GREENBELTERS accustomed, in recent years, to negotiating mud and sheltering from the rain enjoyed glorious sunshine last weekend.
Umbrellas were in use, but as sunshades for those who spilled out of packed venues to listen to talks exploring faith, politics, and the “awkward questions” that the festival encourages. Otherwise, festivalgoers of all ages enjoyed wandering around the idyllic setting of Boughton House, in Northamptonshire, the festival’s home for the past four years.
A particular effort had been expended to welcome guests with disabilities, most notably at the Sunday eucharist. The presence of a Muslim programme was further evidence of the festival’s evolution.
Absent, by and large, were the Evangelical voices that in previous years have acted as a bridge to a part of the Church that many Greenbelters have moved away from. On the other hand, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Congregationalists, and others of no particular denomination were catered for. As for the music, just about every musical taste was catered for at some point during the weekend.
WHEN you’re getting a party going, it helps to fill the stage. King Porter Stomp, an eight- or nine-strong band, headlined the Glade Big Top on Friday night, getting the dancing going with their combination of brass-infused funk and dub-reggae vocals.
A capacity crowd at the Canopy stage enjoyed Jess Morgan’s set, which included tracks from her latest album, Edison Gloriette. Highlights included “Don’t meet your heroes”, and “In Brooklyn”, a beautifully catchy song about friends’ being priced out of the New York apartment they had made into a home. Morgan hails from Norwich, but her music also contains a strong dose of Americana. Fans of Laura Marling and Laura Veirs would do well to check her out.
Drew McLellanBeat poet: Newton FaulknerThe warm duo of two best friends, Harry and Chris, is well loved by Greenbelt. They offer the uplifting combination of two epic talents: the smooth and strong voice and guitar-playing of the jazz musician Chris Read, and the wordsmithery of the award-winning poet Harry Baker. They brought their five-star-reviewed Edinburgh set (with a few Greenbelt edits, including a clever rhyme for Archbishop Welby).
The all-female three-piece Wildwood Kin captivated a relaxed crowd, gliding through a string of folk-tinged tunes and a handful of covers. The band, made up of two sisters and their cousin, layered husky-voiced harmonies over gently picked guitars and throbbing drumming to create a beguiling sound. In between songs from their debut album, which has reached 37 in the Top 40 Albums chart, they admitted that their “stage chat” had been reviewed earlier as “pleasantly awkward”. But shyness did not stop their tuneful sound from bewitching a sleepy but appreciative audience.
The Nine Beats Collective brought a multi-textured soundscape of the Beatitudes — with attitude. They mixed American-style gospel singing and rap with a confident strut and a big dose of soul. Their campaign #blessing seeks to reclaim true blessing from consumerism. Echoing the conviction and passion for justice of the Beatitudes in word and tone, they brought the crowd to their feet, clapping and dancing, before turning reflective and soulful.
CC Smugglers were a surprise Greenbelt highlight for many. Starting with an unexpected snippet of the Godfather theme, they mixed swing, blues, disco, and bluegrass to produce a sultry set, introduced with the words: “We’re gonna show you how we play the blues in Bedford!” They closed with an acoustic song in the midst of a delighted late-night crowd.
Although it was near midnight, Jonny & the Baptists (Arts, 25 August) filled the venue on Saturday with their sharp wit and oddly warm and yet cutting political satire. With catchy tunes, clever rhymes, and intelligent observations on modern life, from the trendification of pubs to the monarchy, libraries, and UKIP — and a notably unintended air-harmonica solo — they sent Greenbelters to their beds with happy hearts.
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires made its Greenbelt debut at the Glade Big Top. The band, who hail from the deep South of the United States, lived up to its reputation for electrifying live performances; the distorted guitars and thumping drums could be heard clearly from the Jesus Arms. But those closer to the stage would have realised that there is more to the Glory Fires than volume. Songs such as “Whitewash” and “Black and white boys” speak eloquently of the inequalities of the South: a particularly urgent message at present.
Drew McLellanBeat poet: Kate RusbyKate Rusby had the audience of the Big Top in tears with her final performance of the ballad “Underneath the stars”. A veteran of Greenbelt — she still has a mug from the 1990s — she was herself close to tears at some points, from her arrival on stage to huge cheers to her performance of “Who will sing me lullabies?”, written for a friend lost and still missed. Tender ballads, high-spirited jigs, and quirky story-songs were delivered by a top-flight four-piece band, often developing into beautiful soundscapes, and all crowned by Rusby’s trademark impeccable vocals, interspersed with warm chats in which she treated the audience like an old friend. A new Christmas album is imminent.
Joseph and Maia are a New Zealand duo who had a contract with a record company in their home country. They fell out with them, and “ran away” to Europe, where they have spent the past two years “singing the songs that the record label told us weren’t good enough”. They survive by gigging, busking, and crowdfunding. Their songs were heartfelt; their harmonies were sweet.
