Greenbelt: Heavenly, but hardly ordinary

by
29 August 2007

Our reviewers, Pat Ashworth and Brian Draer, dipped into what they could. Additional reviews by Paul Handley, Terence Handley MacMath, Eleanor Handley, Trinity Handley MacMath and Stephen Dutton

Bassline Circus Elaine Duigenan

Bassline Circus Elaine Duigenan

Talks
SPEAKING about what he believes about what he writes, Sir John Tavener said he had never been able to separate the idea of music and God and of his desire “to be able to hear God everywhere”. The session included some of his music: part of a piece he was proud to have had performed in Westminster Cathedral based on the 99 names of Allah — it was wonderful, he said, that the Roman Catholic Church had allowed this to happen in a Christian building. Young Muslims hearing this piece in Istanbul had come up and hugged him afterwards.

His recent works have concentrated on religions outside Christianity: his belief is that music can bring religions together where words cannot. He had journeyed from the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of his upbringing to Orthodoxy, via a Carmelite monastery where Orthodox, Sufi, and Hindu came together in conversation, even in the 1950s.

We heard a fragment of his eight-and-a-half hour piece The Veil of the Temple, a series of hymns to the Mother of God. (It would be wonderful, he suggested, if it could be put on at Greenbelt at night, where people could dip in and out of it.)

His recent works have concentrated on religions outside Christianity: his belief is that music can bring religions together where words cannot. He had journeyed from the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of his upbringing to Orthodoxy, via a Carmelite monastery where Orthodox, Sufi, and Hindu came together in conversation, even in the 1950s.

We heard a fragment of his eight-and-a-half hour piece The Veil of the Temple, a series of hymns to the Mother of God. (It would be wonderful, he suggested, if it could be put on at Greenbelt at night, where people could dip in and out of it.)

Asked about the difference between sacred and secular music, he recalls unleashing a storm in the Orthodox Church when he set a eucharistic liturgy for Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, his “spiritual father”, knowing nothing of tone and tradition. It stopped him composing for a long time. “The trouble is, absolute adherence to religious tradition . . . to become a complete slave to it is dangerous.”

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As for where he is now musically, he has discovered from an Apache Indian who came to his house a “sense of sacredness you rarely find in Western music”, and concluded: “I shall write music for all traditions: true music can heal the terrible devastating state that religions are in throughout the world.”

Billy Bragg put his guitar aside to talk in an afternoon session about a Bill of Rights, and about what constitutes Britishness. The BNP had won 12 seats in his home town of Barking. “So we’re not talking about identity cards in a vacuum.”

He was comic when talking about the iconography of flags or about Marmite being a defining characteristic of Englishness “like me: people love me or hate me”, but angry that the BNP sent round a leaflet after the 7 July bomb, saying: “Now do you believe us?” A Bill of Rights would be a “non-political, non-spiritual idea to hold us together”.

It’s all in his head, he said. He looks to the American constitution, which “provides a set of rules in a system of competing rights”. If such a constitution were applied here, it would give a framework in which “a woman would be allowed to wear the niqab but would also have to accept Salman Rushdie’s right to write The Satanic Verses”.

Marc Ellis, Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University, a Christian university in the US, took no prisoners: violence was lodged at the heart of all religions, he suggested, challenging his audience with a picture of Jews as defiled, ghettoised, and conquered by Christians. Now, when he opened the Ark of the Covenant, he saw “helicopter gunships and the Wall” alongside the Torah. All religions were “beautiful and terrifying and everything in between”, he said.

His thesis was that Christians, Jews, and Muslims of conscience were now in exile together, having more in common with each other than with their own religion. “Exiles don’t go back,” he insisted. “Our community is with these exiles.” It was like a new diaspora of people who recognised the violence of their traditions; but “calling ourselves other than Christians, Jews, or Muslims is too dangerous for our identity.”

