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Bibles, arm-waving, and incense

08 September 2017

Philip North recounts visiting three very different Christian festivals this summer


Festival fun: young people at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimate last month

Festival fun: young people at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimate last month

TRADITION — in the sense of what we used to call “churchmanship” — is a feature of church life which is almost unique to Anglicanism. It is an exquisite irony that black-scarf conservative Evangelicals, arm-waving Charismatics, myth-busting liberals, and incense-swinging Anglo-Catholics all claim to be faithful members of the same communion. To other denominations it is bizarre and inexplicable. To us Anglicans, despite the odd fallout and blow-up, it is a matter of delight.

If you want to see Anglican tradition (or tribalism) at its best (or worst), then what you need is a little summer tour because, despite the fact that heavy rain in July and August is as inevitable as death, we all set off for our various outdoor events. This year I managed three in three weeks: the Keswick Convention, New Wine, and the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage.

At Keswick, the gospel is a serious affair. The worship leader takes us through a selection of traditional hymns and seemly worship songs without so much as dreaming of cracking a smile. Well-thumbed, leather-bound Bibles are clamped like life jackets beneath the arms of earnest Evangelicals. People come for the preaching, which is sound, gimmick-free, and grown-up, the crowd clinging to any opportunity for a polite laugh with the tenacity of Harry Potter with the snitch.

But there is a simplicity and an honesty to Keswick which makes it oddly attractive. It is a gathering that is proud of its long history, entrance is still free of charge, and there is a pleasing wholesomeness to the event. The preaching is enormously impressive in its intellectual rigour and, while it may not be to everyone’s taste, the purpose of the conference — to sit beneath and be converted by the Word — is never diluted.

In the afternoons, families take to the hills, and the top of Cat Bells was populated by large numbers of absurdly healthy, bright-eyed boys and girls proudly sporting Keswick wristbands and basking luxuriantly in all that children need — fresh air, food, faith, and an extravagant abundance of love. It may, strictly speaking, have been hors convention, but that will be my abiding memory.


AT NEW WINE, by contrast, the gospel is a very jolly thing. Everyone is happy and smiley, and, while it was my first visit, the impression that I had stepped into an alien environment dissolved three minutes in with the first hug. There is a powerful sense of the immanence of God, which means that anything could happen, and it usually does. Arms were waved, tears were shed, miracles happened, and spontaneous laughter erupted.

The music is so loud that the babies are fitted with noise-resistant headphones (and I’m not making that up). It’s impossible to so much as visit the lavatory without at least three people praying for you; and, since enough coffee is being drunk to slow the recession in the South American economy, that happens a great deal.

A significant difference is the teaching. While the preaching at Keswick is about the reinforcement of a traditional Protestant atonement theology, New Wine has a strong desire for a proclamation that is relevant to the immediate needs and aspirations of the culture. Although, at times, the scriptures appear to be more illustrative than fundamental, there is no doubting the immediacy and attractiveness of this, and it is surely a reason for the huge growth of this movement.

My visit was fleeting but enjoyable. It rained (a lot) and the Somerset countryside can‘t really compare with the Lake District. But there was plenty of good company, Pimm’s, and pulled pork. Above all, the festival has a powerful energy focused on a passionate belief in the local church as the hope of the world, and a real sense that we can go back home to make a difference.


AT WALSINGHAM, the gospel is noisy and very muddy. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has often been described as the “only truly working-class institution in the Church of England”. So, while Keswick and New Wine were both overwhelmingly white and middle-class, at the Youth Pilgrimage it is multi-cultural, council-estate Britain that comes out to pray. Oh, and with a lively crowd of Swedish Lutherans thrown in for good measure.

The whole event was nearly blown away by a vast gale from the North Sea, a weather event swiftly named Storm Richeldis after the Shrine’s 11th-century foundress. Even without a Force 6, the Youth Pilgrimage is not a place to be if peace and quiet is your goal. For an adult, industrial-strength earplugs, wellingtons, and boundless supplies of patience are essentials.

The worship is a heady mix of traditional pilgrimage devotions such as the daily mass, Benediction, and candlelit processions, all spiced up to engage with 11- to 18- year-olds. Music is provided by an incomparable Roman Catholic worship band, CJM, and included everything from “My Lighthouse” to “Sweet sacrament divine”.

It would be unwise to comment on the preaching, because I was doing it, but its theme was identity as the young pilgrims explored what it means to imitate Mary in finding their true selves through relationship with her Son. The level of response and engagement was profoundly moving. If you think that sacramental and liturgical worship lacks what it takes to convert the young, you need to come to the Youth Pilgrimage.

The sheer commitment and time that organisers, mostly volunteers, put into these three events is really extraordinary, and all three are highly professional affairs. I’m not sure I learnt much, but I had a lot of fun. Where next year, I wonder?

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley.

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