I am just coming back down to earth after spending three wonderful days at the Greenbelt Christian arts festival in Northamptonshire. This is something I’ve done every other year for the best part of a decade now, and I have nearly always found it a wonderfully uplifting experience.
This year, we were undoubtedly blessed by the incredible weather: practically unheard of over a bank holiday weekend in the UK! Like most attendees, I was camping and the sunny weather made it a genuinely pleasant experience, unlike the mud bath that it has often been in the past. The beautiful setting of Boughton House also helped greatly. There is nothing quite like waking up early on the campsite, looking across rolling English countryside as the mist slowly rises over the fields.
There is more to it than that, though. For me, Greenbelt – at its best – can be a genuine “foretaste of the heavenly banquet”. A little glimpse of how the Church could potentially be, if it genuinely wished to change. A tiny slice of the Kingdom of Heaven come close.
Of course, there is much to criticise about the festival. Despite its best efforts, it remains a very white, middle-class affair. It attracts those who would most definitely identify themselves as being on the liberal wing of the Church, certainly not the full breadth of its theology and practice. There can consequently be a real ‘preaching to the converted’ aspect to some of its talks. The last one I attended, for example, was a wonderfully stirring condemnation of Trump and Brexit by one of my heroes, John Bell of the Iona Community. There was not one dissenting voice raised as he railed against the evils of the president and the injustices of the Conservative Party. For once, it was wonderful for me to feel that I was actually in the majority but, in my heart, I knew this was not an accurate picture of the Church as a whole. We must be very wary of just talking to ourselves.
Yet there was so much else that really encouraged me about this little vision of the Church in an English field. There was the active inclusivity of the event. Greenbelt had won a prize this year for being one of the most accessible festivals around and it was wonderful to see people of all backgrounds and abilities participating fully in it. No difficult concrete stairs to manage, no tutting voices or hard stares when someone with learning difficulties dared to interrupt a speaker. The sermon at the Sunday morning communion service left me in tears, when a young woman in a wheelchair, using the same kind of eye-flicker device to speak as Stephen Hawking, challenged us to think again about our perceptions of disability. It was a genuine ‘Kingdom moment’.
It was also a genuinely all-age festival. Children and teenagers were an integral part of the event, not an add-on or afterthought. They had appropriate activities and talks with which to engage, and seemed to play a full role in the stewarding of the event. It was a safe space for them to be too, with freedom to roam around the site, be with friends and enjoy some independence, but return to family groups or safe settings when they wished to. I remember attending Greenbelt with a family from my church several years ago, where one worship service we attended somehow managed to include beanbags, doughnuts and Twister! One of the children pertinently asked why church couldn’t always be this fun and engaging. Why not indeed?
The festival also brings together wonderfully all the aspects of the Church’s life that we so often compartmentalise or even ignore. Here was worship next door to critical thinking and discussion, across the way from Bible study and a few tents away from a social action project. This wasn’t that classic condemnation of the church as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. It encouraged us all continually to engage with the deepest challenges facing us as individuals and as a nation, and actively link them to our faith: depression, food poverty, Israel/Palestine, climate change… Greenbelt is most definitely not about glorying in our own personal salvation but rather about recognising the joys and challenges of being a human, fully alive in God.
There is much else I could say about the unique atmosphere of Greenbelt, of the way people treat one another and live out their faith in incredible ways, of how all aspects of our being are engaged (mind, body and spirit). Perhaps it can only be this special place, once a year, and it is unrealistic to think it could be a picture of ‘everyday’ church. For me, though, it is a vital pick-me-up. A place to be refreshed and renewed; challenged and inspired. This tonic needs to keep me going for another two years!