“Though we are many, we are one body”- I remain Christian because of its claim to unite us. Of course Christians can be fissiparous, and there are other movements which unite people; but our claim is true, sometimes. If more than six thousand people worshipped together at the Eucharist on Sunday morning, then it was the largest congregation with whom I have ever worshipped. Perhaps it was ten thousand.
Worship was to start at 10.30, but I heard hymns from my tent from about 9.30, and was in place near the stage just after ten. Unable to distribute so much bread and wine after consecration- it would have taken an age- we had our Communion Kit bags, to share between 15-20 people, containing a naan bread and a small bottle of cab sav. We sat around in the sun. I was keen to appear groomed and feminine despite the rigours of camping, so wore a dress. I started chatting to Maria, who had just returned from six months in Kenya with the Church Missionary Society. It had felt like the Will of God leading her. She had been unhappy in her work, and a series of synchronicities put her in touch with her former vicar, now testing vocations in the CMS. It was wonderful, and now she was awake to the possibility of further leadings.
We had four female celebrants on the stage, including Desmond Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu, who blessed us in Khosa. Singing in such a crowd was great fun, uniting us. I looked up at the beauty of the trees, and the variety of humanity.
Quaker worship went well. I was a little embarrassed to hand out bits of card reading You are warmly invited to join our Quaker Meeting for Worship at The Mount 6pm – 6.30pm Saturday 23 August, but people were happy to take them. We had about a hundred worshippers. The (Anglican) Society of St Francis, who worshipped before us, finished about 5.20, said we were next, and cleared up promptly. We put out our Advices and Queries booklets, several of which were taken away. I hope that next year we will have a stall.
I felt less embarrassed after meeting a woman handing out flyers for the Guild of Health‘s Service of Healing, Justice and Peace. I got chatting. The Guild is mostly Anglican, involving real doctors as well as alternative practitioners. S practises Reiki, and I said something about why I don’t, now, though I have done. I channel Qi to open my chakras- how eclectic- she said I could use the Jesus Prayer to open my chakras. I went to their worship, and after written prayers people were invited to the table, either to receive healing hands or place a candle on a world map on a place needing healing. The female vicar turned to the man who had come to sit beside her, beaming compassionately, and put out her hands for a few seconds. People were queueing for this! I fled.
Over dinner, I got chatting to three American women, for whom our 6pm was lunchtime, and they had not been to bed yet, and still had their talk to do. Regina (not i as in hide, but in heed) is born again, was helped to turn her life around by Thistle Farms, and is now their resident manager. They take in survivors of street prostitution, addiction and trafficking. On average, these women are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11. She misgendered me, referring to me as “he”. It’s OK.
So I went to their talk. Becca Stevens, who founded the organisation twenty years ago, celebrated at the Eucharist and talked of starting the organisation, giving women housing with no strings, for free, for a year, with group therapy, and their skin and body care products. There, I got chatting to the woman who does circus skills training.
Owen Jones is good with words. He reversed the barb “Politics of Envy”- the Politics of Envy is getting private sector workers, who have had their pensions taken away, envying and resenting public sector workers who have better pensions rather than resenting those who have taken them; getting people on the minimum wage resenting benefit claimants, rather than those who pay starvation wages; benefit claimants resenting immigrants, who both “take our jobs” and “take our benefits”. Getting us unproductively angry with each other, and therefore cowed, rather than productively angry with-
He was less good on solutions, though. Workers who organise sometimes win. UK Uncut drew attention to the scandal of multinationals avoiding tax. Ernst and Young, vast accountancy firm, takes part in drafting the tax regulations which it then helps clients avoid. Its chief executive is a lovely guy who funds valuable charitable work- jobs for ex-prisoners, etc- but would be better paying fair taxes rather than doling charity.
I did not bump into Mpho Tutu in the Contributors’ tent, but did meet someone who worked with her, getting her to taxis, hotels and platforms. This was hard work, because she would give her full attention to anyone who spoke to her. I heard her speak, with a video of her father telling how he had flown to Nigeria, and been so proud that both pilots were black. Then they hit turbulence, and his fearful thought was who would save all these poor blacks, with no white man in the cockpit? So we take oppression into ourselves.