The Bishop of Northern Uganda, the Rt Revd Nelson Onono Onweng, drew a large and attentive crowd and great respect for his activities as a member of the Acholi Peace Initiative, meeting rebel leaders, including Kony, by night out in the bush. As a mark of solidarity with the thousands of children who flee to the cities for safety each night, he spent four nights sleeping unprotected on the open tarmac. The action resulted in the building of shelters for them.

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The Bishop looked to women to make a difference, citing the women of Japan after Hiroshima. On arms, he protested: “In Uganda, we don’t make arms, but small arms are everywhere. Where are they coming from? Why should they be there for us to kill ourselves?”

The audience was inspired by Sr Frances Dominica, OBE, a nun who has spent 25 years being alongside dying children. She took her audience sensitively through the gamut of experiences, acknowledging, “It’s never easy responding to the big questions, and I have fewer answers than I had 25 years ago. . . We may have faith to help us, but we do not have proof and experience of what it is like to die.”

Her gently presented case studies from the children’s hospice Helen House cut to the quick. She said that parents often found it easier to talk to their healthy children about the prospect of a sibling’s death than to talk to the dying child about “a future we ourselves have not experienced”. One child had expressed the wish that “all four of us could die at the same time so none of us would be sad.” Dying children were always encouraged to do lots of living in the mean time.

Once again, John Bell from Iona drew some of the biggest crowds. In his opening talk, “God among her Girls”, he challenged a male-orientated faith, in which men choose Bible readings about men, with only occasional references to women (who are usually called Mary). He revelled in the story of Jael’s murder of Sisera with a tent-peg (a troubling reference next to such a large campsite), and asserted that “women need to be reclaimed as heroes of the faith.”

Lucy Winkett, a canon at St Paul’s, pursued a similar theme, giving an unsurprising but grisly overview of the way women have been offered limited roles in the Church over the centuries. Her challenge was to find liberation (defined as richer than freedom or equality) in which women could be free to choose to serve as Christ served.

James Alison, an RC priest, theologian, and author, referred to “clobber texts” used to condemn homosexuality. Reading scripture was an interpretative process, he said, and he discussed cultural circumstances and translation difficulties that at least raised doubts about the validity of these interpretations.

Mark Yaconelli, poignantly like his father, a former Greenbelt favourite, has his father’s self-deprecating Italian-American humour, the same passion for a wide-awake Church, and his own experiences as a teacher of contemplative prayer to young people. He told how his four-year-old son had made his own statement about his parents’ pressured lifestyle by founding a “Slow Club”, which Mark finally agreed to join (for a day).

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Yaconelli also told a shocking story of how young people’s spirituality was undermined by parents and ministers. After 9/11, a 14-year-old girl had volunteered an image given to her of the terrorists and their victims sitting together in a circle of light with God, and that they were all trying to understand how this thing had happened. The pastor had objected loudly, telling her that it was impossible, because the terrorists must be in hell.

Bruce Stanley, a popular life-coach, produced two sessions on happiness and smiley spirituality. He was very funny, but well grounded in psychological understanding, as he spoke of how much happiness individuals could have naturally, and how much they were able to cultivate.

Mona Siddiqui wished to challenge the polarisation between Western and Muslim culture, complaining that theological discussion was absent from the media. There were serious misunderstandings, however: the West perceived modernism as the Enlightenment, whereas the Muslim world was still concerned about and resentful of colonialism.

Performing and visual arts
THE HOT TICKET of the weekend was Bassline Circus, performing in a proper big top. Queues of 2000 or more waited for a venue that held 500, and those at the front had waited an hour-and-a-half. (There were several performances.) This was circus in the round, something that felt almost illicit, like cockfighting.

Performing and visual arts
THE HOT TICKET of the weekend was Bassline Circus, performing in a proper big top. Queues of 2000 or more waited for a venue that held 500, and those at the front had waited an hour-and-a-half. (There were several performances.) This was circus in the round, something that felt almost illicit, like cockfighting.