Newton Faulkner immediately got the audience on side by singing in two parts, as he kicked off his set. It was the first of much participatory singing, directed by the artist, over which he would harmonise, cracking jokes and adding percussive layers with one of the three guitars that he used throughout the gig. The title track of his new album, Hit the Ground Running, showcased his impressive range, while his rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” caused the audience to erupt into full-blown singalong mode. Superb.
The Revd Lucy Winkett and the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir led an impassioned set of reflections and gospel music, encompassing the themes of activism and contemplation. Each song was fronted by distinctive soloists, and backed by top-notch musicians and full-blooded harmonies. “Wade in the water”, with its deep grooves and explosive outro, was one that stood out. By the end of the set, the audience was on their feet dancing to “How I got over” and “Old landmark”. More of this at Greenbelt, please.
Jonathon WatkinsDaytime activity: Lords of Strut brought acrobatic fun from IrelandThe Mercury-Prizewinning rapper Speech Debelle delivered a lively set in the Glade Big Top on Sunday. Her thoughtful lyrics were generally lost in the grooves from her fine four-piece band, but she projected her personality well, sometimes quieting the musicians to talk to the audience one to one. It was a shame that only a few hundred heard her. Last time, it was torrential rain that denied her the crowd she deserved; this time, it was the blazing sunshine.
The champion beatboxer SK Shlomo is a Greenbelt favourite, but it would be a brave Greenbelter who predicted what his mainstage set would be like. This time he used a sampling machine that he has been developing to record shouted phrases from the audience and use them, live-looped, as the backing vocals for his compositions.
An unexpected draw at Greenbelt was St Martin’s Voices, a group of four singers from St Martin-in-the-Fields, reproducing their popular Thursday-lunchtime concerts in the setting of the colonnade at the east end of Boughton House. As many as 300 people listened to their performance of sacred songs in the late-afternoon sunshine.
The final headliner on the Glade Big Top stage was GRRRL, a “bespoke” supergroup of female singers and musicians assembled by the NGO In Place of War from conflict zones around the world (Speech Debelle represented London). Their high-octane 45-minute set, raucous and ragged, was somewhat less than the sum of its (truly formidable) parts, and did not convey the power of these women’s individual testimonies to resisting injustice. The principal message that came across was “Greenbelt, make some noise!” The modest audience responded with enthusiasm.A R MackleyInclusivity: mitre-making was one activity to occupy the younger festival-goers
JOHN BELL, a Greenbelt favourite, spoke at the Big Top on Saturday morning on the topic of “rampant heterosexualism”. The talk trod familiar territory, taking issue with conservative readings of scripture, in particular the work of Robert Gagnon, one of the most strident conservative voices. Towards the end, Mr Bell told the audience that he had a vested interest in the subject: he was gay himself. He had decided to be more open about his sexuality after hearing the story of Lizzie Lowe, a gay teenager who took her own life in 2014. “Those not compromised by their work should not keep silent.”
Charles Handy’s Second Curve is an illustration of how, in business or personal life, we have to anticipate the need for reinvention and change while our existing path is still upward. It took two years, Handy said, to get the reinvention up to speed, by which time the original path had peaked, and was falling. This model could be applied widely, from the individual to the nation. In his afternoon session, he invited audience members to come up on the stage to sit and converse with him about their own “second curves”, resulting in some moving stories and wise individual advice.
Peter Oborne’s analytical sweep through the Middle East challenged much received wisdom. The support of the UK and the United States for a Sunni alliance, backed by Israel, means supporting the expulsion of all Christians from the Middle East. Torturer though he may be, President Bashar al-Assad represents a Syria of religious tolerance. When popular democracy elects political Islamists, the West will subvert them, and, in doing so, give credence to al-Qaeda. British foreign policy is up for sale; if you want to change that, elect Jeremy Corbyn. An audience who seemed knowledeable largely agreed with him.
The poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, in her first appearance at Greenbelt, charmed a huge audience in the Glade Big Top. She discarded her planned talk and spoke instead with disarming cheerfulness about herself, her struggles, and her shortcomings. Her message was simple: be a good neighbour, a lesson learnt during her childhood in Shoeburyness Baptist Church. But, to do this, you have to have faith in your ability to cope: “You have a 100-per-cent success record of surviving your worst day.” She spoke about the breakdown she suffered as a result of the libel action (which she won) against the columnist Katie Hopkins. During the questions, she was asked how to end poverty. “Stop voting Tory, for Christ’s sake.”
The final question wasn’t a question: a woman had read an article by Monroe: “I just wanted to hug you and hold you close and tell you that God loves you.” Monroe came down off the stage and was enfolded in the woman’s arms. “We love you, more than Katie Hopkins could ever hate you,” was another comment. She then spent an hour-and-a-half signing copies of her two cookery books.
