I’m really not a natural camper, so it takes something pretty amazing to persuade me to spend 3 nights under canvas, away from the comforts of home and forced to use frankly horrible toilets. This August bank holiday, that pretty amazing thing was the annual Greenbelt festival of arts, faith and justice.
There’s nothing quite like Greenbelt. If you’ve been to other Christian gatherings like New Wine, Spring Harvest, Keswick Bible week or whatever the equivalents are in other countries, it’s nothing like those. I’m not knocking them and I’ve found them helpful before. But those are effectively Christian conventions with a slight festival vibe; Greenbelt is a full-on festival with a few talks. Think of it as the Christian answer to Glastonbury.
What stands out most for me about Greenbelt is its overwhelming atmosphere of open-heartedness, inclusivity and playful creativity. It has space for voices across the range of Christian traditions from ultra-liberal to (open) evangelical, Catholic to Protestant, Quaker and Franciscan. Greenbelt also welcomes Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics and atheists to the platform, as well as people across the whole spectrum of gender and sexuality. In other words, it’s not really for ultra-conservatives.
This was the third year of the festival’s latest location in the wonderful grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire. The move from Cheltenham Racecourse has its downsides – all the venues are now in tents rather than buildings, which reduces comfort, removes the nice loos and limits some options for activities. But it feels much more like a festival now, and it helps to be surrounded by natural beauty rather than betting adverts.
Music and performing arts
Greenbelt has changed significantly in other ways too. Recently the economic climate and dwindling numbers have forced organisers to downsize and drop some of the bigger names, most noticeably in the music programme. Previously I’ve enjoyed the likes of Athlete, The Proclaimers and Billy Bragg; this year I didn’t know any of the bands, though some still sounded pretty good (when they weren’t stopping me getting to sleep).
Any loss in music was more than offset by some outstanding performing arts and comedy. Best for me were Barely Methodical Troupe’s Bromance, an exploration of the awkward interplay of male friendships using jaw-dropping acrobatics, breakdancing and hoop stunts; and the hilarious and touching Steampunk drama Grandad and the Machine.
Other personal highlights included comedians Josie Long and festival headliner James Acaster. Both were raised by Christian parents, one’s now atheist and the other agnostic but neither hostile, particularly not to a Greenbelt audience that welcomes doubt and diversity. James Acaster quipped that his favourite Greenbelt tent was ‘Lost Children’ which he imagined must be always full, “because aren’t we all lost children?”
Inspiringly offbeat talks
The talks at Greenbelt are almost always first-class, if you’re looking for something a bit unconventional and unconservative.
There weren’t so many big names this year – no Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, John Polkinghorne or Rob Bell. But we were treated to refreshingly sweary tattooed US pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber; former hostage Terry Waite; Iona community leader John Bell who also leads the fantastic annual ‘Big Sing’ and Greenbelt regular Mark Yaconelli. My best new find was Chris Meredith, theology lecturer at Winchester – his Antidote to Bible Studies were the sharpest, freshest and funniest Bible commentaries I’ve heard in years. Altogether I laughed a lot, learnt a lot and was moved to tears twice by the talks.
My one gripe with Greenbelt is that they used to make all the talks from current and previous festivals available to download on their website, and any from 2 years ago or older were free. They’ve now removed all the old ones, which is a great loss.
I mentioned Greenbelt’s open-hearted inclusivity and playful creativity. These were best expressed for me in the Sunday Communion service, always a central feature of the festival.
At first I feared I wouldn’t feel part of it as we couldn’t fit into the main tent area where all the action was, but I needn’t have worried. We were asked to form into groups of 10-12, and we were welcomed into a group from the L’Arche community (for people with Special Educational Needs).
Each group was given a communion pack containing bread, juice rather than wine… and kazoos, which came with a warning ‘may not be suitable for adults suffering from excessive dignity’. These were to accompany a joyous and hilarious liturgical song led by the fabulous Fischy music, looking ahead to the time of peace and reconciliation when God’s Kingdom comes. The idea was based on Isaiah’s ‘lion shall lie down with the lamb’ passage but Greenbelt had riffed on it so that Republicans and Democrats were playing something daft like Tiddleywinks together, and UK PM Teresa May was offering opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn her seat on the train.
All the liturgy and songs were fresh, creative and meaningful, and the whole service was by turns gloriously silly, moving and challenging. It was also all led by children, and presided benignly over by Archbishop Justin Welby, who entered into the spirit with endearing lack of pomposity.
Not everyone loved it – one man near us bemoaned the lack of familiar songs, complaining that even “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” had been altered to make the words inclusive: “Stand up for lesbians in Gaza” as he parodied. Which actually captures the Greenbelt spirit nicely – if everything in you revolts against that idea, maybe it’s not the festival for you.
Silent stars and loud thunder
The overarching theme of this year’s festival was ‘Silent Stars’, referring both to the whole of creation singing God’s praise, and to all the unsung heroes quietly working for social justice and a better world.
On the opening Friday night the silent stars glowed above us in a perfectly clear dark sky. But it wouldn’t be Greenbelt without rain, and the following day we were battered by a sustained torrential downpour, a glorious thunderstorm, tent-threatening winds and apparently even a small tornado.
Some Christians might see these as signs of divine disfavour on a gathering of hopeless heretics and backsliders, but the good people of Greenbelt mostly enjoyed (or endured) it as part of God’s wild and messy creation. For me, the storm broke in the middle of a Franciscan worship time exploring how we’re fellows with the created world including ‘brother fire’ and ‘sister water’, so the weather underscored rather than undermined the point.
And throughout the long weekend, the loveliness as well as wildness of creation was a constant companion. I felt closest to God walking alone among the quiet beauty of the grounds, surrounded by trees and lakes, the sounds of water and birdsong.
I’ve said before that going to church sometimes makes me feel like I’m not really a proper Christian. By contrast, Greenbelt made me feel that there might just be room in the broad Christian fold for folks like me – people who aren’t too sure where they stand on most things, but are still hoping to stand somewhere near-ish to Jesus.
So in short, if you can survive camping and afford the ticket price, aren’t too theologically conservative and want your soul to be refreshed, get to Greenbelt. It’s one of the best things I’ve done this year.
And here’s a rather amusing article affectionately mocking Greenbelt in Premier Christianity magazine: How to be a Hipster Christian at Greenbelt.