.

Gaz Brookfield gave us the energetic gritty voice of a modern angry young man with a touch of humour. His songs told the story of his life: “Four chords and the truth; what more do you need?” Perhaps most challenging was his last song, which was a critique of the commercialism of the music industry: “Just because it’s got a dance routine and matching suits and smiles doesn’t mean it’s true. . . Children brought up on a diet of banality will never have a chance to think that music’s real.” The long queue to buy his latest album at the Trading Post afterwards spoke of an audience impressed.

Beth Goudie — apparently a chart-topper in Guatemala — rejoices in her roots in the Rhondda Valley. Her musical influences, including Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, were clear, and yet her voice is very much her own: energetic but tinged with melancholy. Accompanied by her husband, Sam, on electric guitar, and their friend Mark on drums, she shared her heart and soul through her songs such as “Jeanie”, written about her grandmother, and more light-hearted songs, such as “If you want to”.


The last day

MONDAY had deliberately been scheduled with old favourites (apart from the unscheduled reprise of last year’s rain), but tradition did not mean an absence of innovation.

You need to have seen the comedy trio Folk On several times to understand how novel it was that they had some new songs to perform, including the infectiously catchy “Rise and Shine”.

Beer and Hymns, back this year in the Jesus Arms with the imprimatur of the programming team, unaccountably omitted “Shine, Jesus, shine” from its hymn sheet, and included one unseasonal carol, “O come, all ye faithful”, at the special request of a member of the bar staff.

It is becoming a tradition (it has happened three years running, which is almost liturgical for Greenbelt) that Martyn Joseph should play the final live set, and send the audience home knowing that “there’s still a lot of love round here.” Even better, those leaving by car found themselves directed down a previously unknown tarmac road rather than the lunar landscape of last year’s muddy exit track.

But, best of all, they left with the news that their generous response to the collection taken at the communion service on Sunday morning had been enough to guarantee that the festival would return next year.


The Church Times is a Greenbelt partner.

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