There are more Muslim doctors than Muslim terrorists, the peer and former Cabinet minister Baroness Warsi said. Yet Muslims were more associated with life-taking than life-saving. Introducing her biographical look at British Muslims, The Enemy Within (a phrase that was once applied to her), she reflected on her family’s 60 years in Britain. She had always assumed that there was only one direction of travel for the Muslim community: towards greater integration and acceptance. Now, after the election of Donald Trump, she is not so confident.
Ali JohnstonBeat poets: La Chiva Gantiva, who began as three Colombian immigrants to Brussels and attracted musicians from all over the world with their percussion-driven celebration of Afro-Colombian rhythmsShe agreed with the Prevent programme in principle, although not with the way it was being applied. “We have failed to come up with a vision of what we want people to be.”
The American writer, lecturer, and lay Episcopalian preacher Greg Garrett drew large crowds with his promise to unpack the ethics of the zombie apocalypse. The latest surge of interest in the undead, from films to books to games to journalism, began after 11 September 2001, he suggested; throughout history, humans have looked to stories about zombie-like catastrophes in times of great trauma and turmoil. “Zombies represent for us whatever it is that terrifies us,” he said. These stories gave us an opportunity for catharsis: the world may be going to hell, but at least the undead do not yet stalk the earth. But they also offer an opportunity to show humans in their best light, defiantly fighting off the end of the world together, in renewed community.
In a panel, Business as Usual?, the audience heard that the financial system that broke down ten years ago could not go on as though we could summon a better yesterday. Ann Pettifor, well-known for her work fighting for debt relief for the developing world, argued that meaningful reform rested on two main necessities: reforming an economics which ignores the part played by banking, money, and debt; and using our leverage to force through meaningful change rather than leaving it to the “men in pinstripe suits”. Frank Van Lerven, of the New Economics Foundation, urged the audience to spread the word that banks create new money in the form of debt, and that bubbles in housing, autoloans, student debt, and “the biggest bubble of them all, carbon”, made the system increasingly fragile.
Vivian Woodall advocated for greater use of cooperatives and mutuals. While the issues were largely framed as one of justice, one couldn't help thinking that the issue of economic reform should be seen as a campaign for economic democracy: the main levers of economic power are controlled by the private loan-issuing banks and an independent Bank of England largely outside of democratic control. The panel concluded with a call to join campaign groups like "Positive Money" and join local democratic forms of economic organisation.
Plaudits are owed to Greenbelters who dared to argue with Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer who has represented 80 inmates at Guantanamo Bay, about the merits of torture and assassination. Those who believe that these are tools that may need to be deployed are not in a tiny minority. In the US, for example, almost half of those polled say that there are some circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable in combating terrorism. Among the candidates that Greenbelters proffered for assassination was Margaret Thatcher, raising questions about how far the festival’s tolerance extends.
Mr Stafford Smith’s contention is that these methods are not just unethical but ineffective. Those that advocated for assassination were ignoring thousands of years of history, and that fact that it served only to “piss off” people, perpetuating conflict. He painted a disturbing picture of the actions of the US, including under Barack Obama, including the deaths of dozens of children in Pakistan, collateral victims of assassination attempts.
“What does ‘the common good’ even mean?” was the question on the table in the Treehouse on Sunday, where Luke Bretherton, Anna Rowlands, and Ed Mayo attempted to frame the question in both history and current practice. Greenbelters were rewarded with masterful but concise explanations of the roots of the phrase from Professor Rowlands, an expert in Catholic social teaching, and Professor Bretherton, who offered himself as the “grouchy, snarky Protestant”. Mayo provided practical examples of ways in which groups were assaying to practise the values today. All three were honest about the tensions at play, and the “terrifying and exciting” possibilities on the horizon, given the volatile state of politics. There was also a reminder from Professor Rowlands that “we need to start with the things that bring us joy: politics is not just about hard work and misery.”
Jonathon WatkinsTough topic: Katharine Welby Roberts discussed mental healthSurrounded by specially commissioned nude photographs of 20 Greenbelt volunteers, Kate Bottley shared her own story of body image throughout her life, from stretch marks and the false idea of the perfect body to femininity and priesthood. She described the Red Tent, Greenbelt’s first dedicated women-only venue, as “a safe space to share stuff we can’t share anywhere else”. We heard the honest stories of women in the tent, including those who had participated in the photo shoot and now walk taller.
In “Europe: A Nun’s Eye View”, Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila provided a tour de force. Drawing on inspiration from Arendt, Proust, Sartre, Shakespeare, and others, she spoke on the fraught issue of nationalism in Europe, the “ethic of care”, and different forms of democracy. She asked whether the only alternative to the Right’s vision of nationalism was a kind of abstract universalism, which denied what Simone Weil called “the need for roots”.
