Greenbelt Review

So my award-winning journalist wife took me along to the Greenbelt Festival over the Bank Holiday weekend, which was good fun. I am not exactly a regular on the Christian Festival circuit (although Greenbelt inhabits that shorthand loosely, with Muslim-themed tents, plenty on politics, two boozers on site etc. etc.), so I was somewhat nervous that I would be quizzed on the finer points of the Book of Ruth and run out on a rail… Thankfully, everyone was very friendly, I saw some old friends who were happy to chat over a pint at “the Jesus Arms”, attended some edifying panels on everything from ‘Fake News’ to the Middle East and Political Thought, and listened to a great set by folk singer, Kate Rusby. And the sun shined!

In exchange for my room and board at the glamorous Holiday Inn, Kettering, I was tasked with writing reviews on three panels for the Church Times Greenbelt round-up. Wisely, my thoughts on these panels were edited down for length, and to keep my tortured stylistic wrestlings to a minimum, so as to keep the Church Times’ subscriber base from defecting en masse to some inferior religious organ (although who could quit CT’s can’t-miss podcast?).

However, because you have had the bad luck to click on this link, I have pasted the pre-edited (sorry!) reviews below. For those interested, full recordings of the panels in question can be bought online. All three were genuinely very worthwhile.

In “Europe: A Nun’s Eye View”, Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila provided a tour de force. Drawing on inspiration from the likes of Arendt, Proust, Sartre, and Shakespeare, Sister Teresa divided her talk into three main sections, punctuated by silent reflection: the fraught issue of nationalism in Europe, the “Ethic of Care”, and different forms of democracy. In the first part she posed the question of whether the only alternative to the Right’s vision of nationalism was a kind of abstract universalism which denied what Simone Weil called “the need for roots”. She asked what could replace nationalism to provide an identity that allowed for concrete bonding. Are bigger structures necessarily better? In the second part of her talk- delivered without notes- Sister Teresa raised the issue of what feminist scholars refer to as “the double burden” of women’s work; women in the developed world are newly empowered to enter the workplace but the domestic workload has not diminished. Instead we’ve created an “International Chain of Care” where women from the developing world are filling these needs, creating a new double burden in countries like the Philippines where colleges have sprung up to train care workers. Instead of this international outsourcing of compassion and care, Sister Teresa asked us to heed the radicalism of the Pope’s statement that “capitalism kills” and instead imagine a system based around care and truly being our brother’s keeper. Finally Sister Teresa urged the audience to consider forms of democracy beyond simply representative democracy but which might include both forms of direct and deliberative democracy, with a particular call to examine the Swiss “veto referendum” model. While the talk itself raised more questions than it answered, inspiration for approaches accidentally revealed themselves in Sister Teresa’s own personal story: she discussed how her faith was a product of her national heritage, her Benedictine group’s commitment to hands-on action, which combined a small community of 30 “companions” but with a commitment to a better world. Living up a mountain in Monserrat, the sisters make ceramics and sell them for a profit but only to provide for what they need as a group. For many in the audience, spellbound by Sister Teresa’s erudition, her example might well prove inspiration to tackle some of the large questions she posed us.


Anna Rowlands was back at Greenbelt after 11 years, but, judging by her performance at a panel entitled “The Good of One is the Good of All”, they won’t let her stay away that long again. Rowlands, an academic at Durham specialising in political theology and Catholic social thought, is worried about the intellectual scaffolding that emergent left-wing populist responses have been making use of, and urges a distinctly Christian response. “Podemos: In the Name of the People”- a book outlining a discussion between one of Spain’s leftist political leaders and the political theorist Chantal Mouffe- lists a five-part “litany of lament”: from a sense of politics having demobilised people to ersatz political competition in contentless political parties, to institutions reflecting oligarchic self-interest. Instead, the duo explain that politics need to be “reinvented as struggle”, choosing between friend and enemy, and seen as an antagonistic (or “agonistic”, as Mouffe has long termed it). Consensus politics is instead seen as an antiseptic liberal facade, trying to paper over a politics which is inherently conflictual. This is at the nub of Rowlands’ issue with Podemos’ political project. Rowlands held up Catholic social teaching as an example of an alternative conception of progressive politics, richer than split-the-difference liberalism while acknowledging that elements of the radical leftist critique bears taking seriously. Instead we should make use of the Patristic fathers’ example to create a “community of salvation” with the body of Christ as a vehicle for common good through preaching and acts of worship. Secondly, we should draw on Catholic teaching that capital should be seen as a flow of a river throughout the body politic and not “a stagnant pool” concentrating resources in a few hands. And finally we need a vision of the common good as “life in communion”, not consensus but difference being hammered out into a people. We should “learn and practice the virtues through grace to build ourselves into a people worthy of salvation”. A politics of the common good cannot settle for a politics of a good vs enemy. The promise of justice can be as motivating as the emotion of “Friend vs. Enemy”. A progressive politics can’t indulge a non-transformative binary but instead must emphasise participation and agency, be practical, and start with practices and Christian acts of worship. Rowlands served up by ways of example the work undertaken by Citizens UK in engaging with the workers at Lunar House to better serve refugees. While we could not criticise Rowlands considering her rich and thoughtful talk, one could not help thinking that we could benefit from a few hours more to discuss issues of whether an outmoded perception of economic scarcity drives conflict, whether a vision of a truly common good might unite not just those losing out from economic change, but also white men unnerved by the gradual erosion of their privileges in the face of gender and racial parity, and whether a politics of public space, encounter, social capital and bottom-up democracy might prove a practical challenge to a left-wing politics that still sees us as workers vs. bosses and too many Tories and Brexiteers as “the enemy” rather than fellow citizens to be loved and able to transform us, just as we seek to engage with them. To answer these questions and more Greenbelt will have to persuade Rowlands back. There will certainly be a waiting audience.


In a panel entitled “Business as Usual?”, the audience heard that the financial system which broke down ten years ago could not go on as though we could summon a better yesterday. Ann Pettifor, a Greenbelt favorite well-known for her work with the Jubilee 2000 campaign for developing world debt relief, argued that meaningful reform rested on two main necessities: reforming an economics which ignores the role of banking, money, and debt, and using our leverage to force through meaningful change rather than leaving it to the “men in pinstripe suits”. Frank Van Lerven of the New Economics Foundation urged the audience to spread the word that banks create new money in the form of debt, and bubbles in housing, autoloans, student debt, and “the biggest bubble of them all- carbon” made the system increasingly fragile. Vivian Woodall advocated for greater use of cooperatives and mutuals. While the issues were largely framed as one of justice, one couldn’t help thinking that the issue of economic reform should be seen as a campaign for economic democracy: the main levers of economic power are controlled by the private loan-issuing banks and an independent Bank of England largely outside of democratic control. The panel concluded with a call to join campaign groups like “Positive Money” and join local democratic forms of economic organisation.


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