It was spectacular, high-tech, multimedia stuff, using four suspended muslin cages to bounce images off, as well as off the walls, floors, and ceiling, and the circus ring itself. It combined amazing high-wire, breath-holding balancing feats with the surreal story of Mr Everyman, a miserable, dull, unsmiling lottery winner. It was all done to a barrage of street images, stunning breakdancing, and a thumping beat, ending in malfunction as the cast were caught up in a whirlwind, sirens screeched, and the fat lady was swept up for ever into the roof. It had a message, but it was still a real circus: sweaty rather than slick.

Paul Cookson and Stewart Henderson, two Liverpool poets and punsters, are Greenbelt favourites, and drew a huge crowd of all ages, delighting in having to chorus the language of monosyllabic kids: “Whatev-er”, “Ming-er”; “Los-er, los-er, got the picture?”; “Talk to the booty ’cos the face ain’t on duty.”

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But the poetry was also a vehicle for issues that matter to children, none more so than the desperate need to look right: “to show gangsta-rap behaviour even though you’re from the Isle of Wight”. The anguish was caught: “But I want to look wrong! Go to school tomorrow in a beret and sarong.”

There was huge fun with a mother’s volley of questions: “Who left Grandad in the chip shop?” “Why’s the rabbit in the wardrobe?” “How did Marmite get up there?” There was a poem about what is the point of a goldfish. And the performance included a poem “banned from the book” about “Mr Smedley, silent but deadly. . .” with a shocked audience chorus of: “Oooh, Sir!”

Peterson Toscano was one of Greenbelt’s runaway successes, so much in demand that the organisers managed to find two extra slots for him after word got round and the queues got longer. He did two shows: one, the hilarious “Doin’ time in the homo halfway house — How I survived the ex-gay movement”. During a question-and-answer session, he declared: “The Church is going to have to deal with gays: they come not from without but from within — your sister, your pastor, your wife.” The other act, “The Re-education of George W. Bush”, was a wicked satire told in the character of Marvin Bloom, a “Jew for Jesus” from New York, who loves his praise-and-worship step-aerobic class.

Toscano worked through various personae, among them “the Revd Dr Meadows”, preaching on Sodom and Gomorrah, “God in smiting mood”. But the most endearing thing about the show was Toscano speaking in his own person: very likeable, very disarming, and so very, very funny.

Another humorist, Paul Kerensa, went down a storm doing stand-up in the bar, sending gales of laughter wafting out along the grandstand. “Jews don’t like bacon or Jesus. Maybe if they found out how nice bacon was, they’d get to like Jesus, too?” Then he hot-footed it over to the cabaret venue for a gallop through Genesis. His slide presentation used religious art and phoney timelines in which Cain reduces the world population by 25 per cent, “bettering even Hitler”.

Kerensa is cheerily audacious and uses throwaway lines to get away with some risqué material. His show has just won huge plaudits on the Edinburgh Fringe, but this was the first audience able to join in with “Father Abraham Had Many Sons”.

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Good plays suitable for all ages have been lacking at Greenbelt in previous years, and families were desperate to get into the No Nonsense Romeo and Juliet. It was glorious, featuring a lot of exaggerated Mafia types speaking Italian until the shock realisation that the audience is English. “Inglese? Ah!” The story is told in an hour using simple puppets for the characters. There were some inspired comic elements, yet it was incredibly tender. And all done with only the odd line of Shakespeare.

One new workshop was dance: a local dance teacher, Sam Jennings, filled her venue, and disappointed people watched through the windows, as giggling couples tried to capture the serious, sultry, nature of the tango. Other sessions covered the waltz and 1970s freestyle. Chulie, brought in by CMS, added a session on Salsa.

The visual arts were hard to avoid. Among the DIY installations were a plastic bottle sculpture, various emerging graffiti, and Heaven in a box, an invitation to fill a small white cardboard box with something that suggested heaven. Tea bags and chocolate predominated. Greenbelt also took to the skies, as white Tibetan-style kites flew over the children’s area, to be supplanted on Monday by a vast, lazy, sinuous lizard, together with a panda, turtle, and football.