Next, she raised the issue of what feminist scholars refer to as “the double burden” of women’s work: women in the developed world are newly empowered to enter the workplace, but their domestic workload has not diminished. Sister Teresa asked us to heed the radicalism of the Pope’s statement that “capitalism kills”.
Finally, she urged the audience to consider forms of democracy beyond simply representative democracy, but which might include forms of both direct and deliberative democracy, with a particular call to examine the Swiss “veto referendum” model. Her themes were illustrated by her own story: her faith was a product of her national heritage and her Benedictine group’s commitment to hands-on action. Living up a mountain in Monserrat, the sisters make ceramics and sell them for a profit, but only to provide for what they need as a group. Many in the audience were spellbound by Sister Teresa’s erudition and inspired by her example.
Professor Anna Rowlands was back at Greenbelt after 11 years, but, judging by her performance in a panel discussion, “The Good of One Is the Good of All”, they won’t let her stay away that long again. Rowlands, an academic at Durham specialising in political theology and Catholic social thought, is worried about the intellectual scaffolding that emergent left-wing populist responses have been making use of, and urges a distinctly Christian response.
Her issue with Podemos’ political project is that it presents consensus politics as an antiseptic liberal façade, trying to paper over a politics that is inherently conflictual. She held up Catholic social teaching as an example of an alternative conception of progressive politics richer than “split-the-difference liberalism”, while acknowledging that elements of the radical Leftist critique bear taking seriously. We should make use of the Patristic fathers’ example to create a “community of salvation”, with the body of Christ as a vehicle for common good through preaching and acts of worship.
“I’ve had a very nice life,” Katherine Welby Roberts told a packed venue; “it’s just my brain kind of hates me.” Expressing some of her most personal thoughts, she gave the audience a glimpse into a life with mental-health problems. She finds it hard to believe that anyone, including God, can really love her, although knowing that God was there was the only thing that kept her alive in her darkest times. When replaying negative conversations in her head, she has learned to check the reality of her reactions with others she trusts, step back, and put the emotions down for a while.
Sahar Vardi is an Israeli woman imprisoned for refusing to conduct her military service. She talked about the militarisation of Israel’s economy, including some frightening details of joint UK/Israeli commercial projects. Led by the audience’s questions, she also ranged widely over the sources of Israel’s sense of insecurity, the problems caused for women by the social status of the overwhelmingly male military leaders, and the religious influence in politics.
The film Hidden Figures, which told the story of African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race, was the starting point for a fascinating but sobering debate: “Hidden in plain sight? Bringing black women into focus”. Chine McDonald chaired contributions from Rozella Haydée White, Jendella Benson, Chibundu Onuzo, and Saraiya Bah, starting off by joking that “it seems we haven’t sorted the whole race issue in the past year”.
The audience heard first-hand accounts of prejudice and hurtful behaviour in everyday life, from the workplace to church, from the man who asked to touch Onuzo’s hair on the London Underground to those who told Haydée White that she was “so articulate”. While all the panellists were brilliantly humorous, it was sobering to be reminded that there is a long way to go until black women are no longer burdened by the ignorance and bigotry of those around them.
Jonathon WatkinsFlight: Greenbelters made their way to and from the site through an illuminated avenue under a canopy of paper dovesSalma Yaqoob, a psychotherapist and sometime politician, offered a simple analysis of the “dodgy theology and dodgy politics” of Islamic State and President Donald Trump: both encourage and exploit a sense of “us and them”. “Othering” and scapegoating, she said, were their weapons of mass destruction. Our response should be to reject division. Both the Bible and the Qur’an taught: treat others as you want to be treated. “There’s a political manifesto for ever,” she declared. “And it’s doable.” Loving, being compassionate, standing up for what was right “is hard, but it’s beautiful”. That was the jihad we were called to.
The Anglican lectionary intensifies a male-centred view of the Bible, confining women to narrow roles, the Archdeacon of Hackney, Liz Adekunle, said. Some feminist theologians were envisioning female biblical characters afresh to create new typologies that spoke to women’s experiences; others, such as Mary Daly, were reframing the Trinity in terms of God, Mother, and Holy Spirit, as inspired by passages in Isaiah. But there was much still to be done, she said.
The numbers for the Herstory workshop were restricted to 25, but a lack of tables meant that in the end there were only 15 places available. The Red Tent venue was dark and intimate. And, inspired by the feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation artwork The Dinner Party, participants, too, sat round a triangle-shaped arrangement of tables. A Greenbelt-version of Chicago’s heritage floor was in the centre (the ground was scattered with pieces of paper naming women whose achievements have been largely been left out of history).
Each of the “dinner guests” received an envelope containing facts about one particular woman’s story. It was up to the guests to write a narrative that celebrated and acknowledged her. Then, one by one, everyone shared “our story”. Each woman was clapped and cheered. In that moment, the audience recognised their bravery, gifts, skills, and achievements, many of which have secured rights and freedoms all too easily taken for granted today.
