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What happened at Greenbelt 2022?

02 September 2022

All faiths and especially none. Paul Handley joined festivalgoers at last weekend’s festival

Jonathon Watkins/Greenbelt

Greenbelt Festival. Click on the gallery and see below for images from the weekend

Greenbelt Festival. Click on the gallery and see below for images from the weekend

“WE’RE going to worship like it’s 2052!”

The Greenbelt Festival was back last weekend. Two years of Covid, bookings put on hold, and short commons for the staff kept going by donations from the festival’s Angels . . . but this was not a time to look back.

Thus, the thousands who congregated for the Sunday-morning eucharist in front of the main stage in the grounds of Boughton House, in Northamptonshire, were invited to project themselves 30 years forward.

We knew that the service was going to be climate-themed, like much of the festival, but nobody was very sure how this could be accomplished without depressing everyone or being too preachy (never a good idea in a service).

The solution that the organisers came up with was to separate realism and hope. The first half of the service, laid out on one side of the thermometer-style service sheet, was an acknowledgement of the mess that humans had made of the world. A disembodied weather forecast from John Kettley contained descriptions of existing conditions in Bangladesh and Kenya, recorded by Nushrat Choudhry and Joab Okanda.

The reading from Isaiah 24.1-6 — “A curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left” — was followed by a very Greenbelt response: “This is the Word of the Lord.” “Are you sure?”

Rob Wicks/GreenbeltSending a message with the festival eucharist service card

Then everything was halted, and the 2052 service began again in a more hopeful mood, posited on the suggestion that the people 30 years earlier — i.e. now — had done something to combat the changing climate.

This was not a fantasy future, however. The rerun of the weather forecast had the two speakers from Bangladesh and Kenya still describing the difficulties their countries faced. “We are losing hope because of how selfish Europe, the US, the UK have become.”


ON OCCASION in the past, we have had enough people covering Greenbelt to justify the word “team”. This year, not. The advantage is that readers not interested in a second-hand account of the festival — and we sometimes question this ourselves — have fewer pages to turn past (or links to click on). The disadvantage, of course, is that the inadequacy and partiality (in all its senses) of the account here is hopelessly exposed.

And at a festival with at least 15 official venues and several unofficial gathering places, there are far more speakers, bands, performances, etc., not seen than seen. Nor can I pretend to have picked out the important bits, judging by the frequency with which I heard the phrase “Oh, what a shame you missed . . .” over the course of the weekend.

Confession over, I can proceed to mention some of the bits of the festival that I happened to encounter. Most of what follows is about the talks programme, but it must not be forgotten that there were three or four venues pouring out high-quality music (which sometimes poured into other venues unbidden); areas where willing festivalgoers signed up to campaigns and programmes and organisations in the spirit of being the change they want to see; craft venues; children’s entertainment; outdoor games; community drumming (never quite far enough away); tours of Boughton House; pastoral sessions; multiple eucharists; and countless chance encounters. John Bell mentioned “the bliss of being together” during his look into the future, in contrast with the anxiety-generating contact via phones and screens.

Kevin SnymanLuke Jerram’s Gaia

Caroline Lucas MP, the only Green Party representative in the House of Commons, was preaching to the converted. It was a shame that no government member was present to hear the enthusiastic applause for loft insulation, but he or she would also have had to listen uncomfortably to the criticism of the inactivity that had contributed to the present crisis — not only the climate crisis, but the vulnerability to energy price rises. The paradox, she said, was that everything that was needed to fight climate change — better housing, free public transport, lack of pollution, and so on — also made life better.

Brian McLaren’s four stages of human development will be familiar to many (Books, 2 July 2021). The attractiveness of this concept lies in its compression, and he had the audience chant the four stages: 1. Simplicity; 2. Complexity; 3. Perplexity; 4. Harmony. It’s a useful framework, and in McLaren’s hands seems malleable enough to resist any critique — even the dismissal of theories that plot stages of development. They can be used dangerously, he agreed. If it’s useful to you, use it, “but don’t use it to figure out other people.”

