Top tips from a Greenbelt Virgin

I was a Greenbelt virgin until this weekened. I’ve not no good reason why I’ve never been to the festival of arts and spirituality which takes place at the ennd of August each year. However, this year I made it and I had a ball.

Here are my reflections.

1 – The Weather

Yes, Greenbelt is terribly affected by the weather. Saturday was a fine day and ended with a glorious red sunset. However, the shepherds were telling porkies. Sunday certainly wasn’t a delight. The rain started a bit drizzly and turned into a downpour just as i was starting to give my talk. (I did apologise to the crowd – ask a gay person to do anything and you get hurricanes and floods after all). However, the rain didn’t dampen spirits. If anything it just made the atmosphere in the tent in which I was speaking all the more electric.

When I first tweeted that I was a #greenbeltvirgin and asked for tips, most people welcomed me with messages that included the word #wellies. Now I know why.

2 – The Seating
It would have been handy to have brought wellies but it would have been even better to have brought a fold up camping chair. Old stagers knew this. Young stagers and #greenbeltvirgins sat on the grass or later stood in the mud. Having a chair with you is a great idea.

3 – The Organisation
I was really impressed with how it all ran. Even when it did rain, it wasn’t a disaster. Things were run fabulously efficiently. I got to my venue to speak and there was someone to look after me, someone to introduce me, a couple of BSL interpretors and someone making all the audio equipment run well. I can’t always manage this in a cathedral, never mind a field. Full marks to those who have learned how to do this.

4 The Crowd
I found the crowd of people I was speaking to the most receptive audience I think I’ve ever spoken to. They were committed and intereted and up for being challenged to think. People didn’t now quite was coming from me and I suspect that’s what they like. I have to admit to being nervous before the event, but I found people generous, interested and interesting throughout. I did remark during my talk that I was surprised that Greenbelt was not more ethnically diverse and it seems to me that there might be a good conversation to be had about what diversity actually means. (I’m familiar with people thinking something is diverse because they are a bit odd themselves but feel welcome and so presume that diversity has been achieved – there’s more to be said than that).

5 The Surprises
There’s a lot of surprises at Greenbelt. After we cleared out from an OuterSpace (ie overtly gay friendly) Eucharist on Saturday evening which was full of joy, the space was taken over by the Goth Eucharist. Now, that’s not particularly for me, but I loved being in a place where it could happen. Same with the gay drinks reception, which was a hoot. Whole bunch of gay people thinking “I never ever thought I’d be at a gay singles event at a Christian thing and look at all these people – there’s lots of us!” A red straw in your drink meant that you were available. Some had multiple red straws.

6 Churchmanship of Greenbelt
I’ve heard a few people say, when asked whether they are high or low or evangelical or liberal that they are none of those things but are really a Greenbelt Christian. I get that now. This was an event where the ethos would have been very familiar to many who come to my congregation, who just don’t fit into the old fashioned ways of characterising churches and Christians. For a lot of people I sensed that Greenbelt is where they are their most authentic selves and it gives them a boost each year which means that they can cope with the church in all its strangeness the rest of the year. For this itself, Greenbelt is doing a great work.

So, will I be back.

You bet.

Oh and PS – you can do Greenbelt without camping. I can recommend a good B and B.

Women Only Train Carriages and All Women Shortlists

Here’s the thing – I’ve actually been on a women only train carriage.

Just before being ordained I won a scholarship to travel to an orthodox country and went to Egypt to meet the Coptic Church. Actually, the truth is, I chose Egypt because I needed to come up with such a glittering application for the scholarship in order to win it and get some time away from my ordination training in Edinburgh. In the end, I discovered that the scholarship had only one applicant and that I could have won it and had a lovely time skipping around Greek islands instead of going to the Egyptian desert which was a much more tricky trip. However, the nature of tricky trips in countries like Egypt is that they are character forming and no mistake.

Mistake is very much what I accomplished when trying to take a ride on Cairo’s metro system however. I ran down the platform to catch a train that was just about to leave and jumped on just in time. Just in time to see about 100 female eyes swivel in my direction as the doors closed behind me and I realised that I was on a women only carriage. (The last carriage on the train was designated for women and children).

I’ll be honest and say that I’m quite enjoying Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to think outside the box. He said today he would be interested to hear what people (particularly women) thought about women only carriages as a way to safer travel.

I’m against the idea myself. I can understand anyone wanting to be able to travel in greater safety than they may feel they can currently travel. However, I think that women only carriages are the thin end of a rather destructive wedge. I can’t see that it is good for society to take policy decisions that are predicated on the idea that men are beasts and can’t help themselves. Zero tolerance to violence must be the answer I think, not purdah. The argument for women only carriages is not far from an argument for women wearing burqas. And yes, I’m aware of feminist Muslims feeling empowered by shrouding themselves from the gaze of men but no, I’m not convinced that’s a balanced, proportional or even particularly effective way of challenging sexism and male violence.

Interestingly, whilst the women only train carriages idea has caught the public imagination, I’ve become aware that a political party that I once was a candidate for is debating the introduction of women only shortlists again. And again, I’m not in favour. It seems to me that the idea that you can challenge the sexism that leads to women not being elected for things by introducing sexism against men is daft. However, it isn’t only daft, it is unlikely to succeed. And I think that because, unlike quite a lot of people in the Lib Dems these days, I’m a liberal. That means I believe in tackling root causes. The root cause of women not being elected is sexism within political parties and within society. I don’t buy the idea that sexism would disappear all of a sudden with a few more women leaders. I think that’s patronising in a number of directions. People who can’t sort out sexism in their own political party should not in my opinion be given a share in running the country. All women shortlists are not the answer to sexism. Challenging sexism is the answer to sexism. It isn’t easy but fights worth winning never are.

Incidently, I’m opposed to gay only shortlists and black and ethnic minority only shortlists too even though I often argue in favour of greater representation and visibility in both areas than we have seen hitherto.

From time to time people have a go at me about why we’ve not got any women bishops here in Scotland. They changed the rules in England and got women as bishops very quickly. We changed the rules ages ago and haven’t got one.

My answer is always the same. Which of our current bishops do my interlocutors think should be bumped off and which women do they think would be automatically elected in their place? We’ve got no vacancies for any new bishops at the moment and haven’t had many elections in recent years. There’s only been one election in which there was a female candidate and the electors chose a different candidate anyway – my current bishop. I was there at that election and don’t believe gender played any strong part in the selection. Most of the electors were bewildered that the world’s press came and camped on the cathedral doorstep and befuddled when they were told that it was because one of the candidates was female. “Really? Really?” was the common cry as people came in to vote pushing past the press peoplemen.

I’m often surprised that my church world is more diverse than other worlds I encounter. My congregation looks and feels a good deal more diverse than the people I encounter at the opera or theatre. It is also more diverse than the recent cohort of leaders in training that I met on Common Purpose.