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Christian events go live once again

23 August 2021


Paticipants in the Families Together programme at Keswick last month

Paticipants in the Families Together programme at Keswick last month

CHRISTIAN summer festivals have largely gone online for a second year, but the success of the in-person Keswick Convention is likely to encourage those planning future events.

The three-week teaching and worship gathering, in its Lakeland setting, normally attracts 12,500 participants. Its main tent holds 2800 people. The organisers held true to their plan to move it to a new home on the site of the Pencil Factory, where the former packing hall and an adjacent marquee were able to seat 900 and 1000 respectively, in compliance with one-metre social distancing.

“We were very blessed,” the operations manager, David Sawday, said. “We reduced numbers to comply with stage three of the government roadmap so that we could still hold the event, even if we didn’t reach stage four. We had half our numbers, but still a large congregation by any stretch.”

Conventioners had trusted the brand, Mr Sawday said, “knowing that we would do the best we could as well as we could”. Covid safety precautions had included lateral-flow testing, and there had been no infection among staff, volunteers, and speakers on site: there was only one reported case from a visitor over the three-week period, which finished on 6 August.

“We had a glorious moment on Monday morning when the restrictions were lifted and singing was allowed. We sang ‘Great is thy faithfulness’, and it was very emotional, even for those who had come across the border from Scotland, where singing was allowed earlier,” he said.

Fresh air, the landscape, and being in Keswick were all part of the attraction, he acknowledged. But the event also ran online, and there were high levels of engagement, with 181,000 online participants over the three weeks and an estimated 65,000 hours of viewing. “People who come for one week for a holiday can now do the other weeks online; some even will watch in a holiday chalet if they have children. It’s a wonderful way to have that relationship with supporters as well.”

There is no Greenbelt festival this year (News, 7 May), but the offer of an August Bank Holiday camping weekend at Prospect Farm, on the festival site at Boughton, plus a weekday gathering (News, 14 May), has been eagerly taken up: 1500 campers are booked in for the weekend, which is now sold out, and bookings continue to come in for the weekday offering.

Despite the familiar presence of the Jesus Arms bar, and the Tiny Tea Tent, the organisers have emphasised that this is not “Greenbelt lite”: not a festival, but a gathering. There are some organised things to do, some live music in the evenings, and some workshops, but no published daily programme.

“It’s obviously a lot smaller, but it gives us an opportunity to try things out, learn some lessons, fine-tune things,” Greenbelt’s creative director, Paul Northup, said on Tuesday of last week. “There’s no big stages or lots of production: it will be all delivered within the camping area itself; so it will feel very intimate and very much focused around the campsite experience.”

Many of those booking were “people who would come to Greenbelt even if we relocated to the North Pole at short notice”, he said. “But there’s also a sprinkling of people, a contingent for whom getting a holiday this summer has been a real vexed experience, and who are thinking: why not go and camp with the Greenbelt community for our holiday this year?

“There’s definitely a sense that, for a lot of people, this is going to be their first experience of a ‘mass gathering’ as we emerge from the pandemic. What we are hearing from people is they would rather try that experience out with a community they can trust, and who will respect people’s differing approaches to Covid safety, in a really sensitive and community-minded way.

“There are a lot of different dynamics, I think, at play in terms of those people who are coming, but, yes, it is core Greenbelters who have the lion’s share of the bookings.”

Those events that were solely online for a second year, such as the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage, developed a heightened experience, encouraging groups and communities to meet and share in it together and send in their videos. The spiritual nature of it had developed, too, the Walsingham schools and young-pilgrims officer, Caroline Ward, said, with footage from inside the Holy House in the Shrine Church. “We’ve learned not to be afraid of silence online, with just an image and time for reflection.”

Organisers of the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) are encouraged that 170 exhibitors are booked in for their first post-lockdown show, from 12 to 14 October, at Sandown Park (News, 23 July). Although it would normally be around 200, there was a mood of optimism, Steve Goddard said on Monday.

“Everyone just wants to be back. We’re very pleased to have several hundred visitors already booked in, but we’re aware that people will take time to fully come with us. Many are preferring to book things at the last minute.”

Part of the exhibition has been moved to the Esher Hall, to give visitors the reassurance of wider aisles. In terms of exhibits, many of the new technological resources, particularly around the streaming of services, are designed to help churches respond to the changes and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

The 18-month absence had been an opportunity to get off the treadmill and reflect on how things were done, Mr Goddard said. “We’re encouraging not the ‘old familiar’ but the ‘new different’. The Bible says 396 times, ‘And it came to pass’. It doesn’t ever say, ‘And it came to stay.’”

On 5 August, the Government finally announced an insurance scheme for the live-events sector, which contributes £70 billion to the UK economy and supports more than 700,000 jobs. The sector has ardently campaigned for more than a year for a government-backed insurance scheme to cover costs incurred if an event has to be cancelled owing to Covid restrictions. The new scheme will run from 21 September 2021 to the end of September 2022.

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