Greenbelt defines itself as a festival where arts, faith and justice collide. In 2013 it celebrated 40 consecutive events since 1974. This year was my 8th visit to the Cheltenham racecourse where we Belters camp for the Bank Holiday weekend.
This year’s theme was taken from the adage life begins at 40 and once again, I found my life enriched by the mix of social, intellectual, worshipful, artistic and musical experiences that Greenbelt provides.
I had heard of Mohammed Ansar before the weekend and his work with the British Muslim Council so I turned up early for his talk on “What have Muslims done for us” which is already available to download. I was deeply astonished at the long list of achievements Mo explained have been chalked up to European scientists and explorers that apparently should be attributed, as least in some way, to various Muslim scholars and inventors. Mo spoke eloquently about parts of Islam which are deeply misunderstood, or shallowly simplified, by non-Muslims. I came away hideously embarrassed at some of the generalisations I have taken for granted and have vowed to do something about my severe lack of knowledge about the beliefs and lifestyle of Muslims. As Mo explained, Muslims are taught that there are no people closer to them in faith than Christians. I have been exposed to that as a school of thought over the past few years but hadn’t spent any time putting it into a realistic context for my life.
I did catch my first Twitter trolling backlash after tweeting quotes from Mo’s talk. He is right, there is so much more work to do. His funny and stimulating talk was so oversubscribed he delivered it again which doesn’t happen all that often at Greenbelt.
Clare Balding broadcast her Radio 2 show Good Morning Sunday from Greenbelt, interviewing other Greenbelt guests including Mo, Vicky Beeching, Martyn Joseph and American theologian Jim Wallis. She hosted live music from Thea Gilmore among others. I wasn’t really up for a 5.30am start to be in the audience but made my determined way to be near the front for her “in conversation” session, where Clare was interviewed by the equally wonderful Rev Rich Coles. Clare spoke eloquently on subjects as diverse as faith, women in sport and her decision, as a gay woman, to attend the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
My musical highlight were the incomparable London Community Gospel Choir who have within their ranks some people who can *sing*!
Steve Chalke gave an unsurprisingly contentious talk on The Business of Salvation, angering some anti-capitalists in the crowd who didn’t agree with his position that we are unavoidably entering a post-welfare state. I was encouraged as he called out the nonsense that streams so easily from the mouths of many of us Christians, as we dress up our faith in incomprehensible jargon and chase manifestations of God rather than recognising His omnipresence and getting with doing whatever He is doing. He repeated his view that the Church have become seemingly irrelevant and rudderless because by handing over so many welfare and support issues to the State, we’ve lost our purpose in providing for our communities. He described how this has left us with nothing to do and so we have started infighting on various doctrine and issues and focussing too heavily on our own worship styles and services. More food for thought.
In between these, I saw Micah Purnell’s incredible artwork, listened to scratch choirs and poets, and took part in a dance music worship workshop. I was able to catch up with an old friend and made some new ones. As ever, highlights included most random chats with people I just wouldn’t come across in my day to day life: lesbian Quakers, travelling Irish Catholics, air guitaring Nuns, carol singing charity workers and more. I almost managed to stick to eating veggie at every meal save one when I gave in and had some sustainably fished mackerel in a goan curry.
If I had one disappointment it was the overpriced food, exacerbated by lack of choice for vegetarians. I’d also like to see more specific environmental issues on the programme, however with changes on the horizon as Cheltenham Racecourse undergoes transformations, we’ll have to see what kind of festival we get next year.
Life begins at Greenbelt and my life certainly was nourished by new friends, new ideas and experiences and a chance to really ponder some issues I think I really need to do something about. Moreover, I didn’t buy any books!