Monday, September 02, 2013

A Greenbelt Tale

Like later-day pilgrims from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 100 United Church of Canada clergy headed to the Greenbelt Festival in England for a week-long experience of learning and growing.

The United Church's EDGE Network for New Ministry Development had taken a small group to the annual Greenbelt event the year before, and Moderator Gary Paterson was quick to propose taking a larger contingent - composed equally of ministers under and over the age of 40 - in August 2013. Those under 40 were selected and subsidized by EDGE itself; I was, of course, in the over 40 group, selected and funded by our Conferences. We were organized into smaller cohorts, which met online to prepare ourselves for the pilgrimage.

I arrived in Heathrow Airport from Ottawa on August 21st and, after noting that the arrivals area didn't look much like the one depicted at the end of Love Actually, took the Tube into London. I was born in Wimbledon, although the hospital site is now a housing estate, and lived in Putney, part of South London's borough of Wandsworth; my parents were in England as my father was posted to the Canadian Naval Mission in London. So I looked around Putney, seeing our old streets, the block where we lived, the church where I was baptized (now a Polish Catholic congregation), and The Green Man pub my Dad frequented (built on the birthplace of Thomas Cromwell, vicar general to Henry VIII). Then I was off on the Tube to the City of London and St. Paul's Cathedral, and Westminster to walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, The Mall and Buckingham Palace. I was in Cheltenham that night after the bus ride across Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, to meet up with arriving United Church folk. Some of us later took the opportunity to visit the nearby cities of Bath, with its Roman bath complex and beautiful Abbey church, and Gloucester, with its medieval cathedral.

Greenbelt, held at the Cheltenham Racecourse, is attended by 20,000 people, many of them young, in a country which North Americans are told is effectively "unchurched." It was an amazing, Spirit-filled experience. When there are hundreds of talks and workshops, some things won't work: I loved the music of "U2charist," a Communion service with the songs of U2, but the service itself was plain vanilla Church of England liturgy, straight out of the prayer book; another Communion service, supposed to be a Eucharist of the Divine Feminine, basically took the same Anglican liturgy and substituted "she" for "he"; I found Forest Church and its Old English-flavoured celebration of nature interesting, but some of it just didn't click for me as much as for others; and at one seminar I began to tune out the first time the speaker name-dropped "as I was saying to Jurgen Moltmann..."

But the occasional miss didn't detract from the many "hits" of Greenbelt in its 40th year: the opening talk by Barbara Brown Taylor; hard-hitting sessions on justice and faith; wonderful arts programming; Sunday morning Communion, with 20,000 people sharing bread and wine in small groups of 15 to 20 - like Jesus feeding the 5,000?; sessions I loved on English rural ministry, hymns of the Chartists (the nineteenth-century English reform movement calling for universal male suffrage at a time when only landowners could vote), and taking football back for the people (when many English clubs, founded by churches as community organizations, are now taken over by foreign billionaires and sponsorships by betting firms and payday lenders); seminars on dealing with and welcoming people with autism and dementia in congregations; deeply spiritual times of prayer and contemplation; a high-energy concert by the London Community Gospel Choir; Peter Rollins, who delivered a challenging talk about doubt, brokenness, and the need for church rituals that allow mourning for the God of certainty and satisfaction. His best quote: "I'm not saying you should doubt; I'm saying that you're already doing it." And whenever I am with a group of United Church colleagues - or any colleagues, for that matter - I learn a tremendous amount just from being part of their conversations. At Greenbelt EDGE and Conferences brought together a wonderful group of clergy, and I thank all of my colleagues for being passionate and supportive travellers with me.

So it was indeed a pilgrimage: into new ideas, challenges to existing ways of thinking and doing, and mulling over how to bring this learning to my congregations, Presbytery, Conference, and national church. This post, written five days after returning home, can only sketch out some preliminary thoughts. Watch this space.

My photos from Greenbelt are on Flickr.

1 comment:

Grant said...

Thanks for this Dan. Would love to hear more about doubt, living with it, and in it while we live in a culture in which there is supposed to be no doubt, just certainty and certain that we deserve everything our heart desires.