The film programme was extended this year, in part by the showing of four of the Church Times top 50 religious films. Campaigning films included Black Gold, about the production of coffee, and Amazing Grace, about Wilberforce. But none touched the popularity of Shaun the Sheep, short episodes from Aardman Animations. A further showing was squeezed into the programme, after pressure from children and the Greenbelt medics, who sneaked out of the first-aid building nearby to watch, chant and sing.

The film programme was extended this year, in part by the showing of four of the Church Times top 50 religious films. Campaigning films included Black Gold, about the production of coffee, and Amazing Grace, about Wilberforce. But none touched the popularity of Shaun the Sheep, short episodes from Aardman Animations. A further showing was squeezed into the programme, after pressure from children and the Greenbelt medics, who sneaked out of the first-aid building nearby to watch, chant and sing.

Campaigning
THE Department for International Development is now a Greenbelt partner, and Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State, revealed in an interview that he had been a Greenbelt punter for years. International justice dominated the campaigning heart of the festival, and on Saturday night the programme stopped for a climate-change vigil.

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Campaigning
THE Department for International Development is now a Greenbelt partner, and Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State, revealed in an interview that he had been a Greenbelt punter for years. International justice dominated the campaigning heart of the festival, and on Saturday night the programme stopped for a climate-change vigil.

Andrew Mellen led a discussion on the concept of “peak oil”, the thesis that the world’s oil extraction will soon pass (or has already passed) the halfway mark. It was good to see the increased recycling on the site.

Ann Pettifor questioned Britain’s commitment to the green movement. And the Generous project, which gathers together people willing to take the challenge of reducing their carbon footprint into their daily lives, provided a ray of hope.

Ann Pettifor questioned Britain’s commitment to the green movement. And the Generous project, which gathers together people willing to take the challenge of reducing their carbon footprint into their daily lives, provided a ray of hope.

Worship and other events
NO SERVICE will ever satisfy everyone, but the Sunday-morning eucharist was a distinct improvement on some of its precursors. All have contained glimpses of heaven, but the merciful combination of sunshine and a service that ran to time will be hard to beat. The Love and Joy Gospel Choir kept the vibe flowing, and Ann Morisy’s sermon on the wedding feast at Cana drew wisdom from Alcoholics Anonymous about how to live when the wine runs out. She also urged people to focus on a comma next time they said the Creed: “He was born of the Virgin Mary, comma, suffered under Pontius Pilate . . .” The comma contained the whole of Jesus’s life, she said: “He didn’t come to die, he came to show us how to live.”

Communion was celebrated in groups, each with a bun and a small bottle of wine, and the prayers of intercession were marked by the releasing of scores of red balloons.

There’s nothing Greenbelters love more than a bit of mass singing, but it was a bit hit-and-miss this year. They didn’t really get it at the Sunday-morning eucharist, with its unfamiliar songs. The Surefish Big Sing, featuring the top ten hymns voted for on its website, was disappointing (though it did show that you can sing “O Jesus I have Promised” to the theme tune of The Muppet Show). Even the Wild Goose Worship flapped a bit in the hot Saturday sun.

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But there was plenty more. Matt Redman played a selection of worship songs that had the crowd singing and dancing with wholehearted enthusiasm. For children, the ever-popular Fischy Music packed the Arena. Stephen Fischbacher started it in 1998 to help children learn about emotions, bullying, and family issues, and to help them realise how special they are. The music was funny, tuneful, and very catchy, and everyone joined in.

Singing wasn’t at the heart of much of the alternative worship on offer (chanting, yes). Apart from audio-visual experiences, body prayer, and drumming, Greenbelt went radical, and invited the Bishop of Tewkesbury to conduct BCP Evening Prayer.

