Before Greenbelt started we were joking it was the Pink and Green festival this year; there seemed so much related to either LGBTQI inclusion or the environment. That may be a little unfair, Greenbelt was and is so much more than that, but there is an element of truth there.
I want to reflect a little on some of the pink and what we might learn from it, (and this will be a longer post because I want to draw out particular points). It won't be a comprehensive review of all the LGBTQI events, particularly as due to a clash I wasn't able to attend the Outerspace Eucharist, something I know when really well again this year. I was also only able to attend the first part of one of the most significant events over the weekend where Vicky Beeching was chairing a discussion on the changing nature of marriage. I didn't get to the My Burden is Light worship from MCC Pentecostal. I did go to an excellent session led by Jacqui Lavelle of NE Gay Asylum Group which looked at the issues around LGBTQI people searching for sanctuary and asylum but I believe that will need to be the topic of a separate post and so am not covering it here because I don't want it to get lost in this.
The pink side of Greenbelt is nothing new on one level. They have been an inclusive festival for many years welcoming Gene Robinson, Peter Tatchell and James Alison to speak amongst others in the past, and their talks have directly addressed issues around sexuality. Other artists and speakers who have been welcomed not talking on these topics have also been LGBTQI. Outerspace and before them Safety Net have also provided a valuable role for many years, indeed the yearly Eucharist played an important role in my own coming out. There was something significantly different going on this year though, which tapped into the overall zeitgeist of this summer. What follows is an overview of panels which contained gay and straight speakers and a queer only panel discussing what could be described as pink material or issues with a pink tinge.
The panel I only managed to catch the first part of was chaired by Vicky Beeching and saw Prof Linda Woodhead, Sara Miles and Prof Robert Song discussing with her what it might be to reimagine marriage. Whilst Robert Song, who has a new book coming out in September, Covenant and Calling Towardsa Theology of Same-sex Relationships took the more cautious approach all of them were broadly accepting there were no real voices of dissent on this panel. Now on one level that is brilliant, as was the standing ovation Vicky got when she came onto the stage but it does worry me. A year ago I was chatting with a good friend who comes from a far more evangelical part of the church and who has been graciously journeying but is still in a very different theological place and she expressed the worry about what place there was for people like her at Greenbelt. Whilst I celebrate panels such as this on many levels and they make me breathe a huge sigh of relief I do worry that we are finding ourselves excluding people such as my friend by not including those theologians who come from different places but know how to express their views graciously.
On Monday morning Rachel Mann, who was chairing the panel We're Not an Issue, We're A Gift, opened the session with a couple of one liners related to "the day the gays take over the big top" and the "coming out event at Greenbelt". The reasoning she gave for these comments was whilst the voices of Gay Greenbelters had been there for many years it was the first time there had been an exclusively queer panel in a venue that size discussing sexuality and gender issues. The contributors were PadraigO Tuama, Sara Miles, Karl Rutlidge and LGCM's Tracey Byrne. Previously such events had been fringe events organised by Outerspace in small venues. It was followed by a worship event co-ordinated by Byrne where there clerics from the CofE, URC and Methodist Church spoke together with a potential CofE ordinand where the focus was on the position with the main protestant historic denominations regarding same sex marriage.
During both the panel discussion which was followed by a q&a and worship session there was a focus on the positive contribution LGBTQI already make and want to continue to be able to make. There was implicitly within this a questioning of power and the ability of oneself to express a full god given identity, it was a point Padraig made more explicitly towards the beginning of the session. There were also points made about the way it enabled queer people to stand with and on behalf of others at the margins. Sara explained in her community Pride was seen as the feast of the unclean and Karl spoke about this experience of being involved in TDOR events. There was also discussion of the community aspect of experience. Tracey spoke of the disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what the institutional bodies and structures are saying making the point that experiences need articulating back.
Some of that experience was articulated back during the q&a part of the panel session where people discussed their own, often painful, experiences as they asked questions.