I missed the end of the “Atheists- the origin of the species” talk, which began on how the term originated: with different kinds of Christians accusing others of atheism for holding or not holding specific doctrines. I had to go to meet the Quakers. Late at night, I passed the Main Stage on my way out, and felt my ribcage vibrate in sympathy with the sub-woofers; but the band was uninspiring. Sinead O’Connor was alright, though.
To the TTIP protest. I went to Nupton, as it was organised by the Green Party there, the best organised local protest in easy bus reach. I have never been to the main town in my constituency. And I wanted to check them out: I want a political party which I can respect, and feel good about.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the US and EU will make consumer protection, employment protection and environmental protection legislation illegal. Corporations will be able to sue governments for damages in shadowy, unaccountable international courts, for damages for restraint of trade. The Australian government legislated that cigarette packets should be plain, with only a health warning, and was challenged by the WTO. It is apocalyptic. The NHS will be privatised. But people’s anger is diffused, channelled by UKIP against immigrants and the EU.
We need that anger, directed against the real problems; and we also need to give people hope. But standing in Aldershot street, I found that we were talking to ourselves. We collected six signatures, and some may have been our own. “Power to the
People Corporations” said our leaflets, which is a good slogan: I wondered how to express the enormity of TTIP. The protection of employment tribunals has already been taken away, because of the huge charges to the Claimant for using them. “Power to the Corporations!” I said, holding out my leaflets, as people walked by, shaking their heads. They have their own problems. They do not want inveigled into others’ enthusiasms. Some took my leaflets, and put them in the bin ten yards down the road. Some looked.
It is hard work. Acceptance of What Is, was my mantra- this is not a judgment on me, rejecting my leaflets- but I found it upsetting, as when I am unable to communicate. UKIP gives them something simple to hate.
No wonder that we talked among ourselves. I told a man I had come from Marsby. “A ‘Black Bitch’,” he said knowingly. I would rather say Martian, being a science fiction fan. He is a science fiction fan too. “It’s Doctor Who tonight,” he said excitedly. (Oh, no.) “And it’s the Daleks!” (Here it comes-) “EXTERMINATE!!” I don’t think anyone noticed. Really. I moved away.
I had one conversation with The Public. A man with that sheep-like vacuous slogan, spouting self-righteously and resentfully. It’s all the fault of the EU, apparently. “They took us in, without a referendum.”
An American now living here, protesting with us, wanted to tell me how bad private medicine is. They won’t insure you for “pre-existing conditions”. If you have diabetes, you need health care for diabetes, but can’t get it. He had some condition, and was landed with a $14,000 bill. He came round after an operation, and had a $300 bill from the anaesthetist pinned to his shirt. So he said he would declare himself bankrupt, and the hospital made claims on various charitable funds, to pay their bill for him. This was the Seventies, and he is still angry, still needs to tell me. I think we should be talking to other people, but don’t see how we can.
I was unimpressed with my first contact with Greenbelt. Last year it was in Cheltenham, and as the clerk I had an email from Cheltenham Quakers enthusiastically saying how wonderful it was, and how well their meeting for worship at Greenbelt had gone. AM agreed that I could propose worship to them, after I bubbled over at AM.
That was February, and I could not propose worship then. I had to wait until March, and get a response in May. The form I completed referred to Greenbelt 2013, and the woman I emailed did not always email back. I had no idea what the venue would be like- would there be any buildings, or would it all be under canvas? Would there be any chairs? They asked about health and safety issues- don’t think so, but I am not an expert.
A month before, I had a new contact at Greenbelt, and we found our worship was not mentioned on their programme on the website. Initially we were promised ten tickets for the full weekend, but at the last minute told that as we were only contributing on one day, we could only have tickets for that day. I complained, and was told we could have tickets for the whole festival. But we were frightened of them, and this showed in our fear we would not get in- we had no ticket to show. We ended up with five weekend tickets and seven day tickets- we have more than ten? No problem.
