The Common Good
July-August 1998

Celebrating Creator and Creativity

by Richard Vernon | July-August 1998

Greenbelt is no melting pot; rather, more than a rich stew, it is a smorgasbord of spiritual, cultural, and personal experiences.

For thousands upon thousands of people, four days at the end of each August are reserved for a musical extravaganza called simply Greenbelt. This festival in rural England has become one of what Malcolm Muggeridge describes as "the thin places." Such places are where the wall between the human and the divine, Heaven and Earth, becomes a translucent veil. The devotion of the attendees makes sense in light of the depth of their experiences of God and creation, especially in this, Greenbelt’s silver jubilee.

Its Christian, artistic, and social justice natures aside, Greenbelt’s cultural locus may require some transatlantic explanation. The two main secular pillars upon which the festival stands are bank holidays and rock festivals. A bank holiday is a Monday where all financial institutions (and by default all businesses) are closed. Of these, the August Bank Holiday weekend is the most firmly established. The nearest North American equivalent would be Labor Day weekend. Also now long established are the rock festivals such as Glastonbury, Reading, the Fleadh, and so forth. Imagine Lollapalooza lasting several days, or Woodstock being an annual event, and you’ll start to get the picture.

Into this cultural context, insert a Christian arts festival, which started as a rock festival and takes place mostly under canvas, and things should be getting even clearer. This is an event unlike any you’ve had contact with before...unless you’ve been to Greenbelt.

estival manager Andy Thornton says this about its appeal: "Because Greenbelt is an arts festival, rather than a conference, it keeps you in touch with different facets of being human, different facets of yourself. It doesn’t become a ‘head-y’ weekend but a sort of ‘whole person’ weekend, with a whole person theology."

This theology, and the creative expressions that embody it, attracts a lot of people, an extra 4,000 of whom are expected at this year’s anniversary. That’s paying customers, over and above the 20,000-plus who normally participate and the (at least) 2,000 who volunteer each year as stewards, site-crew, reception staff, and the like.

But raw numbers alone cannot do justice to the experience of living in an instantly generated small town. The rainier festivals have something of a frontier feel—a muddy site, a gold-rush, canvas boom town—where people come with dreams and fervor in search of the means to find value and purpose in their lives. Many of them find just those things, and come back again and again, year after year.

TESTIMONIALS are not hard to extract from "Greenbelters." One woman, now in her mid-30s, describes the event as being "the one thing that completely changed my whole outlook on Christianity and turned me from a selfish, inward-looking Christian, into one who realized that it’s all about looking out. Faith is expressed in relation to other people and how you care for and serve them, not just in ‘my daily walk with the Lord.’ It really made the Bible mean things to me and how I live, and my experience there in 1986 is why I have worked in full-time Christian justice ministries for the past 10 years."

Greenbelt can be so many different festivals, not just in some hoary old way (that there are as many different versions of an experience as there are people who experience it), but in a very nuts-and-bolts, sheer quantity-of-events way. Festival goers can spend the entire weekend doing nothing other than taking in live music, be it rock, folk, alternative, world, dance, or blues. (Last year a group learned and performed Fauré’s "Requiem," a remarkable and moving feat.) They can go to seminars on post-modernism and the Bible; be trained in youth work; write a liturgy to be shared on the final night; go to readings and meet authors; or just hang.

Of course, there is always the option to worship. Sample the different styles: Every year Benedictine monks observe matins and vespers on the campsite. Catholic, charismatic, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist worships, as well as the Iona Community’s Celtic liturgy, are all on offer. There is an Episcopalian prayer tent. This is no melting pot; rather, more than a rich stew, it is a smorgasbord of spiritual, cultural, and personal experiences.

"The hope is that the festival is sustaining a more radical and socially aware Christian faith," offers Thornton. He explains one of many special developments for Greenbelt ’98: The Peace Tent is a dedicated venue in which the Fellowship of Reconciliation will be running various events, including workshops and seminars on creative, nonviolent resistance and assertiveness training. This type of collaborative effort is another hallmark of the festival’s spirit of ecumenical, faithful ways of approaching contemporary issues and needs.

Greenbelt ’98 continues the relationship between the event and Christian Aid, and an emphasis on campaigning for fair trade and equipping people to make a difference in this supermarket-styled marquee. A co-sponsor this year, with Christian Aid, is The Open Book, a joint effort by the Bible Society and Churches Together In England (itself a collaborative effort), which "seeks to engage our culture through new initiatives in creative arts and storytelling, media, education, and politics."

