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Harvest of the middle ground

25 April 2014

Tim Wyatt went to a changing festival in Minehead

A BUTLINS resort would not be Ruth West's first choice for an Easter break, she admitted. She had, however, made an exception for Spring Harvest in Minehead, Somerset, and had no regrets.

"It's got everything you want and more," Mrs West, a 33-year-old schools worker from a Baptist church in Tewkesbury, said. She first attended Spring Harvest, the annual Christian holiday-cum-conference, 13 years ago, while still a student.

She and her husband, David, had been lured back last year. "We wanted a holiday and a break, but something to give a spiritual impact while we were away."

We were speaking inside the Skyline Pavilion, a large tented space at the heart of the Butlins Minehead site. Inside were the usual coffee shops and fast-food outlets; but because this was Spring Harvest, there was also a stall featuring lavatories you could buy for an African village.

The T-shirt slogans were also a giveaway: "Jesus is my Homeboy" and "Keep Psalm and Carry On".

As a line of children marched past, chanting songs and exhorting us to give to their charity of the week, Mrs West explained the attraction. "For me, I have enjoyed being immersed in the Bible for a few days, and the worship times. It builds you up to go back for whatever your ministry is. You feel strengthened after being surrounded by that."

Spring Harvest started as a one-week event in Prestatyn, in Wales, in 1979. This year, it took place over three weeks in Minehead, and one in Skegness, in Lincolnshire.

The event director of Spring Harvest, Abby Guinness, said that the aim was to build the Church's confidence in God. "Our theme this year is about working throughthe creed and our confidence in God. Our confidence comes from the things that we stick our faithon. Things that don't change, even as the world is rapidly changing."

Spring Harvest has certainly changed. Twenty-five speakers filled the roster this year - among them the theologian Dr Paula Gooder - and there were five different programmes for children from a few weeks old to 18. Alongside the main teaching plan, there were seminars on everything from worshipping with flags to coming to terms with bereavement.

Danielle Parker, aged 55, had come from only a few miles away in Bridgwater. The draws for her, she said, were the inspiring talks, the music, and being with so many other Christians.

"This year, we have come with five others from our church, and spent time together - that's been really positive. For us, this is an annual holiday, because the financial outlay is sometimes a struggle; but I think it is well worth it."

Simeon Bright, a 27-year-old community organiser from Birmingham, said that the week, although tiring, was a welcome relief from the daily grind of work.

"I find it a real spiritual boost; I really enjoy coming. It's very thought-provoking, especially going to seminars. One or two things usually have quite a profound effect on me. This year's been brilliant."

Ms Guinness and the event's organisers believe that what they are doing is biblical. "The Church needs resources and equipping and strengthening. There is a biblical mandate for people to gather together and worship God in a bigger group. We don't have the temple; so Butlins will have to do."

This is a theme echoed by many Spring Harvesters. "The feeling of sitting in the Big Top with all those hundreds of other Christians - you cannot replace that with online or smaller conferences," Dawn Brett, aged 52, said.

As a mother of several teenage children, Mary Mills, aged 55, said that she valued this sense of community. "There's something about meeting together as fellowship and worshipping with a big number of people," she said.

"For children, it's really good to see that they are not always in a minority. To come here and be part of a big crowd, and see it's not geeky to be a Christian - that strengthens them."

Ms Guinness said that the Church in the UK had never been more fragmented, but insisted that Spring Harvest was there for everyone, regardless of a historical trend towards Evangelicalism at the event.

"Some people would say you to you: 'I want something more Charismatic, I will go somewhere else,' and others might say the same but being more conservative. The middle ground can be slightly more tricky, but we aim to be inclusive and broadminded, and be there for the whole Church, not just one stream."

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent - a long-standing supporter of Spring Harvest, and chairman of the conference's leadership team - said that the interdenominational aspect was crucial.

Parts of the Church believed Spring Harvest to be more "rabidly Charismatic and Evangelical than we actually are", he said.

This push to be broadminded was evident from the conference's glossy programme. The theme of the week was "unpacking the Apostle's Creed: the uniting statement of faith of Christians across generations and denominations".

Bishop Broadbent spoke passionately about his desire not to build an Evangelical "brand" to rival large church networks such as Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), in west London.

"If people like HTB and Alpha park their tanks on your lawn, they have got more going for them in terms of resources. What we do is try to give a product which enables people to explore what it is like to be the Church in the UK.

"I think if you're an ordinary church that cannot aspire to be HTB then we perhaps offer a lot more." But as the Church becomes older and smaller, Bishop Broadbent said, Spring Harvest would need to reinvent itself continually, to ensure that it is still "equipping the Church across the nation" in another 35 years' time.

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