02 September 2019

Reflections from Round the Fire Pit

I am sat in my tent at Greenbelt on the final morning of this year’s festival. It’s been a scorching few days; even too hot at times (we’re never satisfied are we? but better this than driving rain and wind – no question). This year’s theme was Wit and Wisdom, and Barbara and I slotted into the programme courtesy of the Methodist Church’s involvement in the event, and the appropriateness of our presidential theme – ‘So What’s the Story…?’. In addition to the many ways in which individual Methodists give of their time as volunteers, the Church’s support came this year in the form of sponsorship of a new venue – the Foundry…(yes, there was much debate about how the word should be spelt!). This was a new, large, three-part tent with enough space for programmed sessions, a tea and coffee point, and some chill-out/discussion space around a fire pit…yes, a fire pit: not needed till 9pm each day, admittedly, but welcome (till 2am) after that. The hope was that this new venue would be a place for conversation – both structured and informal – rather than just ‘talks’. As a Church, we would thus be associated with some quality conversations, trying to capture something – even if in a small, temporary way – of what our ‘small group spirituality’ tradition has included.

Did it work? In large part, yes. Barbara and I were able to lead four one-hour sessions based on our book So What’s the Story…? across the four days of the festival as part of the Foundry’s programme. About 70 people showed up each time (thank you!) and we managed to get people talking to each other rather than just to us. Other session-leaders managed to do the same, even if once or twice the numbers got so big that of necessity they became talks or Q&A sessions. Two late-night sessions brought together atheists, agnostics and confused believers: those who were Christian, but no longer have faith and yet still find Greenbelt helpful and stimulating, and those who are just not sure any more, if they ever were. It was clearly a valuable space to have.

We’ll find out later whether Greenbelters got the message that the Foundry was very much a venue where people could go to in order to carry on conversations begun elsewhere.

What of the rest of the festival? Because of having a small co-hosting role I spent a fair bit of time at the Foundry. But I also had time to pop into other sessions, and to catch a bit of music. A panel discussion about Higher Education and a lecture about the decolonisation of university curricula kept me in touch with my day jobs. Frank Turner’s music entertained me for an hour on Saturday night. A structured conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Glade Big Top – the biggest venue – reminded us all what a tough job he has…but also left the Methodists amongst his audience wondering how the insights we have to offer to Anglican deliberations might be got across effectively and, potentially, helpfully too. He did, though, within his conversation remind his audience that the typical Anglican now is a woman in her 30s in sub-Saharan Africa; a sobering thought. Beyond that there was plenty I didn’t get to: camels (yes, really!) at the Sunday morning (Christmas) communion, a number of challenging events at the Eco Hot House connected with the activities of Extinction Rebellion; plus lots more music of varying styles.

Greenbelt has a niche, works especially well for those who need some stimulus and info-gathering about the ethical and political aspects of their discipleship. It’s also valuable for some who feel that they have been marginalized in/by churches, as it enables them to hang on in there with Christian faith, despite the church, making them aware of what the church/es could still be. Greenbelt does, though, have to accept (and happily would accept, I’m sure) that it is not itself fully representative of the churches as they are, even whilst it provides a safe, provocative, inspiring space for a great many people. It doesn’t work for all (see Barbara’s companion piece to this: ‘Digging Deep for Pearls (Or ‘On Being Myself at Greenbelt’)’. It is not as diverse as its organisers would love it to be, but perhaps it can’t be, and shouldn’t try to be. I’m simply not sure. But without doubt it fulfils a very important role for many within British Christianity today.


Clive Marsh

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