If I had to describe this year’s Greenbelt festival in one word, it would be ‘wet’. Saturday saw torrential downpours of rain that reduced the area around the Big Top and the Jesus Arms to a lake of brown sludge. Still, it’s August, in Britain, at a festival. I guess it was to be expected.
Last year I was treated to the delights of Pete Rollins, Brian McLaren, amongst others, delighting, stretching, twisting, darkening, confusing and enlightening my mind in a rich mixture of doubt, faith, journey, question and justice. This year, I arrived feeling tired and burnt out. I opted not to go for many of the big thinkers: Kester Brewin, Jonny Baker and the like. I also didn’t feel like hearing the arguments of Giles Fraser, Shane Claiborne, Peter Tatchell and the other politically minded speakers – I felt a bit like I had ‘heard it all before’.
So instead I was content to enjoy only a smattering of headliners, but mostly the good food, the beer, and the music.
Tony Campolo did a wonderful job on Friday night. I always knew I would enjoy Tony speaking. His charisma fills a room no matter how large. He spoke on the subject of power and authority – how the world wants the former yet Jesus operates through the latter. As ever his thoughts were peppered with hilarious tales, crescendos and pointing fingers calling the crowd to response. Wonderful, vibrant, life giving stuff.
Tom Wright turned up, I can’t help but feel, as NT Wright. This was of course much to my delight as someone who can’t help but need something to feed the brain even on a weekend of relaxing. He spoke about what he perceives to be 4 angles on the Gospels, how the liberals have forgotten the cross and the conservatives have forgotten the kingdom. You could sense the tension in the room as he made his points – tension I think that was a result of everyone who was there drawing in breath through their teeth. Some (myself included) I am sure took heed of his wise words.
One of the more splendid moments of the weekend was a retort that the former Bishop of Durham gave to a question about the legitimacy of gay marriage, framed as a question of its existence in the age to come. Tom replied in the way Jesus would have done, framing the question as irrelevenat in the face of the fact there will be no marriage in the age to come, and it was a bit like a child being told what sex is, only to ask “but can I eat chocolate whilst I’m doing it” [a source of much hilarity to the crowd listening].
Katharine Moody spoke at the only other talk that I attended. Her talk was on Atheism for Lent and ‘A New Kind of Atheist’. My ego was disappointed not to get a mention – but my embarrassment was not! I found this one hard going, perhaps even going a little too far for my tired, burnt out brain to want to deal with. I’d had enough of that from Mr Rollins last year and at his conference in January. I sat there wondering if somehow we had missed the point, but I couldn’t figure out why I felt that way. Sorry Katharine, I thought you spoke well and were interesting. I guess I’m just not in that place right now?
I attended four worship events this year: Choral evensong, morning prayer with the Franciscans, and the obligatory Sunday Morning Communion. The surprise fourth edition was the wonderful Beer and Hymns.
Choral Evensong was a fascinating mix of high church cathedral choir singing and chanting (anathema to my Welsh Baptist upbringing, but a deliberate choice to expand my horizons) mixed with charismata (the gifts of the spirit – something in my time at a neo-Pentecostal church I have become overly familiar with). It was an obscure mix, tamer than I had hoped for, but with an openness to new things that I could not help but admire. It was a great space to simply stop, be, and pray.
Morning Prayer with the Franciscans was, in a way, another let-down. I had been hoping for full-blown Catholic, praying-with-dead-saints, Mary-mentioning prayer. I have always found Catholicism a challenge, so I always challenge myself to accept it by attending. Sadly, I hadn’t realised that it was an Anglican Franciscan order. It was still a pleasant start to the day, so I am thankful for them!
Sunday morning communion was weird. The theme was earth, air, fire and water – which seemed gratuitously pagan and unnecessarily convoluted. The deliberate portrayal of Jesus by female voices seemed patently unnecessary. That said, the music was really good fun and almost had a gospel-marching-bluesy feel to it which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would have liked to have heard more about the reason behind communion, though. It felt a bit devoid of the cross, even for someone as unconservative as myself.
And of course, beer and hymns – now a fully fledged Greenbelt institution. Though no longer a part of the lineup, this has now become something the crowds insist on creating anyway. We all flocked to the Jesus Arms for 6pm on Sunday to gather in the mud, shelter from the rain and belt out choruses such as Jerusalem, Swing Low Sweet Chariot (both painful for a Welshman), Amazing Grace (beautiful) and Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer (much more like it!). Stood there, singing these wonderful songs of old, ale in hand, was a fantastic experience I’ll be sure to repeat next year.
The Food & Drink
A particularly disappointing year compared to last year (the lack of a certain smoked wrap stall and the missing mash stall I found particularly upsetting) was not a total let down. The Goan Fish Curry was a fantastic dish, as was the ever brilliant Pieminister. To top it off, the liquid food was as good as ever, featuring this year pints of Bad Christian, Jonah and the Ale but sadly still no Ale Mary!
I think next year I may go back to trying to have breakfast and lunch ready made and waiting for me in my tent – it was significantly cheaper and I found I didn’t really have time to stop and think about food in between things.
The highlight for me this year has got to have been the music. I really, really enjoyed The Proclaimers, even if it was 57 minutes of humming along and nodding my head and then 3 minutes of pure, cheesy bliss! However the best pick of the year goes to Martyn Joseph and his showcase event, where he would introduce 3 acts and talk to them about their stories and get them to play some of their songs, topped up with one or two of his own.
A favourite of mine has to be Grace Petrie. I heard her last year and she was (and still is) fantastic. Political, charming, witty, beautifully voiced and all round easy to listen to. I’ll be buying her CDs in the near future!
I also enjoyed one of Martyn’s new songs, called ‘Not a good time for God’, which had a chorus of ‘Allelu-allelu-alleu-alleu-allah’, wonderfully reminiscent of my favourite band, mewithoutYou’s hit (with the fans at least) song, ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’ – a folksy, engaging song, real, gritty and worth a listen. Well done Martyn, hope to see you next year…
Although I went to less than I would have liked, I enjoyed Greenbelt this year. It wasn’t the euphoria and catharsis of last year for me, but I’ll gladly put that down to tiredness. Despite the weather, it was well organised, engaging, creative, wonderful, life giving, fascinating, diverse, inclusive, brilliant and god-honouring (for the most part!). Well done to all involved. I’ll gladly be back next year.