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Church works quietly in the background at Glastonbury . . .

02 July 2024

. . . until a bishop appeared on the Pyramid Stage. Paul Handley visited the team at the Glastonbury Festival

Jason Bryant

The Revd Chris North and the Revd Justine Richards at the centre of the Fire Garden in the Healing Fields at Glastonbury

The Revd Chris North and the Revd Justine Richards at the centre of the Fire Garden in the Healing Fields at Glastonbury

“DO YOU have to pay?”

While I was sitting outside the Coracle, the small church tent in the mishmash of religions and genres — mostly exotic — two people came up and asked the same question.

No — the prayer-tree was free. There was a tree under there somewhere, but, by Saturday morning, it was hidden under a blanket of coloured ribbons (strips of fabric taken from last year’s abandoned tents), each inscribed with a prayer in marker pen.

A few venues down the avenue was a Wish Tree. You had to pay for that.

Twenty minutes’ walk away — or more than 45 if you chose to make the journey when the concourses got busy — the main church tent was giving out cups of water. By the end of the festival, the organisers expected to have given out 20,000 cups. There was sometimes a short queue for the misting spray, too. All free.

These small gestures, designed to convey something very basic about God, sum up the church presence at the Glastonbury Festival. Over the past decade or so, what used to be a more customary approach, with give-away literature and so on, has been honed down to its simplest level: “positive engagement with a human being”.

The description was the Revd Chris North’s. His day job is National Discernment Adviser, but, for the past 22 years, he has helped in, and now co-chairs, the small steering group that runs the church space.

“Glastonbury is a spiritual place,” he said, “but people don’t expect to find the Church here — or if they do, it would be somewhere at the edge, wagging its finger.”

Many of the people he meets have been hurt by an encounter with the Church in the past, or by their experience of its teaching.

Jason BryantThe Coracle (in the chairs, the Revd Chris North and his daughter Gabby)

But the festival’s founder, Michael Eavis, who was serenaded in absentia during Coldplay’s set on Saturday night, worships in a Methodist church, and from the start gave a large marquee for the local churches to operate in. It is sited on the hill above the Pyramid Stage, made visible from afar by the big black cross on the sloping roof. The festival organisers provide 25 tickets for the volunteers who run it (and camp behind it, with the help of a mobile ex-Salvation Army tea-van and a fresh-water standpipe).

The group used to be bigger: Mr North regrets the post-Covid scaling down. Before the pandemic, a 70-strong church team ran a night shelter for festivalgoers who were too unwell, or too unhappy, or too lost, to return to their own tents — sometimes as many as 200 in a night. The festival organisers handed this task to the welfare team, saying to Mr North and his people “just be Church”.

The Coracle, where the prayer-tree was, is an example of this, now in its second year. Before, the church group had stayed aloof from the Healing Fields, with its tarot reading, hand-fasting, multiple forms of Buddhism, different styles of yoga, etc. Now, though, there is a Christian presence — modest, low-key, but friendly . . . and free. Most of the time it was staffed by Gabby, Mr North’s daughter: “The best conversations just happen.”

The Revd Lee Barnes, adviser for curacy and fresh expressions in the diocese of Bristol, was another on the team, also there with his daughter. He co-chairs the steering group, and has been coming to Glastonbury for 32 years, from the age of 18. He treats it like a retreat (not a silent one), and described himself as a big believer in “festival Christianity”. Festivals, he said, “are profoundly creative places where God can be discovered.”

DIOCESE OF BATH & WELLSThe Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, on Sunday

The Revd Alan Chandra, a self-supporting evangelist in Bristol, was there for the first time. His impression was of a spirit of generosity and openness — perhaps, paradoxically, because of the 15 kilometres of fencing round the site that now effectively keeps out the rest of the world (especially gatecrashers). “It gives people the freedom to be the person they want to be.”

They agreed, though, that people who came to the festival to escape the problems of everyday life often found that being there merely amplified them. “There’s nowhere more lonely to be than when surrounded by 250,000 people having a good time,” Mr North said.

Jo Morling was not lonely by any means, but she wasn’t having a good time. She was part of the six-strong Iona Community team. She sympathised with a teenager with ADHD who came to the Iona venue, a yurt with cushions, blankets, and a fire pit in a shady glade near Block 9, the grungey late-night zone. The girl was in tears, overwhelmed by sensory overload and in need of survival strategies.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Ms Morling said. “I love sitting here talking to people. You hear the most amazing stories.” She’ll be giving her ticket to another Iona volunteer next year, though.

Not all the encounters are chance ones. The main church tent was divided in two, one half kitted out like a living room, with flowery wallpaper and sofas, the other with an altar made from a wooden pallet. Here, the clergy in the team offered services for the renewal of marriage vows.

Jazmine and Gordon had been in touch with the team in January, after their planned wedding in Cyprus had to be postponed. They’d been thinking about hand-fasting, but did the church team do relationship blessings? They did (seven this weekend, plus two baptisms). The couple, dressed in matching leopard skin, sat in camping chairs before the altar for the readings, then the Revd Justine Richards gave an address: “This is not fluffy love that’s only going to exist at Glastonbury.” She prayed with them, just as Cyndi Lauper struck up with “Girls just want to have fun” from the Pyramid Stage.

Church TimesJazmine and Gordon have their relationship blessed by the Revd Justine Richards

The couple, who knew each other as teenagers, have been together for five years, and hope to marry when funds allow. Saturday’s ceremony won’t have hindered them: like the rest of the church offering, it was free — just another example of the message of generosity and openness that the church team hoped to convey.

The next day, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, would be given a five-minute speaking slot on the Pyramid Stage, but, for the most part, the church team at Glastonbury were working quietly under the radar, giving support and reassurance to hundreds of festivalgoers.

Ms Morling, in the Iona glade, summed it up. “People don’t come to be evangelised. They come for the madness that is Glastonbury, and places like this offer an oasis from the madness.”

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