GREENBELT's 40th annual festival, attended by 17,500 over the
bank-holiday weekend, might have been its last in Cheltenham.
In a candid announcement during the Sunday eucharist, the
festival's creative director, Paul Northup, said: "We have been
working with the racecourse . . . to see how we can continue to
make the festival happen here. . . Or, whether it might be time to
re- imagine Greenbelt in a new home."
The reason for the uncertainty is that the racecourse has
embarked on a £45-million redevelopment, building a new stand and
upgrading the site. Building work has already begun, and by next
year, the part of the site used for the festival will be virtually
split in two.
The Greenbelt trustees have known about the development plans
for more than two years, but the implications have emerged only
gradually. The grandstand area will still be available next year,
but other venues would have to be constructed at the further end of
the racecourse site.
One option, to return to the area in the middle of the
racecourse that was damaged in the rainstorm during last year's
festival, was ruled out by the racecourse management at a meeting
The festival's trustees are meeting next week to discuss its
future in Cheltenham. They will compare the difficulty of staying
with the challenge of moving. Greenbelt has moved five times since
its founding in Suffolk in 1974. It went to Cheltenham 15 years
ago, during which time a new audience has grown up, attracted by
the combination of indoor and outdoor venues on the site.
Many of the venues were full during the festival, which escaped
the monsoon weather experienced elsewhere. Big draws in the talks
programme, sponsored by the Church Times, were Clare
Balding, the Revd Richard Coles, the Revd Barbara Brown Taylor,
Francis Spufford, and the Revd Steve Chalke.
The 40th-anniversary celebrations included the launch of the
Greenbelt film, a late-night disco, and the return of a 1980s
favourite, the band Fat and Frantic.
The names of the talks venues - Jerusalem, Bethany, Hebron,
Jenin - as well as several talks and discussions, reflected
Greenbelt's continued commitment to justice in the Middle East.
This included a statement of support by British Christians for the
Kairos document, which calls for peace and justice for
Palestinians. To coincide with this, a small group of pro-Israeli
protesters gathered outside the ticket office.
One theme that emerged this year was the need for the Church's
leadership to "stop being hypocritical" about homosexuality. The
Revd Steve Chalke, leader of Oasis and a Baptist minister, spoke of
the many church leaders, including C of E bishops, who had
privately thanked him for taking a stand in favour of same-sex
relationships, but had said that they were not able to support him
He told the story of a friend, now 30, whose admission of gay
leanings at the age of 13 had led to several years of attempted
exorcisms. "At the age of 18, he wasn't an alcoholic,
drug-dependent, and suicidal because he was gay. It was because he
had been abused by an Evangelical church."
Clare Balding and Richard Coles both spoke openly about their
sexuality, to repeated applause from the audience. And the Revd
Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor at St Paul's Cathedral, related how,
lying in intensive care after a heart operation a year ago, he had
resolved to be more forthright. This was the first time he had
spoken about being gay with a microphone in front of an audience,
The Church had got it wrong on same-sex relationships, he said,
"taking small opportunities to be mean when there were large
opportunities to be generous". It had been responsible for some of
the cruellest discrimination, condemning people to live "some sort
of half-life in order to prop up an organisation". Like Mr Chalke,
he, too, had received private support from bishops and senior
clergy, along with advice not to frighten the horses. "Now it is
time for religious people to put things right."
There was warm applause when he
justified the use of marriage for same-sex relationships: "Where
love is, God is;" and a long ovation when he finished
Barbara Brown Taylor, attending her
first Greenbelt, spoke three times to large audiences on the theme
of correcting the Church's language, and thus its theology, on the
sacredness of ordinary things. She also gave one of the addresses
during the Sunday-morning eucharist, which compared attitudes to
women, the developing world, and ecology in 1974 and now. A
collection raised £68,000, to which sum Gift Aid is still to be
added. The Greenbelt trustees have pledged to give at least £40,000
of this away.