Peter drove me there, and we queued for ages in the car. We diverted to the box office, and when I said I was a contributor they were welcoming. I got my tent up. I wanted to take Peter to the Contributors’ hospitality tent but Security stopped me. So we went to a caff selling tea and bacon rolls, and sat under canvas beside a tots’ climbing frame. Two people joined us, and we started chatting about Christianity and Creationism. Peter left, and with my braw silver Contributor’s wristband I went into the Festival.
I walk on a plastic path through a wood. Less than five minutes’ walk from my tent, I enter the Festival ground, with the main stage and some food stalls on my right. The Mount, where we worship, is over to the left, but I have to go round a square lake. On my way I find inflatable sofas, with a large sign saying “We’re here to listen”- I chat to two Spiritual Directors, cuddly middle-aged women. They hope to hear joys at least as much as sorrows: they are not counsellors. You say what is going on in your life, and they ask “Where is God in that?”
Across a bouncy pontoon bridge then up a steep ramp to The Mount, which is square, a wee bit away from the rest of the Festival. A man had a T shirt inscribed “Hug me” so I asked and had a hug. There is a canopy, providing a roof but no walls, and outside it is perhaps fifty yards square and flat. It is a new feature, put up only four years ago. I was thinking this could be beautifully atmospheric for worship, when a loud BRAAANGGG of an electric guitar sounded from the Main Stage.
I am open, receptive, excited.
Greenbelt is a festival on the August bank holiday each year. Fifteen thousand people gathered, many of us camping, round a group of venues in marquees and canopies. My idea of Heaven. In the venues there was a mix of serious talks, music, and comedy.
How Christian is it? K thought it in great part post-Christian, with social and environmental concern. But then she told me that two years ago at Greenbelt she had the painful realisation that she does not believe Christianity any more, yet still loves to come here. Someone else, a Methodist, found it insufferably Anglican, but independently of us there were Quaker speakers. There were hoodies on sale with the tag “Jesus is my Superhero” and the reference Romans 5:6- not my theology, or mode of expression- but I only saw one being worn.
That hoodie seriously tempted me, though, because of the cold. “Coldest night in August on record” said someone- I doubt that- but we shared stories of lying awake, cold and miserable. Someone said someone else had frost on their tent one morning. Instead, I got a soft wool blanket which would double as a shawl. The rain came down on Monday, and the ground became muddy quickly, but before then we had only a few short showers. Then on Monday morning I woke at 3am too hot, because I had wrapped myself so well, and lay groggily wondering whether I should risk taking any off. My tent kept rain out and stood the wind, but I found that except in the most propitious conditions- dry, sunny, no wind- I could not erect it or take it down alone. So I asked a passer-by, who helped gladly. K stayed in a B&B: all the hotels locally are booked up.
On Saturday I wandered down towards the showers, past stalls selling jewellery and pottery, music books and more clothes. “Come in out of the rain!” said a man. OK. I love this hand thrown bowl, £150, but it is quite out of my range. We chatted for a bit. Also there was a stall selling stuff for circus skills. They had been doing work with the young people. I had chatted at one talk with the wife, who is thinking of retiring. Their arthritis is playing up. They can pass the firm on. I got a pretty glass pendant.
Then as the rain stopped, I had my best musical experience of the festival: Hannah Scott on the Roots stage. It is open mic, and the pottery-seller commented that many of them could not even tune their guitars properly- it is hard, in the open air, hot in a tent, etc- but someone had pulled out and she stepped in there though she was paid to play at the Canopy. Not realising this, I heard the quality and stopped to listen. Twenty of us sat in the sun under the trees, with this beautiful music, just a voice and one guitar.
Leviticus 20! say the homophobes, and many gay people say “Fuck You” to that by leaving Christianity. Why would anyone stay? Because Christianity is Ours, at least as much as theirs, and they will not take it from us. And it is a handy store of human wisdom.
Susan is a wise woman. I watched her at our Greenbelt Quaker meeting with R, a pretty slip of a thing aged around 14. Perhaps R commented that we normally have flowers in the centre. I noticed when she brought something from the lawn grass of The Mount, to place on our banner; then trot off, and find a daisy, to replace it. R took pleasure in her contribution; Susan, physically old but able to enter the joys sorrows and conundrums of all ages, delighted in R’s pleasure, and their pleasure delighted me.