The success of the festival, though, was the rerun of last year’s Beer and Hymns in the Organic Beer Tent, renamed the Jesus. Here was just a piano and hundreds of people singing at the tops of their voices — raucous, tuneful, passionate, heartfelt worship, with all the vibe of a football crowd, but full of honest joy.

Contrast this with an innovation by Scripture Union, which took a group of people up into the surrounding hills for a walk among the scabious and tormentil, with short stops for meditation and prayer.

Music
AS THE MOON sat like a mirrorball in a starlit Cheltenham sky on one of the warmest opening nights at Greenbelt for years, a good crowd gathered for the singer/songwriter Billy Bragg.

Music
AS THE MOON sat like a mirrorball in a starlit Cheltenham sky on one of the warmest opening nights at Greenbelt for years, a good crowd gathered for the singer/songwriter Billy Bragg.

Bragg won the heart of the festival four years earlier with his closing set, and was glad to be back, this time to open proceedings. Although it was just him and a guitar, the sound was loud and clear at the mainstage, and noticeably better than last year. Woody Guthrie, his hero, used to play a guitar on which was written “This machine kills fascists.” Bragg wielded his own guitar like a weapon, firing a tune he wrote to Guthrie’s words (“Ain’t nobody who can sing like me”) into the crowd, before offering one of his songs in the Guthrie tradition, “All you fascists are bound to lose.”

Bragg sometimes sounds dated and his lyrics clichéd. “No power without accountability” is hardly catchy, while “One love, one heart, let’s drop the debt and we will be all right” won’t win awards for subtlety, but his humour and social observation helped him out on the night. “I’ll celebrate my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo,” he sang in a love song, “Shirley”.

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Relaxed and sipping a mug of tea between songs, Bragg left his most moving moment till near the end, prefacing a new song, “Faith”, with a mini-sermon about the limited power of music and the ultimate power of the audience. “The most you can do with this stupid job is to send people away with a different perspective. I have faith in you to go away and make a difference.”

The crowd joined in with his finale, “New England”. Few seemed to mind, or perhaps notice, that they were singing: “I don’t want to change the world. . .”

On Saturday, thebandwithnoname performed an energetic hip-hop set for a healthy gathering of mainly white, middle-class girls. Two MCs and three dancers stormed around in khaki and silver combats, shouting “Put your hands in the air!” and rapping evangelistic songs which they take into schools around the country. Their charity, Innervation, helps young people to form music groups; and while their message seemed a little simplistic at times, their integrity is a challenge.

Verra Cruz are a four-piece rock band fronted by Mark James, the former worship-leading poster-boy for the Vineyard Movement in the UK. It was their first time at Greenbelt, and they were hungry for it. James, all good looks and flowing locks, a big voice and a brilliant touch on the guitar, made a good frontman.

Stage 2 — renamed The Underground — was moved this year into a smaller, L-shaped space in which a third of the audience couldn’t see the bands, and the crowd trying to listen to talks outside could hear them. Still, the bands were well supported. Bell Jar, a regular favourite, offered a new batch of songs which continued to offer a sublime perspective on the journey of life and faith.

The Trent Band, who lead worship at the UK’s biggest Vineyard Church in Nottingham, blurred the line between performance and worship after the fashion of Delirious?. The sign of a well-received song in such a context is that no one claps; instead, a reverential hush falls. Some young “fans” held their hands aloft to worship, others to record the songs on their mobile phones.

Something About Nothing, meanwhile, are hardly out of nappies, and their playing lacks polish, but this four-piece rock/pop band filled the space with sweaty, spotty fans, and some decent tunes, too. They might be a name to watch for in years to come. Retrofect, on Monday, played bright tunes and tight harmonies with energy and power, despite their Busted hairdos.

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Each night at the outside arena, DJs and VJs played some excellent sets, which fell mainly on deaf ears because of the competition with the mainstage. VJ Joel and Mark mixed their sound and vision elegantly, and rewarded a few leg-weary campers who opted to lie on the grass rather than dance.

