Liberals versus radicals at Greenbelt

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
29 Aug 2014

It has been three days since I arrived back from the Greenbelt festival, washed my muddy clothes, cut off my wristband and had a very satisfying bath. I'm still a bit tired from four nights under canvas and late-night conversations in the Tiny Tea Tent, but I've had some time to process my impressions of the festival.

Greenbelt is a Christian festival with a reputation for being open-minded and left-of-centre. This was my tenth Greenbelt (and my eighth consecutive one). Since I first went in 2001, there has definitely been a shift: most attenders are fine with same-sex relationships and I hear more radically left-wing comments than I used to.

It would be wrong to imagine that Greenbelt is devoid of political or religious conservatives (nor would I want to put the them off attending). Nonetheless, I've realised that the main division at Greenbelt is not between liberals and conservatives but between liberals and radicals.

The dominant strand of thought at Greenbelt is left-of-centre in political and economic terms and either liberal or middle-of-the-road in theological terms. But alongside this runs another, more progressive strand, that champions radical change in society and links this with a theology that notes the subversiveness of Jesus' teaching and the radicalism of focusing on the Kingdom of God.

Of course, I am generalising. People at Greenbelt, and sessions at Greenbelt, do not all fit easily into one of these two camps. But I could see the distinction in at least two major areas.

Firstly, the distinction was visible in debates on economic issues. I attended a panel discussion on debt. From the description in the programme, I expected it to link personal debt, international debt and the theology of debt. Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign did a great job of combining these themes in a rousing talk. Some other members of the panel, while focusing mostly on personal debt, made some radical points and linked them with the Bible's condemnation of usury.

Unfortunately, things got a lot less promising when we moved on to practical discussion. Nearly all of the audience questions concerned personal debt. Most of them were framed in terms of how “we” can help impoverished people. The “we” seemed to refer to middle class Christians.

While I'm pleased to see middle class people wanting to support people in poverty, most of the discussion smacked of charity rather than solidarity. There was a lot of talk giving financial advice to people in debt (meaning people in poverty of course, rather than middle class people with mortgages). Of course, debt advice can be helpful but there is a thin line between recognising this and implying that bad financial management is the cause of poverty. No amount of advice will enable you to manage something that you don't have.

It felt very much like a group of middle class liberals talking about the poor rather than listening to them. I got so frustrated that I left before the end (so if it all got a lot more radical and inclusive in the last five minutes, I'm sorry!).

In contrast, a session the next day entitled 'Farewell to welfare' had a much more progressive flavour. Excellently facilitated by Andy Turner, panel members shared their thoughts on ways to resist welfare but most of the contributions came from the floor. Attenders shared experiences and questions from their own communities and people appeared to take away ideas from each other. On the panel, Niall Cooper from Church Action on Poverty and anarchist Anglican priest Keith Hebden, an Ekklesia associate, encouraged Christians to learn from people in poverty. We need to go much further (perhaps next year, Greenbelt can invite some people living in poverty onto the panel!) but it was significantly better than much of what I heard at other sessions.

The contrast between liberal and radical was just as strong on questions of sexuality and marriage. One of the most popular events of the festival was a panel discussion on marriage on the Saturday afternoon. It was chaired by Vicky Beeching, the evangelical singer who had come out as gay only ten days earlier. I happily stood to join in the standing ovation for Vicky, whose courage and faith have inspired so many of us. Most of the panel were positive about same-sex marriage, with Sara Miles making some particularly powerful points about the situation in the US and how ideas of marriage have changed through history.

The debate focussed on long-standing questions and arguments about same-sex couples, divorce and singleness. These are important issues but the discussion rarely moved away from relatively safe and familiar issues (I recognise, of course, that these issues would not be safe and familiar in other contexts, but they are largely so at Greenbelt). I was disappointed to hear several people welcome the Pilling Commission, a long-winded Anglican consultation on sexuality that functions largely as a delaying tactic and a block on progress (however well-meaning some of those involved may be).

There was a massive contrast between this relatively tame debate and a session on marriage that was held at 11.00pm the night before. The late-night debate was part of 'Hothouse', a series of sessions exploring particularly controversial issues through short presentations and small-group discussions.

The session asked whether Christians should be supporting marriage at all. Church of England priest Miranda Threlfall-Holmes argued that 'marriage' in biblical times and 'marriage' today are such different institutions that they should not have the same name. Rachel Mann, another Church of England priest and good friend of Ekklesia, explored Jesus' teaching on families and suggested that the Church today is “fetishising” marriage. Marika Rose, a theologian from Durham University, argued that polyamory could be ethical for Christians.

I agreed with some of these arguments more than others. The audience responses and small-group discussions varied considerably. But here we were getting stuck into complex and overlooked issues that can be as difficult for Christians to raise in 'inclusive' settings as it is to speak positively about LGBT people in many conservative churches.

The discussions were shot through with reflection on Jesus and biblical teaching. The whole session was a reminder that theology and thinking are dangerous activities. So is seeking to follow Jesus.

As usual, I enjoyed Greenbelt: the debates, the worship, the conversations with friends and strangers, the songs of Grace Petrie and Jonny and the Baptists, the great session on The Life of Brian, the Tiny Tea Tent, the main communion service and the friendliness around the site. But progressive Christians can get as comfortable and exclusive as conservative ones. We need to remember that it is a long step from liberalism to radicalism, from centre-left politics to the wonderful, subversive, frightening, life-giving Kingdom of God.

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(c) Symon Hill is a Christian activist and author. He is an associate of Ekklesia and a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association. In 2011, he walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia.

For links to more of Symon's work, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

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