To a large extent, this intersection of faith, social action, and the expressive arts is what makes Greenbelt so exciting, so relevant, and so loyalty-inducing. Outside of a few magazines, some small faith communities such as Iona Community, and maverick mystics like Frederick Buechner, this dialogue often has no wider venue, no visible protagonists. For around 18,000 individuals a year, Greenbelt is that wider venue; they are the visible protagonists. They are encouraged, challenged, and stimulated. They find communion and community; that’s the bigger part of the big picture. And in addition, they have a whale of a time.

THE FIRST GREENBELT Festival took place on a farm in 1974. About 2,000 people turned out for the weekend festivities, which were organized primarily by members of a Christian rock band who felt out of place both in the prevailing church scene and in the rock world. To James Holloway and Richard Gibbons, among others, it was becoming obvious that believing Christians needed a place to celebrate both the Creator and the gift of creativity. Hippie dreams of love, peace, harmony, and guilt-free sex were already cracking under the stultifying weight of shattered illusions, guilt, death, paranoia, and worldly cynicism. Altamont had happened; Jimi and Janis were both dead; the Kids were turning into the Man.

The festival so clearly met a need among Christians, initially disaffected evangelicals, that they organized another the following year. And another the year after that. Although only one of the founders remains on the 14-strong board, the others are very much part of the scene, and still faithfully roll up to see what’s become of their baby.

Now in its fifth home, on the grounds of Deene Park House in Northamptonshire, the Greenbelt umbrella has grown to include a fringe festival so large it prints its own program; a full-sized fun fair; a fair-trade market "street"; a main street (with food vendors, a 24-hour cafe, and the larger performance areas); the main stage; the smaller marquees; on-site reception; toilet blocks; the "Womb" dance tent; a Greenbelt shop; book and record stores; and more. Oh, and a limpid, be-bridged stream wends its gentle way down through the site, separating the "residential" area from the action. (It is possible that some Greenbelters might want to sleep in quiet at some point during the weekend.)

It can get pretty loud, but it doesn’t seem to matter very much. I’ve sat in a large tent going through a guided meditation on the hard sayings of Jesus with Iona’s Wild Goose Worship Group, in a deep and healing stillness. Meanwhile Goldie’s drum ’n’ bass DJ set, the screams from the fun fair, and feedback from the next tent’s worship band’s lead guitar combined into a wall-flapping cacophony which somehow seemed indeed to be a joyful noise unto the Creator. The next morning I lay in my tent listening to the skeins of wild geese flying overhead, honking jubilant greetings to each other and reminding those of us wed to the ground just how apt an image of the Holy Spirit the wild goose is.

A section of the 1992 mission statement reads, "We firmly believe that Jesus Christ is involved in all creation and that in this world there is no division between the sacred and the secular. As a result, personal faith, doubt, politics, social concern, mission, ethics, creativity, work and play are all addressed with seriousness and hilarity in equal parts." A less pretentious, more rooted, and unashamed declaration of faith is a thing you’ll struggle to find. It is precisely this lack of divisions whilst being unashamedly Christocentric that is Greenbelt’s greatest and most unique strength.

AS CHRISTIAN EVENTS in Britain go, Greenbelt is incredibly diverse. It is not overwhelmingly white; about one-third of the participants are over 30 (some well into their 60s); gender balance is good; and there is a significant gay presence, both on and off staff. Most significantly, it transcends class, even today a rarity in Britain. To do so as seamlessly as Greenbelt is miraculous.

For the six full-time employees, organizing the festival is a gargantuan undertaking. Last year’s deluge lost the organization around 130,000 pounds in one-day tickets. Andy Thornton’s worst festival memory finds him lying awake from 3 a.m. on listening to the rainstorm and thinking "balance-sheet." By dint of strenuous effort and the devotion of so many loyal Greenbelters, all the money has since been recouped. Clearly, though, such disasters make fragility a constant part of the picture.

Andy's favorite Greenbelt memory includes leading morning worship in 1994 with 50 singers, 50 percussionists, and 50 dancers in a specially written "percussion-based service which felt like an ANC rally." This year's Sunday morning service will be broadcast live in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland as part of a Bank Holiday special. His hope is that "we [continue to be] as visionary over the next 25 years."

RICHARD VERNON, a former Sojourners intern, is currently on a BBC training scheme in Glasgow, Scotland. He ran Artists Reception at Greenbelt ’97, and will be back on site for Greenbelt ’98.

Greenbelt '98. Greenbelt Festival. www2.greenbelt.org.uk, August 28-31, 1998.

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