Over 21,000 visitors to the Greenbelt Christian festival have returned home after four days of worship, music, talks and performances. They were urged by Baptist minister Kate Coleman to remember that “God inevitably breaks free from our theological dogmas and challenges us to meet him in a different worldview, a different culture, a different theology”.
Greenbelt, one of Britain's largest Christian events, is known for its focus on society, politics and the arts. This year's theme was “the art of looking sideways”.
Christian Aid and the Methodist Church are among the major sponsors of the festival, which was held at Cheltenham Racecourse from Friday 27 to Monday 30 August.
Addressing the united communion service on Sunday morning, Coleman insisted that, “We're all capable of finding God in unexpected places and in unexpected ways”. She prayed, “Lord give us sidesight – the ability to look over our shoulders into our blind spot, into someone else's reality”.
Prominent speakers at this year's Greenbelt included theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Rohr, human rights activist Peter Tatchell and politician Clare Short. Also drawing in the crowds were poet Roger McGough, the theatre company Applecart and, on the musical side, Courtney Pine and Gil Scott Heron. The programme also included numerous events for children and young people.
“Every time I come to Greenbelt, I learn something new and realise how much more I don't know,” said regular visitor Mark Russ of north London.
“There was space for alternative versions of Christianity,” said Ellen Elliott of east London, who was attending Greenbelt for the first time. She told Ekklesia, “It's quite amazing to come together with so many people, who I think are relatively diverse, who have a spiritual outlook and who are comfortable talking about that”.
Hilary Macmeekin, who was attending the festival with her children and with her parents, said, “The children's festival this year was outstanding. The events are so well-organised. It's just completely all-age now”.
Acts of worship at Greenbelt ranged from Greek Orthodox vespers to Quaker Meetings. A mass run by members of the Catholic Worker movement included a strong focus on the political nature of Jesus' message, with a calling to active nonviolence and resistance to war and oppression.
A large number of campaigning and charitable groups ran stalls and events at the festival. Outer Space had both a pastoral and campaigning function by bringing together organisations affirming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Christians. The Peace Zone was hosted by members of the Network of Christian Peace Organisations (NCPO).
“We've had quite a range of ways for people to engage with active nonviolence that cater for all ages,” explained Amy Hailwood of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the Peace Zone organisers, “We have had quite a lot of people coming up to ask questions”.
Other peace groups at the festival included Conscience, a group campaigning on the use of taxation for military purposes, who were attending Greenbelt for the first time. Visitors to the group's stall included a soldier who was considering leaving the armed forces after his recent conversion to Christianity.
Many of the political talks and debates had international themes, with Palestine, South Africa and the US all featuring on the programme. Sessions on domestic politics included a panel discussion on faith in politics and a workshop asking what we would each say to David Cameron and Nick Clegg in only two minutes.
But Niall Cooper of Church Action on Poverty expressed disappointment that Greenbelt had not made more space to focus on domestic political issues. He told Ekklesia that “there's no talk of cuts and it's as if the election hadn't happened”.
Greenbelt nonetheless had a powerful effect on some. Amy Poulson told Ekklesia that she is considering becoming a vegetarian after attending a panel debate on meat-eating. Nicki Crow of Cardiff said that at Greenbelt she can be accepted as a Christian in a same-sex relationship. She said that she wanted Christians who have a problem with homosexuality and bisexuality to feel able to attend Greenbelt and to engage in dialogue.
Naomi Jacobs of Nottingham said that Greenbelt had considerably improved access for disabled people over the last three years. “It's still tricky, but there are a lot of things that make it easier,” she explained, while urging Greenbelt to go further and to ensure that more of those working on site had training on disability issues.
Numbers at Greenbelt increased significantly since 2009, despite the economic situation and a call by the socially conservative group Anglican Mainstream for a boycott of Greenbelt. The group are unhappy that the gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was invited to speak at the festival.
Greenbelt visitors questioned by Ekklesia's reporter displayed a range of reactions to the boycott call. Some were unaware of it, while others were very angry.
“It's ridiculous censorship,” said Emily Jesper, “Greenbelt is a perfect opportunity to have discussion. If they can't enter into debate, they might have some problems themselves”.
Clive Gardner of Brighton, who attended Tatchell's talk, said he found him “very fair-minded”. He added, “I think Anglican Mainstream have shot themselves in the foot, because it shows them to be against dialogue and debate, and therefore against growth”.
The religion and society thinktank Ekklesia suggested last week that Greenbelt is showing the institutional churches the way forward in a post-Christendom era.