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Birthday crowd hears hints about a move

30 August 2013


Getting ready: the festival site under construction on Wednesday

Getting ready: the festival site under construction on Wednesday

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 on Tuesday.

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 publicly.

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, he said.

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 speaking.

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.



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