The dancing was to be had over at the mainstage. Kanda Bongo Man’s township jive was infectious. Sporting a white panama hat and a huge grin, the man from the Congo led the crowd in his self-styled “Kwassa Kwassa” dance, where the hips move and the hands follow. It didn’t matter that his songs all seemed to last 15 minutes and sounded the same; his brand of “soukous”, a vibrant music characterised by dual guitar parts, had everyone swaying to African rhythms under an Indian-summer night sky.

Sunday night was the unexpected highlight of this year’s music, when Soweto Kinch took the mainstage by storm with an intriguing blend of rap and jazz. The sickeningly talented young man from Birmingham brought a lovely jazz band, drums, guitar, and upright bass, and some moving, grainy visuals as a backdrop to help to earth his sound on the inner-city streets he grew up on.

“This music is based in the real world,” he announced politely, as he rapped, over the jazz, about “cans of Stella”, “stairwells”, “grey bricks, grey streets and bills waist high”. His lyrical virtuosity was up there with his mesmerising sax playing. In a final show of improvisation, he used 25 random photos provided from the festival by Greenbelters, which came up on the big screen one by one and unannounced, as a rolling inspiration for a song. It was an impressive way to end one of the most accomplished sets that Greenbelt has witnessed in the past few years.

Matt Black and Jonathan More, known as ColdCut, closed an evocative night on the mainstage with “Journeys by VJ”. One “song”, “Timber”, used the re-mixed sound and images of trees being sawn down as a rhythm over which an Amazonian woman sang a lament. It was arresting and worshipful, from a collective more used to playing to drugged-up crowds than Christians.

Sunshine made the festival a happy place to be, and the presence of Chas & Dave on Bank Holiday afternoon set a large family crowd smiling more broadly still. Toddlers whirled manically on picnic rugs; mums and dads shrugged off their inhibitions and jived with them, as the chirpy cockney duo created an old-fashioned East End knees-up in Cheltenham.

It was breathtaking to think that the festival also encompassed an evening of music by Elgar and John Tavener, with a scratch choir (after a very scratchy first rehearsal) singing his sublime “Icon for the Dead”.

This Beautiful Republic opened what promised to be a rousing final evening. It was their first trip to Europe, and the Ohio rock band, in uniform battle-green shirts, played a series of crisp Christian songs. Iain Archer, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter, combines great vocal strength with fragility. When he hits form, as he did on occasion at the mainstage, he sounds every bit as good as his Irish contemporaries Snow Patrol, with whom he writes.

The hotly awaited Duke Special, like Archer before him, couldn’t quite carry the full weight of expectation, but nevertheless offered a unique, Vaudeville-like experience. His band was dressed in various forms of military garb from the days of Empire, and an old gramophone, his trademark, sat beside his honky-tonk piano. Many already knew his music, and sang heartily to “Our Love Goes Deeper Than This”. There is a buzz about Duke Special, and songs such as “This River is Blue” showed why.

As the sun set and the full moon heaved itself above the stage for one last time, there was suddenly little room to move. Delirious? were in town, and Greenbelt had attracted a last-night crowd reminiscent of the old days. Martin Smith has the poise and pose of a genuine star, and was flanked symmetrically by the bald heads of Stu Garrard and Jon Thatcher on guitar and bass.

Delirious?, in essence, play powerful, catchy worship tunes. They put most of their lyrics up on a screen, with creative visuals to accompany them, so that the vast crowd could participate. There were moments of epiphany, such as in a new song, “Miracle Maker”. As Smith repeated the word “holy” over and over, the word emerged on screen in many different languages. He looked to the sky, and there, stretched across the field was a mackerel sky shimmering silver in the moonlight. Most of the audience seemed lost in reverence, both to Smith and his God.

By the end, thousands of arms were raised in worship. It suddenly seemed more like Spring Harvest than Greenbelt. At least no one watching could have doubted, in the end, the spiritual focus of a festival often criticised for its fuzzy edges.

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