The inaugural John Peck Memorial Lecture was given by Steve Shaw, an acolyte and friend of Peck, who died last year. Peck was a Baptist minister and radical-conservative thinker who had been a huge influence on Greenbelt from the start. The lecture did not really live up to his legacy. The title: “Idol-Spotting in the 21st Century”, promised something fresh and truly challenging. Shaw focused on one, familiar, false god: rationalism, and scored some easy hits. What he said was stimulating enough, and went down well, but it lacked his mentor’s seriousness and rigour.
Sarah Corbett, an activist and campaigner, is a friendly, voluble Liverpudlian. She is also thoughtful and accomplished. In a talk on healthy activism, she spoke on how to avoid the burnout that lies in wait for anyone who works to improve the world. “Even when I’m feeling healthy, I’m feeling guilty: I should be pushing harder on my activism if I’ve got a bit of energy left.” One key was to be selective, concentrating only on campaigns where you can have an influence. Another key was to be positive and visionary: “If we want our world to be beautiful, kind, and just, our activism has to be beautiful, kind, and just.”
Justin Thacker sought to turn charity on its head. Ask poor people what they lacked, as the World Bank did a few years ago, and it was not so much material needs as power. “But it’s not quite so easy to redistribute power as it is to simply give stuff.” Seen in this light, wealthy Westerners were not the saviours of the world, as they often think, “because they are too often complicit in what keeps the poor poor”.
Many people praised the Bedtime Stories from the Philippines, organised each night by Christian Aid. The stories were about the effects of climate change, but had been written without jargon, and were consequently affecting, especially backed up by the artist-in-residence, Iain Campbell.
THE Amal tent was home to Greenbelt’s first Muslim programme, hosting talks, music, poetry, and Sufi chanting over the course of the festival. At an introductory session on Friday evening, Mohammed Ali, artist-in-residence, described coming to Greenbelt with his family years ago — “We probably stood out like a sore thumb” — and the warmth of the welcome.
He was conscious of the bad press surrounding his home city of Birmingham, but also of the truth of some of the critique: shopping malls were probably the only place where people were “rubbing shoulders”, and yet there was no real engagement. “Where are the places that allow meaningful exchange to take place?” The hope was that this programme would be part of the answer.
Drew McLellanTough topic: the Bishop of Polynesia, Dr Winston Halupa, who has lost a third of his homeland to the sea in the past 50 years, supported by one of the festival’s signing teamThe audience heard from three artists: Faisal Salah, a young singer who crooned beautifully and valiantly over the band playing in the Big Top (“It’s the first time I have ever done acoustic behind hard rock; it’s a lovely experience”). His theme was gratitude to God. Pearls of Islam, two young women accompanied by a flute-player, sang about peace and divine mercy, successfully engaging the audience in a call and response. Finally, Fahad Khalid showcased how he had adapted sitar music for guitar, singing a hymn of praise in Hindi before finishing with a meditative instrumental, “Syria”.
Over the weekend, musicians such as Pearls of Islam and Amadou Sarr introduced Greenbelters to the Sufi tradition of dhikir: rhythmic chants of healing and worship. The nearest Christian equivalent might be Taizé, but whereas the latter’s chants may calm and slow as they continue, the energy in the dhikir seemed to grow. Although the beliefs expressed were common to the Abrahmic faiths, the extent to which people joined in varied; but, on Sunday night, Amadou Sarr had everyone dancing and singing, including one very young fan who decided to join them on stage.
MALCOLM GUITE spoke at the Leaves venue about his collection of 50 sonnets on the sayings of Jesus, Parable and Paradox. “Jesus appeals constantly to the imagination, to behave as if the Kingdom was here,” he said. Readings from the collection captivated, especially “As If”, his poem to counter Kipling’s “anti-gospel poem ‘If’”. An ebullient and self-deprecatory host, Dr Guite shared several examples of the revelatory process of writing, including the discovery that the saying about cutting off one’s own hand was pertinent to the current “horrible tyranny” of body image, with which he has become familiar as a college chaplain.
The audience also heard readings from a forthcoming anthology that Dr Guite has edited on grief, Love Remember, intended to give the bereaved an opportunity to lament rather than to be told that “death is nothing at all”. He had discovered the phrase was, in fact, part of a sermon by Canon Henry Scott Holland that offered a much fuller meditation on death, including the observation that it was “the supreme and irrevocable disaster”. This was a lesson in returning to the source.
Chibundo Onuzo, the youngest ever woman signed to Faber, seemed a little bemused by questions about whether her publishers had queried the dedication in her latest novel (“to the Glory of God?”) or whether she had ever come across the claim that fiction was not Christian. Supremely confident in a winning fashion, she described growing up in Nigeria, coming to boarding school in Winchester, and taking as her role model Benjamin Franklin, who excelled in multiple fields.
