Why we don’t have British ‘celebrity Christians’ speaking at Greenbelt #gb14

I have just returned from the Greenbelt Festival at the beautiful new venue of Boughton House near Kettering. I had a wonderful time. I love Greenbelt, I’ve been going since 2008. I love the fact that you get to camp (even if it does rain in a biblical manner every other year or so), hear some great music, have serendipitous encounters with people and God and hear some challenging talks from inspiring speakers.

I enjoyed a discussion in the Big Top between Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sarah Miles on welcoming the stranger. I couldn’t help but notice, however, how different their context in America is from the Church context in the UK. One person asked how one can change the culture of a church community that is not ‘new’. It turned out that Nadia’s church was founded in 2007, Sarah’s was comparatively ‘old’ at 30 years old. The church I work in is 1000 years old. There’s a key difference, right there. Someone else asked why liturgical worship is less popular with young people in the UK whereas in Sarah and Nadia’s churches the worship is liturgical. The response was that disaffected evangelicals are coming across to more sacramental forms of worship. There’s another massive difference. We don’t have lots of disaffected young evangelicals. Heck, we don’t have that many evangelicals. We don’t have a culture of church-going in the UK. We don’t have a huge variety of types of church to choose from on a Sunday like there is in the US. So, while I was inspired by what Sarah and Nadia had to say, I will have to do a fair bit of translation to see what would work in the very different soil of the UK.

This made me think. Where are our Nadias and Sarahs? Why are all the big Christian speakers at Greenbelt Americans?

I think I know the answer. British people hate celebrities. We hate them so much that we have a different name for famous people we love – we call them National Treasures instead. Celebrity is nearly always a distasteful word.

Look to the church for celebrities and the problem is compounded – couple British self-deprecation with a Christian imperative of humility and you’ll find all celebrities of whatever flavour roundly disliked and distrusted. Look at how mean people have been to Rev Kate Bottley (of wedding flashmob fame) and Rev Sally Hitchiner (who did a photoshoot in the Times called The Vicar Wears Prada). We’re even mean to our ‘celebrities’ who are clever – poor old Rowan Williams.

I think we tolerate American celebrity Christians because they fit in the American culture and we can admire them from afar. I think this is why we will be doomed to have American speakers at Greenbelt for the forseeable future. We just don’t like a show-off (and especially clergy); our self-deprecating mean nature won’t allow it. Any well-known Christian in the church in the UK usually has to spend quite a lot of time apologising for themselves even if they are invited to speak at an event. As Nadia said in one of her talks this year ‘You guys with the apologising! I’ve never had so many people say sorry to me!’ To which the crowd replied, in a great Life of Brian-manner, ‘sorr-eeeee!’

Here are my pictures from the weekend. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment in the comments below.

Fr Eddie has written an insightful response to my question of where the emergent leaders in the UK are:


Here’s a tweet response from Heather:

She’s quite right, we have had a few British celebrity speakers but I’m arguing that the main names are nearly always American and that is precisely because if you’re British you’re going to get way more flack.

Also worth reading Karl’s thoughts on being a first time speaker at Greenbelt this year and his thoughts on Christian ‘celebrity’: http://karlsrandommusings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/reflections-of-first-time-christian.html

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  1. I totally agree with you Bryony but so many Americans seem to be ‘in your face’ and very opinionated. We have some brilliant orators here in Wales but I don’t think they are the type that would enjoy Greenbelt! x


  2. I think in some cases as soon as anyone sticks their heads above the parapet so to speak they get pulled down just as quick. I agree with Heather about Steve and Vicky but then again they’ve both said what people have considered to be controversial things along the route which have had people pulling them back down behind the parapet.

    Going to a conference and having female speakers would be a nice start. Then again I haven’t been to any conferences recently. If it had been an option we would have been at the One Event (used to be Grapevine) but I often end up missing the seminars because they are aimed at other “demographics” often church leaders even though they have a separate conference just for leaders within the Ground Level churches. I would go to Momentum but that’s specifically aimed at students and I haven’t been one of those in about seven years! So where do I fit? Greenbelt is actually less than an hour away if it’s now at Kettering so maybe I should consider going for the day next year.


  3. Dave Tomlinson was there and the Pagoda was so full we couldn’t get in to hear him and nor could the many people behind us in the queue. John Bell is definitely a Greenbelt celebrity. I also heard another Scot, Alistair McIntosh. In fact, I’m not a fan of the American speakers.

    Maybe British clergy and theologians are more retiring, but they are also overworked, with many of them having to do more than one job or take on responsibility for more than one parish, so perhaps few of them have the chance to write books and speak at events.

    Perhaps the more progressive side of the Church in England is less vociferous and maybe that needs addressing.


  4. The big name was South African.

    In panel discussions I saw British and Irish Christians, and heard a wonderful woman who had to contribute from the floor not the panel.

    I take a lot away from conversations with other campers.


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