For about 30 years, my friends have been going to Greenbelt and telling me all about it. Tales of U2 in 1981 (?) and lots of other great acts and names have littered the conversations. Somehow I never got round to going. This year, as I was between jobs, and we hadn't had a summer holiday as we were moving house, we decided to go.
Camping is never my favourite activity, and it is a little more challenging at Greenbelt than at other festivals I have attended. The facilities near the tents are more basic, the toilets less plentiful and everything is a very long walk from the action. We abandoned hope of cleanliness or food preparation and just smelled and ate from vans. Actually the vans were the best I have ever come across at an event - lots of variety, lots of Fairtrade and lots of organic. Slightly pricey but very tasty. After the coldest night in August as our first, things gradually got better.
The thing I like about Greenbelt is that there is some elbow room to think, be challenged, and if you disagree it's Ok. Loads of stuff about peace, justice, environment as well as faith, belief and ethics. GB has also often welcomed contributions that the mainstream might be rather uncomfortable with. Sometimes these come from outside the Christian community; this year it came from within in the person of Bishop Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire. If you've been on another planet for the last few years, you may not be aware that he is the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican church (though we all know there must have been quite a few over the last 2,000 years who kept it quiet!)
Greenbelt got some flak for giving him an opportunity to speak, but I think they were right and I managed to attend two of his three sessions. Two concerns surface regularly: one that it endorsed him in some way, and second that it might lead listeners astray. I have to say I think this is nonsense. Greenbelt isn't a conference of a group of people with a tightly drawn up agenda or basis of faith; it's a chance for celebration, sharing, creativity and grappling with questions. Allowing someone to speak at GB isn't the same as saying that everything they say is supported by the organisers.
Secondly, I'm becoming increasingly concerned that there is so much fear in Christian circles about speakers. It assumes that everyone's beliefs are so insecure that they can't cope with a variant opinion. Yet, when people leave church or their 'secure' Christian meeting, they are bombarded with other world views all the time. Wouldn't it be better preparation to help them to deal with debate and diversity in a 'safe space' than simply to cast them loose after another dose of standardised input?
Rant over. Back to Bp Gene. What was striking in his first session was how little it was about his homosexuality. He gave a very Biblical talk (he grew up in a very evangelical church) on how to keep your faith and sanity in times of turmoil and difficulty. If the cause of his hardships had been anything other than his sexuality, he could have given the talk at any evangelical gathering in perfect safety! what was impressive was his lack of bitterness, his confidence in the resurrection in the face of regular death threats (if you get a threat in the US that someone is going to shoot you, they almost certainly own a gun) He said something like 'death is not the worst thing that can happen; failing to live your life is'.
He also believed that his coming out as a gay person was ultimately an issue of integrity. As he put it, it was important that the outside matched the inside. That, for him, was living more like God would have us live. He came across as a very gracious person, who has a very real faith in a very real God and for whom this has not been a trivial whim, but a life-long struggle, wrestling with both faith and sexuality. Compared with the heated, angry and sometimes downright abusive behaviour he has experienced from other Christians, it does leave you wondering who can really claim to be closest to Christ.
If you want to hear the real thing (and not the spin), the talks are available for download, along with all other speakers and Greenbelt sessions here.
Will blog again soon about the great music.