The most interesting part of his presentation, though, was when he did precisely that. The political swing to the Right manifest in many countries he described as a return to simplicity. “If you put people under enough stress, all of us will revert to stage one.” This is the stage of a comforting dualism, right and wrong, us and them, presided over by authority figures. Worse, he describes this as a reversion “in bad faith”, since people know well enough that the authority figures are “bozos”, but follow them regardless, “with fanatical stage-one devotion”.

Kevin SnymanRobert Beckford

John Bell, one of Greenbelt’s most regular speakers, was given the task of reflecting on the pandemic. He spoke of the losses that the West had experienced, among them the loss of innocence and complacency, the idea that epidemics happened to people in other countries or other times. When effects of climate change, the war in Ukraine, and populist government were included in the mix, there was also the loss of exceptionalism, and the feeling that “we should be immured from what beleaguers the rest of society.”

A full understanding of the effects of the pandemic needed to incorporate these national losses with individual ones, Bell argued.

There was another loss, felt particularly by the Church: the loss of the ability to console. Whereas undeveloped countries had the vocabulary, included in liturgy and song, to express the trauma that accompanies disaster, people in developed nations were at a loss when it came to giving voice to what is “fermenting inside”. Affluent countries needed to rediscover this vocabulary.

Simon Holmes/GreenbeltSimon Holmes/Greenbelt

Nadia Bolz-Weber reflected more personally on the pandemic experience. She had watched a lot of TV, and discovered an unfamiliar self who was able to cope with a year-and-a-half of “blissful under-stimulation”.

Coming out the other side, she has realised that she cannot impersonate her pre-pandemic self. “I don’t feel nearly so defended.”

Her message to her listeners was that the difficult pathway to a new self involved compassion and forgiveness of one’s past selves. She was not a fan of self-affirmation diets and programmes, which she described as “different ways of being an asshole to yourself”.

She was, she said, “tormented by the distance between my ideal self and my actual self”. Her message comes out of her continuous exploration of the limits of grace and the repeated discovery that there are none. “We spend too much time trying to earn what has already been given freely to us.”


THE talk by Bonnie Greer, author and commentator, moved from an anecdote to something much more profound. She described a taxi ride that she had shared with the author and activist James Baldwin in Chicago in the early 1970s. Her interest was not in what she recalled, however, but what she had forgotten, and why she had put it from her mind for 50 years.

The memory was Baldwin crying, and saying over and over again: “I let you kids down.” Greer said: “I didn’t need this little man who was crying. I needed a legend: someone who could sit in that taxi and tell me what I should be doing as a young black woman.”

Simon Holme/GreenbeltSimon Holme/Greenbelt

She was a young student at the time, and did not know that her generation had effectively cancelled Baldwin for being “too conciliatory, too nice”. He was a gay man who loved white men, and was called the worse thing possible, an “Uncle Tom”.

Her concern now was that Baldwin was again being built up as an idol, a god to the “Zoomer” generation. In an era of statue-toppling, Baldwin was being placed on a pedestal.

“We live in a time now in which we don’t want to accept flaws, we don’t want to accept contradiction, we don’t want to accept mistakes, we don’t want to accept ambiguities. . . Because the meta-universes that we’re creating don’t allow it. . .

“The journey of this generation is a journey towards certainty, and that to me is dangerous.

We need to teach our young people the beauty of uncertainty, the beauty of ambiguity — that you don’t have to be right to be good.”

Jeff Halper, the veteran Israeli activist, spoke of the work of resisting the demolition of Palestinian homes on the West Bank. Given the resources of the Israeli authorities, the resistance consists largely of rebuilding the houses when the authorities have left. He told the story of Salim’s house, which was demolished and rebuilt six times before the family gave up. Halper described the trauma caused to the family: one of the daughters went blind — the hospital described it as hysterical blindness.