It was the culture in all Nigerian families to strive for academic excellence, she joked, but as the youngest she had perhaps enjoyed more latitude in being able to pursue a career in literature. Besides reading from her new novel, Welcome to Lagos, she engaged the audience in a singalong, and reflected on how her Christian faith was reflected in the hopefulness in her work: “I engage with things that are not great about the world, but I am also hopeful about the way that things can change.”
In a talk,“What we talk about when we talk about faith, doubt, hope, and love”, two Church of England priests, Martin Wroe and Malcolm Doney, reflected on a series of “hints and hunches about what it might look like to live a good life”. It was a post-modern approach, wary of articulating any hard-and-fast truths, although it was ventured that “how we live is more important than what we believe”. Among the sources referenced were Wordsworth, Oliver Sacks, Elie Wiesel, Arundhati Roy, the Dalai Lama, and a Buddhist woman who attended church despite the fact that “I can’t stand Jesus.”
The pair warned against the “slight hardening of the arteries” that they associate with assertions of belief. Their talk offered comfort to many in the audience, including one who described himself as a “recovering fundamentalist”.
Drew McLellanTough topic: Jack Monroe, who has documented living in poverty, speaking or the first time at Greenbelt in the Big TopDave Tomlinson pointed out that the subtitle to his latest book, Black Sheep and Prodigals, is An antidote to black and white religion, his current waypoint on a journey away from Charismatic Evangelicalism. His theme was how we create a “Jesus movement” that is both honest in faith and humanist in ethic. If we did not, and stuck to old black-and-white formulations, we would not speak to those who had a spiritual longing but who currently found church irrelevant to their lives.
St Ignatius Loyola instructed his followers to name only one desire in prayer each day, and Pádraig Ó Tuama finds the same restriction in the Collects: a liberation rather than a restriction. Collects have a five-fold [four-fold? CHK]form of naming God: describing him, making a request in the light of this, explaining why, and finishing with praise. But Ó Tuama finds the common Trinitarian structure for a collect less useful, and in his new book even addresses one that he has written to Judas.
Andrew Rumsey, reading extensively from his new book, Parish, reflected on the importance in our lives of “place”, which he defined as: “the personalisation of space, over time”. Drawing on more than 20 years’ experience as a parish priest, he offered some shrewd insights into the peculiar genius of the Church of England’s parish system, seeking to reclaim the word “parochial”. Neighbourhood, after all, is one of Christianity’s most basic principles.
“THANK you, Vicar,” is usually the nearest that most of the clergy get to feedback after a service. At Greenbelt, those who devise the Sunday communion each year have to live cheek by jowl with their critics for the rest of the festival. This year, there was nothing but praise for the service, and deservedly so. The organisers — the sure-footed Andrew Graystone and Louise Detain, working with the Greenbelt accessibility team and Livability — absorbed the festival’s commitment to inclusivity.
The service was led by three wheelchair users; there was a reading by an ME sufferer, Tanya Marlow, by live link from her bed in Plymouth; the prayers were by members of L’Arche; and the homily was recorded by a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy, Becky Tyler, using her computer’s voice. Both received a long ovation.
None of this seemed like tokenism. As the notes to the service stated: “Each of us gathered at Greenbelt reflects the whole image and character of God. If we allow anyone to be excluded, either by accident or thoughtlessness or prejudice, we will see God less clearly.”
The title of the service was “Please Bring a Body”; so Greenbelters knew that it was never going to be a sedentary service. Most of the hymns and songs, led cheerfully by Fischy Music, involved actions, and so did the creed. As usual, the congregation was encouraged to form groups of 15-20, and, instead of a Gospel reading, each was invited to relate the story of the feeding of the 5000 within the group, using pictorial flash cards. The service was moving, but also joyful.
The worship-and-prayer zone this year was located away from the main festival, overlooking Broughton’s artificial lake. Thus an hour of Quaker worship (which attracted a crowd of 100 or so) enjoyed both the silence of the immediate group, and the distant sounds of the rest of the festival, plus the odd cry from an aquatic bird.
GREENBELTIncluded: a child runs along the path at the Greenbelt festival, in the grounds of Boughton House in NorthamptonshireOn Monday, Sufi worship escaped the dedicated Amal tent and was welcomed into the prayer zone on the far side of the lake. Prayers for peace and unity, led by the Ansari Qadri-Rifai order, sounded perfectly in place in a quintessentially English setting.
The Canvas audience were transported to a Pacific island, both by the wave noises and birdsong piped into the tent, and by an “oceanic eucharist”, led by the Bishop of Polynesia, Dr Winston Halapua, in “Encountering God in the Storm”. The lake, lawn, and trees of Boughton were the bucolic backdrop for a bilingual English-Fijian liturgy that drew on both the climate-change crisis for Pacific islanders and the gospel story of Jesus calming the storm.
