I spent the Bank Holiday weekend where I have usually spent it for some years now, at Greenbelt. This is a Christian festival held at the Cheltenham Racecourse. Its flavour is a bit like the Edinburgh Festival – loads of choices, something for everybody. You never come away feeling there was nothing there for you. You come away regretting some of the things you had to miss because they clashed with something else you didn’t want to miss, or because (especially at my age) you just didn’t have the energy for it all.
Because last year the rain caused serious problems, this year’s attendance was slightly down, at only(!) 17,000. Greenbelt draws all kinds of people, from over 80s to babies, but the balance is mostly towards the younger end. Most people camp in tents, some bring their caravans, but I am among the “softies” who prefer to stay in a comfortable hotel.
There is nothing regimented or dogmatic about Greenbelt. It is a free festival of the spirit. There is music of all kinds – rock, Gospel, folk, old-fashioned hymns, classical. There are plays, films, art exhibitions and shops. There are talks on a wide range of subjects, and an opportunity to experience worship in many different styles – Catholic ritual, meditation, Iona, Taizé, a Quaker meeting, a Goth Eucharist – you name it!
This year we even had a taste of the Sunday Assembly, the so-called “atheist church” that was recently started in London and is rapidly catching on elsewhere. It is a blend of communal singing and talk encouraging people to “live better, help often, and wonder more”, but with no obligation to believe in God. I doubt whether any other Christian festival would give a platform to this organisation. Nor do I know of any other Christian festival in which the presence of gay and lesbian people, and events catering for them, is welcomed and accepted as part of the rich tapestry of Christian life.
Among the things I attended were: a talk by a bishop on the “emerging Church”; a talk by a historian on the significance of the Chartists, with samples of their hymns; a mentally challenging lecture on radical theology, and a symposium on the same theme; a forthright appeal for the full acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral; the above mentioned Sunday Assembly; a few musical performances, and a concert with the amazing jazz musician Courtney Pine.
The central event is the Sunday morning Communion, held in the open air. The vast congregation gathers in small groups sitting on the ground, with groundsheets and umbrellas just in case! I joined a group of about ten people from my former church in Leytonstone, and had a very happy time with them. The atmosphere was festive, and after praying, singing, hearing a challenging message, and sharing bread and wine we were invited if we wished to stay and dance.
Perhaps next year we can arrange for a group from St David’s to be there. I would highly recommend it.