The q&a was important because it highlighted the problems on the ground which still need to be discussed, often in smaller spaces for example where straight allies involved in good practice find themselves isolated by other churches.
I want to pick up on two specific things which came out of the sessions which I found interesting. The first was the way in which the voices being given platform were from the historical churches and denominations yet within the questions we heard the voices of the Pentecostals. I want to argue there needs to be much more of a public engagement and working with those who are willing from the new church networks and neo-Pentecostal movements. Now, I am not naive I understand very well the problems and real dangers involved in this in terms of jobs, ministries and so on but I am very concerned that as we enter two years of listening in the historical denominations that the voices or stories of the other churches are being lost and the differences between the more conservative evangelicals and others are being further entrenched. I believe this is particularly important in light of the figures Linda Woodhead gave in one of her talks about the changing religious landscape in the UK. We need to find ways to engage with these people, even if it is not directly. Going back to my earlier point this is why I am worried that the voices of Greenbelters with more conservative evangelical views are not being heard as they once were around the festival or beyond.
The second thing is specifically Methodist, but I believe may reflect something wider. During the discussion Karl had a bit of a mind blank regarding the significant difference between the CofE and Methodists after conference; i.e. our queer clergy can marry and not lose their jobs - something somebody rushed up to correct during the q&a. However, when he was asked about the Methodist position he highlighted the fudge the Derby resolutions gave essentially the two denominations are in a similar place at the moment, but the Methodists are being more compassionate about it. Stephanie Jenner, a Methodist Superintendent, gave a far more optimistic view in the worship session saying Methodists were great on everything, CPD (the Methodist law book) said they had to be. She seemed to suggest it was a foregone conclusion that in two years time that Conference will reach the positive outcome. The reality which is somewhere between the two and far more complicated than I think either of them was ready or perhaps able to outline in that setting was illustrated by a question from Sally Coleman, a Methodist Minister and talented poet/blogger, during the q&a of the first session. She asked about what you do when you are totally affirming, working with those the church and wider society judge to be outsiders from a wider range of backgrounds and then get excluded by those locally in other churches, including from your own denomination. The reality, which the question highlighted, reinforcing the findings of the consultation, was that in some areas it is far harder than in others and you can have all the regulations in the world but if others are of a different view it becomes extremely difficult. Experience within these denominations depends upon what others, particularly those in positions of power do and say.
The highlight of the whole festival for me (from any perspective) was a young people's session I had the privilege to witness. Sally Hitchiner and some of the young adults from Diverse Church - both queer and straight allies - were facilitating a session in the Den which took the form of a brief bit of storyvism (where the young adults told their stories) and the young people breaking off into buzz groups to discuss questions before feeding back. The level of integrity, intelligence and respect in that session coming from the ordinary young people who had packed the tent to overflow was amazing. They were the model of what the rest of the church should look like when discussing this issue. During the discussions LGBTQI and a-sexual youth had the confidence to feed back together with straight youth, sharing their own stories and opinions. The difficulties faced by those coming out in rural contexts were bought up and highlighted as an area which needed wrestling with and there was an understanding that some would be living in situations where safeguarding issues may be a necessary concern to take into consideration when bringing up the subject with parents, for example. On the question of whether there was a need for role models there was real debate and respectful disagreement with excellent points being made by all. I think I am not alone in being an adult who felt privileged to witness that session and learned something important from the way those young people were conducting themselves. As we came out of that session we saw a rainbow in the sky above the site, it was very fitting.
I recently read an article on Generation Z by Angela Cross-Bystrom which I had treated with a certain amount of scepticism. However, having witnessed this youth session I think she is on to something. This generation are socially maturing at a much faster rate and are hugely more aware than those who have gone before them; their discussions are operating on a whole different level which we need to learn from. I never thought youth participation was an optional extra, but having watched them in action I think it is an absolute necessity for the church and wider society.