Sunday 30 August 2009

Greenbelt 2009: In the long now

Greenbelt's theme this year is 'In the long now'. It relates to a legend about the 14th century founders of New College Oxford:

They built the dining hall with a series of huge oak beams. 500 years later when the beams needed replacing they sought to find out if there were any oak trees on their land which might do the job. 'Ah...' said one of the tenants who farmed the land, 'we wondered when you'd be in touch'. It turned out the farmers had a tradition that back in the 14th century, a new grove of oaks had been planted to make up for those being cut down to provide the dining hall beams. The story was passed through the generations, and the oaks were protected, set aside for New College.

In an age of 'do it now' and the instant decision, when waiting times are always coming down, and the destination always trumps the journey, the idea of the 'long
now' is deeply resonant for people of faith.
To plan for a present we may never experience, to long for a world we may have left before it arrives. What would it be like if gratification was not instant, and the waiting had not been taken out of the wanting?

These words are hugely relevant to LGBT people right now. It goes without saying that those of us who are able to be out with integrity in our families, workplaces and churches today owe a massive debt of gratitude to those who had the resilience and courage to step out and be who they were, despite the often dire consequences for them personally.

But it also has huge resonance for the situation in the Anglican church today. When ++Rowan spoke out a few weeks ago, it felt like a huge slap in the face for many of us. How could we be expected to abandon our partners and put our vocations on hold for ten, twenty years or more whilst we waited for the rest of the church to come to terms with our reality? At a time when even Spring Harvest were starting to engage in dialogue with LGBT people, and recognise the validity of our lives, families and faith, it felt extraordinary that the Church of England was proving so intransigent. Some of us even talked about giving up and leaving.

In Jeff Heskins' second seminar today, about the issues faced by LGBT people who felt a vocation to enter church leadership, we heard from three people who had been told to not mention their sexuality in the selection process, and given tips to avoid having to answer direct questions about it. All three of them felt that they could not do that. Their calling was linked to who they were as LGBT Christians, and they could not work within the church without their integrity. They are all seeking ways of living out their vocation outside the Church of England.

'The long now' reminded me why we carry on fighting. It might not be for our vocations and our partnerships, or those of our contemporaries. It might simply be that we are fighting for a church where our LGBT children and grandchildren can live with integrity. And that's worth fighting for.

In the meantime, we will mourn the vocations which have been trashed. We'll mourn the LGBT people who have been forced out, and made to carry out their journeys of faith outside the church. And we'll apologise to their friends and families who have been left to wonder how the church has managed to reduce 2000 years of Christianity to a message about the wrongness of LGBT people.


  1. Interesting post: I think that what you say has many parallels with the situation of disabled people in our churches. I do not equate homosexuality with disability but, as both, I do find similar attitudes. Disabled people are often a bit of a burden for the church and don't fit in with the norm. So, they often simply give up, don't attend, and are distanced from God.
    Sad innit?

  2. I mourn the LGBT people who, by the actions of groups like Changing Attudues, have been forced to fit into a lifestyle they do not want. One that is without scientific, psychological or sociological support. Who have been kept from knowing the transforming power of the Cross by unScriptural arguements.

    LGBT people can never live with integrity if the foundations of their freedom is based on a lie. Changing attitudes is the only option when you can not change the truth and that is all this group can do.

  3. Alex said

    "The vast majority of professionals in the worlds of psychiatry are convinced that it is not possible"

    And this is the very heart beat of your argument...The world says it's not possible.

    Are you not missing the point slightly, we are talking about the supernatural power of the risen Christ to set us free from bondage and sin and if you have not experienced that transforming power then I pity you.

    Oh and by the way this is not about "right wing" or "left wing", we are Christians who have experienced the supernatural power of Christ to be set free from sexual sin.

  4. Neither Changing Attitude or OuterSpace seeks to 'force' people to fit into an LGBT lifestyle they do not want.

    But we do think it is responsible to make people aware of the considerable risks involved in attempting to enter a heterosexual marriage if your orientation is not heterosexual.

    I accept that there are some people with same-sex attraction who have been able to make heterosexual marriage work - sexuality is a mysterious thing, and experienced in different ways by different people. Also, making a marriage work is clearly about more than just sexual attraction. I hope and pray that they will continue to be able to honour the promises they have made to their spouses, and will be able to make their relationships flourish and succeed in the long term.

    However, regardless of how many seemingly successful ex-gay couples there may be, there is also lots of evidence that for many many people, they do not see any change in their sexuality, and often find that they cannot make their marriages work in the long run as a result. The experience of Peterson Toscano and the ministry of Jeremy Marks are just two examples of people who can testify to the reality of that, and the emotional fall-out for straight spouses and children is devastating, not to mention the LGBT individual themselves.

    We are currently considering whether and how we can usefully incorporate ex-gay perspectives in our OuterSpace sessions at Greenbelt - many of us do believe it is important people hear all the evidence before making up their minds, and we also believe we have nothing to fear in that sense - we are confident that the evidence stacks up very much against ex-gay therapies. The idea there is a powerful gay mafia seeking to pervert "the truth" is frankly ridiculous, not to mention insulting.

    Phelim, for me it comes down to this - if it was that easy for people to change their sexual orientation, then why is it that the only people who claim this is possible, are right-wing Christians? The vast majority of professionals in the world of psychiatry are convinced that it is not possible. Surely it would be socially irresponsible of Greenbelt to promote an ideology which is considered by healthcare professionals to be damaging?

  5. Anonymous - that's a really interesting perspective - I had several really interesting conversations at Greenbelt with disabled Christians making exactly the point you make. All too often it's easier for churches to exclude people whose lives and witness undermine their simplistic theology, than it is to seek to listen to and understand those people, and develop a more mature approach.

