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Sun shines on us, the unjust, at the Greenbelt festival eucharist

28 August 2022

Paul Handley attends the climate-themed service

Church Times

Part of the congregation at the Sunday morning eucharist

Part of the congregation at the Sunday morning eucharist

“WE’RE going to worship like it’s 2052!”

The climate-themed Greenbelt eucharist was always going to be a challenge. As the thousands-strong congregation gathered in front of the main stage in the grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire, on Sunday morning, it was unclear how it would balance realism and hope.

The solution that the organisers came up with was to separate the two. The first half of the service, laid out on one side of the thermometer-style service sheet, was an acknowledgement of the mess that humans had made of the world, typified by the rewording of “All things bright and beautiful”:

Each little flower that opens
Each little bird that sings
Is tainted with the plastic
We’ve thrown into our bins

It was perplexing to sing a hymn of praise turned into an act of confession, but none the worse for that, and it merely articulated the mental gymnastics that the congregation had already been performing while singing lines in an earlier, untampered-with hymn: “Thou burning sun with golden beam . . . Thou rushing wind that art so strong. . .”

Service sheet: side one

There was a disembodied weather forecast from John Kettley supposedly projected into the future but comprising descriptions of existing conditions in Bangladesh and Kenya recorded by Nushrat Choudhry and Joab Okanda.

A Three Yorkshireman skit performed by three members of the Baby Boomer generation relating conditions at past festivals turned into a prayer of lament: “We were the ones who wrapped our lives in plastic and then threw it into the oceans.”

The reading from Isaiah 24.1-6 — “A curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left” — was followed by a very Greenbelt response: “This is the Word of the Lord.” “Are you sure?”


THEN everything was halted, and a recording of Greta Thunberg was played at volume: “Right here right now is where we draw the line.”

The 2052 service began again in a more hopeful mood, posited on the suggestion that the people 30 years earlier — i.e. now — had done something to combat the changing climate.

This was not a fantasy future, however. The rerun of the weather forecast had the two speakers from Bangladesh and Kenya still describing the difficulties their countries faced. “We are losing hope because of how selfish Europe, the US, the UK have become.”

Prayers were led by two young Greenbelters, and the hymns were more positive: “God, the gardener of Eden, teach us how to tend the earth.”

Service sheet: side two

Communion was in a now familiar format: bags containing bread and a can of grape juice (not the best innovation) were shared between groups of people sitting near each other, families, friends, and strangers indiscriminately.

Then the performance poet Harry Baker took the stage and led the congregation in an increasingly whacky rendition of “He’s got the whole world in his hand”, taking suggestions from the crowd “He’s got Ellis the Elephant in his hand” etc.

It wouldn’t have been a Greenbelt eucharist without something to raise an eyebrow over. In this instance it was a small stone for everyone included in the communion bag (hopefully not confused with the communion bun) which led into the final blessing, taken from Meister Eckhardt: “Study the stone, which always does what it was made to do. . . Its purpose is to move downward, and in this it loves God.”

And it wouldn’t have been a Greenbelt eucharist if everything had worked. Having the service led largely by speakers off the stage, visible only to some of the congregation, felt awkward, particularly during the short set of instructions that constituted, one supposed, the presiding at the eucharist.

But neither would it have been a Greenbelt eucharist if such awkwardnesses had been resented. The Greenbelt crowd would have been disappointed had no risks been taken.

And the music, led competently and simply by Katie Ritson with guitar, keyboard, drums, and trumpet, worked well, and the sound system was clear, certainly at teh front and centre of the crowd.

And the fine weather throughout was appreciated — though with a heightened awareness of the devastation being experienced elsewhere, and the need to take urgent action. “In the UK we have a chance, a new opportunity,” the announcer said, referring to next week’s reboot of the Government. “Let’s make this a government that will address the climate crisis.”


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