A third of Dr Halapua’s homeland has sunk beneath the waves in the previous half-century, he said, as he led the crowd in prayers of penitence and calls for justice: “Creator, we disfigure your world; Lord have mercy.” Elsewhere on the site, at the USPG stand, people were invited to pour a cup of water into a large fish tank that included a model of a Polynesian island, to show how little it took to bring devastation.
Over three sessions, the Baptist team Urban Expression explored the “Christ of the Comma”. The comma in question was the one in the creeds between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, in which the whole of Jesus’s earthly ministry is subsumed. The Saturday session used modern parables and song to look at activism for God’s Kingdom. There was animated sharing of experiences during the time for small-group conversation, although the feedback that followed did not fully reflect the energy in the group discussions.
Art and the Bible story: Inspired to follow is a new course from St Martin-in-the Fields that uses art to explore faith. The free resource, downloadable from their website, includes all the material for 22 hour-long sessions. The lesson from the launch at Greenbelt is not to do it on PowerPoint in a sunlit gazebo: after a hasty switch to a printed picture, the taster session included audience feedback on what they saw in the image, a complementary Bible passage, a theological reflection, and a discussion in small groups.
BEN DUKE’s one-man dance interpretation of Paradise Lost — Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) — rapidly alternated between uproarious comedy and deep tragedy, illuminated by expressive movement. One moment he was appearing out of a cloud of dry ice in a flesh-coloured unitard with a fig leaf to tell the story of Adam, the next he was articulating every parent’s nightmare that something might happen to their child. The closing minutes, where he imagined God in the crowd at the crucifixion, pleading in anguish for his son to be taken down from the cross, was haunting.
Becca and Louise, who are (the inaccurately named) Sh!t Theatre, lived in Windsor House. Not, as they said, “that Windsor House”, but a council block in Hackney, where the homeless sleep rough next to the new blocks of privately owned luxury flats. Through reading the letters addressed to previous occupants, the duo create unreliable narratives about their predecessors, discover some unwelcome possibilities about their own tenancy, and reveal the underlying tensions in their friendship. By a tight focus on the particular and individual, they delivered a highly effective analysis of the current housing crisis.
Ali JohnstonSunshine to sunset: St Martin’s Voices sang to a large crowd in the colonnade at Boughton House;
One of the advantages of good weather is that outdoor performances attract a good crowd. Pif Paf was not strictly a one-man show: more one-man-and-a-glove-puppet chicken. For half-an-hour, an audience of all ages watched their contraption-rich battle to keep a plant alive, at one point battling a giant inflatable slug. They won.
Kat Francois, a British woman with a Grenadian ancestry, discovered that a great-uncle, Lazarus Francois, had fought and died in the First World War. She turned her quest to find out more about him into an hour-long stage show, in which she alternately addressed the audience and played different characters in the story. The result, Finding Lazarus, helped to fill in a blank in the history she had been taught, uncovering the formation and treatment of the West Indian Regiment. The show was accomplished and affecting. The most moving moment came at the end: a photo of Lazarus in uniform, unaware of his impending fate.
Café Palestinia brought together artists and activists speaking up for Palestinians in a lunchtime “cabaret” on Saturday. It was a time of affirmation, not argument. “They are the most beautiful, life-affirming people I have met,” Martyn Joseph declared, before singing: “Pull down the blood wall”. Chai for All invoked Blake’s call to spiritual arms by playing Parry’s “Jerusalem”, Hugh Masekela-style. Sahar Vardi, the Israeli refusenik, told the responsive audience: “It’s not about ‘helping’ us, it’s about finding your responsibility. And 100 years after Balfour that shouldn’t be difficult!”
Another act to draw a large crowd was Lords of Strut, a comedy acrobatic duo from Ireland. Impressive acrobatic feats were performed with childish squabbling: a perfect combination to win over parents and children alike.
Clare Briden has mapped the rivers on the south coast, producing their delicate filigree images on various media, including chiffon and tear-drop-shaped mirrors. In addition, she has found other images — an oak tree, seaweed, cracks in dried mud — that assume the same shape as several of the rivers. The delicacy and beauty of our water sources is usually taken for granted.
Another artwork was the Thousand Mile Dress, a Victorian-style dress created by Katie Duxbury and then worn on various walks through rugged territory until, much of its hem worn away, she had reached her total.
The technical light show Limbic Cinema, projected on to a young oak tree, was a captivating art installation, whether you were fascinated by the technology of how it was done or merely sitting in wonder as the delicate use of light after dark revealed images of nature including trees, birds, snowflakes, a human heart, and a spirographic daisy. As gentle lines of light raced over every leaf, it seemed that the tree gained a colony of fireflies, or its flowing sap suddenly began to glow. As one of the younger members of the audience said, “The tree’s dancing now.”