The house was within sight of the Hebrew University and the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, but, Halper said, “Israelis don’t know anything about the demolitions. They don’t want to know anything.” The rebuilding programme was primarily a political act of resistance, and yet it was also having a lasting effect. His organisation has rebuilt 189 homes, only about 15 of which have been re-demolished so far.

Church TimesChurch Times

The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, spoke about the two “Laureate-shaped holes” that, he felt, needed to be filled: the pandemic and the outbreak of war in Ukraine. He described his technique of watching television news with the sound turned off to help him compose. He spoke simply of poetry as something for young people to try rather than study. It was “an act of primitive magic” — a largely white page with black marks on it, but something that could do amazing things in other people’s minds across great distances and through time.

On the other hand, there was language that needed to be actively prevented from doing this. His poem “Let’s Bird Table” comprised a string of phrases used in the corporate world. “If you work for a company and any of these phrases are used, resign.” His poem “Thank you for waiting”, announcing the boarding of a plane by order of wealth and privilege, suited the mood of the audience. More generally, there was a warm appreciation of Armitage’s compassionate attention to individual experience.

The poetry programme was strong this year, with contributions from Rowan Williams, Roger Robinson, Jay Hulme, and several others.


GREENBELT has always been a festival that affirms minorities. My theory is that this has less to do with the festival’s liberal heart than with decades of catering for every genre and sub-genre of musical taste. An event — and an audience — that can cope with rock, pop, punk, jazz, hip-hop, madrigals, and every crossover permutation seems to absorb minorities without noticing, really. Yes, there was an Out programme stream, including a well-attended Q & A about trans issues, and there were plenty of rainbows about, but some of them might have been just because rainbows are pretty.

The latest minority on the programme was atheists. They have always been encouraged, but there seemed more of them this time than in the past.

Simon Holme/GreenbeltSimon Holme/Greenbelt

Brian Eno, producer of musical greats, of whom he is one himself, is an atheist, but came to talk about his love of Gospel music. He spoke of how it moved him in a way that nothing else did. “I realised that the community aspect is what I’d been liking about Gospel music.” He wasn’t drawn to overproduced recordings: “It was a lot of people in church, singing. I always thought that that was the best thing about church anyway, and there was never enough of it.”

More than 20 years ago, he assembled his own choir, which, apart from a break during Covid, meets every Tuesday evening. “Our first rule: no recording, no performing. . . My worry was that I would go into full fascistic mode: ‘You’re out of tune,’ ‘Your voice is wrong for this song.’” They were people who not would meet in any other circumstance other, perhaps, than church.

Other atheists and humanists on the bill included Shaparak Khorsandi and Paul Mason. Chief among them was Richard Dawkins, interviewed by Giles Fraser on the main stage. After some initial sparring, Fraser challenged Dawkins on the straw man of his anti-religious attacks, the fundamentalist God that neither Fraser nor, he suspected, anyone in the audience believed in. Did he not promote that form of Christianity “because it makes it so much easier for you not to believe in it”?

Dawkins was candid: that sort of God was believed in by 40 per cent of Americans — a much bigger market for his books. Asked why he didn’t engage with the liberal faith espoused by Fraser, he answered: “I can’t get to grips with your God. It’s all so wishy-washy.” It was all very well for vicars to talk allegorically, but it was taken literally by congregations.

Jonathon Watkins/GreenbeltBCUC

Black writers were to the fore on the programme, among them Reni Eddo-Lodge, who spoke about the coincidence of her book Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race and the Black Lives Matter movement. There had been some real tectonic shifts in Britain in the five years since her book’s publication, she agreed, but thought it far too soon to tell whether anything permanent had happened in attitudes to race.

Leroy Logan was equally ambivalent. As a former senior police officer, he was disturbed by the lapses in the missing-persons case of Owami Davies, who had, thankfully, just been found alive and well. Would more effort have been made had she been white? The question hung in the air.

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