  6. I have experienced the transforming power of Christ, and for years and years I prayed that through living that reality, my orientation would change. I read all the books, spoke to 'experts', and desperately tried to work out what had gone wrong, and how I could right it again.

    I couldn't understand why 'healing' never came.

    Over the years I also came to realise that the redeeming power of God was perhaps not about turning me into another heterosexual with a house in the suburbs, and that maybe God was bigger than that. I met LGBT Christians who were full of the Spirit, and knew far more about the Bible than many of those who would seek to accuse us of turning their backs on scripture.

    I know that the supernatural power of Christ sets us free from bondage and sin. However, I don't believe that it turns all gay people straight, and I see no evidence in the Bible for that either. (even though many translations still lazily use the word 'homosexual' in the Corinthians passage.)

    I do apologise for the use of the term 'right-wing' though - that was a lazy stereotype, and not helpful, so I'm sorry about that.

  7. Comparing physically or mentally Disabled folk to those choosing to practise homosexuality is the pits and a new low.

    I more than most know the challenges that face the mentally unwell in the church environment because of the emotional and physical health 'gospels'.

    I can't even bring myself to say anything further.

  8. As a disabled gay Christian (with both a physical impairment and a mental health problem), I have directly encountered the similarity between the way disabled people are excluded from the Church, and the way LGBT people are excluded from the same institution - by those who claim to serve the God of the poor and the outcast.

    Issues of justice and injustice are often very similar regardless of which social group's members are being excluded - as studies have shown in the fields of sociology, anthropology and specialist courses such as Critical Race Theory or Disability Studies.

    In the Church, I believe that *theology* is used to justify the exclusion of both LGBT people and disabled people. This makes me very sad, since I expected more from Christians who know about justice and love. How much more it must sadden the heart of God.

    As for "choosing to practice homosexuality", that is a very distressing and unjust comment to those of us who feel we have no choice. And, indeed, to those of us who have worked hard to accept ourselves as we are - as LGBT, created that way by God, and content to be so.

    Which to me is *very* like being disabled, created that way by God, and content to be so.

    The Church needs to learn that its exclusion of people from all kinds of social groups is not only unacceptable, but also un-Biblical. Such false gospels of exclusivity are no more acceptable when they are directed at gay people than at any other social group.

    I pray that my life preaches a gospel of inclusivity, and that I continue to be convicted of any injustice in my treatment of members of any generally-excluded social group. It doesn't matter whether that's people from black or ethnic minority communities, older people, children, asylum seekers, those living in poverty, other disabled people, other LGBT people, or members of any other group that society treats unjustly. They are all equal in the sight of the God who made us "neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus".

    - Naomi

  9. It's nice to see an article about the Greenbelt festival on this site, even if it's not very sympathetic. It seems to me that the steadily rising popularity of this festival is an important religion story, but does not really fit into the obvious boxes (atheists versus believers, the gay row), so is overlooked.

    Greenbelt shows that liberal Christianity is in surprisingly good health. Admittedly it does not bill itself as a festival for liberal Christians, but that is what it largely is. It has evangelical roots, but a strongly liberal orientation (it hosted Gene Robinson, which no other "evangelical" festival or conference would).

    I think that Greenbelt is part of a major religious trend that has not been very widely noted. A new style of liberal Christianity is slowly emerging. Because it is not a coherent movement with a bullet-point agenda it gets ignored, but it could almost be seen as a new wing of the church. It is most simply summed up in a pejorative way: trendy-arty-liberal. To put it more positively, this new style of Christianity is defined by a confidence that contemporary culture is a resource rather than a threat. It is also defined by scepticism towards traditional church.

    This is not about trendy vicars trying to get in with the kids. It is more about the trendy kids growing up and awkwardly realizing that Christianity matters to them, despite the backward naffness of church culture. They sense that a new crossover is possible between Christianity and forms of culture that people actually like, that they themselves actually like. An icon of this possibility is the world's greatest rock band (U2). Christian-inspired art is not necessarily marginal, uncool.

    This movement, or mood, is wary of traditional institutional forms. Yet it is not exactly anti-church. To a large extent it has arisen within the Church of England, or on its fringe. There is now a large handful of "alternative church" communities, which experiment with arty worship, and almost all of these retain church affiliation. They are called things like Grace and Rise and Beyond. Their approach to worship is partly rooted in the ambient chill-out spirituality of the 90s music scene, but it includes other forms of arty sacramentalism, including conceptual art and drama. The whole movement can be seen as a desire for a liberal Christianity that engages the senses, that is culturally rich.

    When I visited the Greenbelt festival on Sunday it felt in some ways very Anglican. The dominant tone is sincere but understated, sensible and semi-ironic. There's a beer-tent called The Jesus Arms which has hymn-singing-as-you-drink sessions (incidentally this is something that Calvin tried and failed to institute in Geneva). This might sound all a bit Ned Flanders, but there's a very English lightness of touch that stops it becoming irritatingly hearty. There is a strong dose of satire, self-criticism, and huge care that no oppressive spirit of orthodoxy impinges. There are plenty of vicars around, but no dog collars.

    In a sense it is not surprising that this liberal-arty movement in British Christianity has received so little attention. For it is so hard to pinpoint. Its essential character is elusive. Seen from one perspective, it is just a load of conventional-enough evangelicals displaying their trendy-arty side. Seen from another perspective it is a slow-burning revolution in Christian identity, away from traditional church structures, away from the illiberal baggage of the past. If the latter movement can emerge, that is a very big development. Frustratingly, this identity issue is very seldom confronted by Greenbelt types (Anglican pragmatism and evasion eclipses ideology). Will the real Greenbeltism please stand up.