One woman ministered that we should not be waiting under the Master’s table for crumbs to fall, when there is a place at it with our name on it. I thought that rather good as a bon mot, though when I retailed it someone said she had heard it elsewhere this weekend. We all got the allusion, and possibly many atheists would too, so pervasive are our stories.
Considering my own progression into Wisdom, I wonder how I am doing. How much, really, should I have learned by 48? Passing by a tent I heard The Scargill community on bodies. Ours is a physical religion, with a God who so delighted in human bodies that God lived in one. (Or All, I would say). Our bodies are wonderful, and a gift. The Spiritual and the future matter, but not to the exclusion of the Now and the physical. I saw my body was beautiful when I transitioned, and that all bodies are beautiful at a Quaker weekend shortly after. You might say that the emphasis on humans as spiritual, rational beings rather than as animals with animal responses and needs is a Christian failing; I would discern its root in the Enlightenment; but my Christianity has the answer. All of the human is beautiful and valuable.
I left the tent in the cold night, got a cup of tea and sat outside at a table. I opened conversation with the woman there- so much easier at Greenbelt than on, say, the London Underground. She could accept the truth of that, that all human beings are beautiful (a truth one can find in strands of feminism and psychotherapy as well as Christianity) about others, but not about herself. I told her how beautiful her eyes were.
Different ideas in Christianity have value at different times. I find the American Evangelical insistence on Original Sin, and the Remnant who are saved, divisive and destructive, but in a genuinely embattled persecuted community it could give strength and hope. I disliked at the Eucharist singing of heaven after death- Heaven must be here, an idea beloved of more Christians than just Quakers- but for slaves, tired of living and scared of dying, it could give a way out of despair. Such hope might let them see ways to improve their lives which despairing people could not see.
To Greenbelt, the Christian festival. I was a bit shocked to see a picture of the Ascent of Man (always the figures are male) with above it pigs growing wings then taking off and the caption “Evolution- pigs might fly”. I like the cleverness of it, but is it really Creationist- here?
K thought not. She thought less than 1% of the 15,000 people here would be YECs. I joked that the prayer in the Eucharist that morning “May you also embolden those working towards full inclusion and freedom for the LGBT community” could be read as meaning freedom from our perverted lusts and wickednesses- very Anglican- but I don’t think it was. LGBT is our word, after all.
In a Church Missionary Society gathering I met two young lesbians who are part of an internet support network for about a hundred young LGBT Christians in Evangelical and Charismatic churches, even in the Church of England. Coming out to parents is a real risk: some get kicked out of their homes, but one, a University student, told how his parents had come to take him home so he would not be exposed to these temptations or go so far off the path as to imagine himself “gay”. I thought such insanity was reserved to the US.
In a lovely panel discussion with the title “We’re not an issue, we’re a Gift” a woman told about how she was a seventh generation ordained priest in the Church of England but without a licence. Her sister is also a priest. She was charged in a church court with “Adultery” for lesbian sex. She said straight men facing the same charge generally got moved sideways, but she had her licence stripped from her. She cannot undertake any priestly act without individual permission from the bishop. Perhaps the men expressed contrition. I am glad she (I am sure) did not. So now she works in a supermarket. Recently, a mystery shopper under 25 bought alcohol at her till, and she was disciplined for failing to ask for proof of age. The disciplinary process in Asda was gentle and aimed at helping her to do her job better, favourably contrasting with Discipline in the CofE. I also stood and spoke about how for Quakers, marrying queer couples in the same way as straight couples is a matter of our religious principle, our testimony to Equality, from our seeking the leadings of the Spirit. Pádraig, a Catholic, joked ruefully that “Pope Not Horrible!” was front page news for a year.
Pádraig also ran the storytelling. I had ten minutes with a microphone and an audience- my idea of heaven, with the right material- with eight others on Saturday night, and several of us were queer. The two women on the stall on Diverse Church- looking at race and mental health as well as LGBT- were a recently married couple. The woman I had arranged our Quaker meeting at Greenbelt was also part of the “Outer Space”- pun, Out, L&G Christian Movement- stall.