New to the programme were the education team from St Paul’s Cathedral, who contributed a particularly Anglican feel to proceedings in the craft tent, notably a make-your-own-mitre session, with cut-down copes for full-dress photos afterwards. Girls predominated.
Jonathon WatkinsFor the children: tree climbingChildren and families
CHILDREN had three tented venues solely dedicated to their entertainment: Make & Create, offering non-stop art and crafts; Play, a well-equipped playschool-type venue for the under-fives; and Learn & Do. But the fun spilled out on the grass around the venues, with clay modelling, circus skills, and the YMCA’s hugely popular bouncy castles tempting children throughout the weekend. Elsewhere, they scrambled up trees and messed about on the huge expanse of lawn in front of Broughton House, also the venue for timetabled games and stargazing. As if that wasn’t enough, in the Wilderness area there was even shelter-building and environmental art.
Fischy Music’s Saturday morning gig had everyone up, moving and grooving during their first song. Those who migrated back to the floor over the next few numbers were soon on their feet again to “Keep the blues away”. Fresh from Edinburgh, the band’s song-list fell a little short, which gave everyone the opportunity to holler out for their fave Fishy number, and meant that the band topped out with a medley of songs that kept everyone happy. It was good to have them leading the music during the main eucharist.
Timetabled art workshops at Make & Create included Kites Not Drones, run by the Quakers, offering kite-making to kids. Arriving towards the latter end of a drop-in meant that the only reference to the serious point behind the activity was a quick mention that children in Afghanistan write wishes on their home-made kites. “I wish I had a horse” was written on ours. No doubt the children in Afghanistan wish that the UK’s missile-laden drones would stop. A poignant activity.
Is Family Twist the best thing at Greenbelt? Very possibly. Paul Cookson brilliantly compered the kids’ talents: from jokes and poems to songs and surprises. . . such as Nathaniel’s electric-shock-giving pen. The rule of the Twist — the applause at the end of each performance has to be more enthusiastic than the applause to welcome the performer — meant that this was feel-good all the way. Saturday’s Twist lasted an hour-and-a-half, the highlight being eight-year-old Scarlet’s rendition of “I’m in love with the shape of you,” to which Cookson’s hilarious gestures had everyone rocking with laughter.
Mini Professors was a chance for pre-school children to take their first steps exploring the natural world. On Saturday, Professor Dom (Dom Whyte) guided youngsters through simple hands-on experiments with bubbles, fossils, diving objects, and more, providing space to develop their own curiosity and observational skills.
Improvised Comedy led by the Twitnits started with warm-up games to loosen up adults and children alike. By the end, with inhibitions lost, everyone was in hysterics, working together to make a human statue of Greenbelt: a portable toilet complete with lengthy queue.
Sunday’s Bedtime Stories with Snail Tales was billed as offering calm but colourful tales from around the world. Three moralistic tales followed. But the inclusion of a punishing angel in one, and spells in another, seemed at odds with an audience of little ones — and at a Christian festival no less. More the stuff of nightmares than sweet dreams.
Jonathon WatkinsFun times: impromptu footballIn Puppet Pantomime, Esmeralda the Princess was the narrator, Farmer Giles sang “Five green bottles”, and Daisy Buttercup (the delinquent cow) emptied the bottles of their contents. Then there were pirates, a sleeping bear, and a host of other colourful characters which kept both children and adults entertained. And yes, reassuringly, the monsters were behind them.
Fizzy Boppers’ dance event Round the World! mixed music tracks from across the globe with instruments and a variety of props to produce a brilliant hour’s journey around the globe: Ireland, India, Israel, England, the Americas, a rain forest, Spain and, finally, a limbo dance from Trinidad.
THE Greenbelt youth tent (open only to under-18s) was teeming with young people for Cake and Debate: More than welcome, on Sunday afternoon. The event was based on the BBC1 comedy panel-show Would I Lie to You?, in which contestants bluff about their deepest secrets, and the opposing team attempts to find out which ones are actually true. Adopting such a format was a clever and fun way to provoke young people to think about whether the Church is as welcoming as it should be. And, of course, plenty of cake was consumed. It was a good job that their parents were not there.
Among the activities laid on for young people, and some over-enthusiastic adults, was an offering from the Great Big Tree Climbing Company. This reporter’s initial fears that it might be eyebrow-raising to attempt the climb without an accompanying child were allayed by a friendly group of students. They provided a posse of encouragement as we dragged ourselves, using a complex system of ropes and pulleys, up into the branches. Once almost 15 metres up, we were able to rest from our exertions and enjoy wonderful views of a sun-bathed Boughton House and grounds. Special thanks to Jenny, Rosie, Lizzie, and Imogen for the reassurance that a childless 27-year-old man can still climb trees without embarrassment.