Reflections on Greenbelt

Main stage at Greenbelt

Main stage at Greenbelt

Isn’t it amazing what a little light hearted bribery can achieve?! My husband hates camping. Full stop. Hates packing the car. Hates putting the tent up. Hates cold washes and sleeping on a lilo. Until this weekend. What happened?

The promise of seeing Beverly Knight and The London Community Gospel Choir live, had him racing up the loft to grab the kit bags ( well almost, a girl can exaggerate, slightly! ).  

Greenbelt Arts Festival has now been running since 1974; initially a, ‘dream born on the unsettled non-conformist edges of the church’. The vision for Greenbelt has grown dramatically, in a nutshell, Greenbelt simply is about action.  I was overwhelmed by the plethora of opportunities to be engaged in and inspired by individuals and organisations who are making a real difference, a difference made by working for God’s peace, healing and friendship throughout the world.

I was also underwhelmed by the presence of fellow Catholics. I knew they were there, but where exactly? Certainly, our news that we were attending Greenbelt this year wasn’t met with enthusiasm in some quarters!  Why? This was what I set out to explore through the weekend!

Greenbelt caused controversy earlier this year in inviting LGBT activist Peter Tatchell, and whilst many may have boycotted attendance at the festival because of his participation, his session was very well attended and generated much discussion. I would have to agree with guest Greenbelt blogger, Susannah Cornwall, who commended the organisers of Greenbelt for  realising, ‘that the intelligent, critically-aware people who attend Greenbelt are well able to receive speakers from a range of perspectives proactively and generously, and that they do not feel the need to dampen down "dangerous" or "subversive" topics.’ There are simply so many other opportunities to see and take part in alternative events at Greenbelt, it would be quite easy to overlook those areas one would rather not get caught up in. Alternatively, GB is the ideal forum for intelligent, open debate.

 ‘Catholic Women Ordination’ are currently responsible for funding the display of the words ‘Pope Benedict – Ordain Women’ on 15 buses in central London. Pat Brown was certainly not the militant I might have expected and was very eloquent in her discussion with me of her passion for the future of the Catholic Church and her desire and that of her co-volunteers at CWO in addressing the various issues of misogyny they see in the Catholic Church worldwide. Ordination of women is but one of their foci. Yet another opportunity for open discussion; should you dare to!

Music at Greenbelt is still a major draw and this year’s line up certainly held something to suit the taste of anyone. Luke Leighfield, echoed the sentiments of a number of musicians and contributors that I met, in his passionate plea that Christians shouldn’t tolerate ‘mediocre music’ and that we should expect more from musicians. As the wife of a worship leader, I couldn’t agree more. For those of you especially allergic to happy clappy worship, rest assured I was hard pressed to find any. The one opportunity I may have indulged myself was at, ‘Beer and Hymns’. Unfortunately, by the time we had put our tent up for the second time (that’s another story) the queues were operating on a 1 in, 1 out basis. Our friends were effusive in their praise for the event, it does what it says on the tin, and apparently well lubricated voices =uninhibited worship!  B&H is so popular you can buy the T shirt; just in case you forget which event you want to book ahead for next year!

Jon Thatcher from Delirious was quoted back in 2007 as saying, ‘God loves art. It doesn’t have to be Christian art. God has created everything and his fingerprints are everywhere.’  GB offers a huge variety of musical fingerprints, from mainstream pop to hard core punk and hip hop.  As Rob, 21 from Brighton shared with me, ‘There’s so much variety you can take it or leave it.’

Another reason for running away from GB is the fear that it treads on the margins of Christian spirituality; certainly there is much that could be mistaken as more Glastonbury festival than cathedral. One such event was the ‘Gothic Eucharist’. As a fan of over-indulging in black kohl and super strength hairspray in my youth, I was very curious to attend the ‘Gothic Eucharist’ Saturday evening. Having felt rejected by the Church on reason that my dress style and musical preference was unacceptable, I wanted to see how this life style was now assimilated into the Christian Church. Even more so, I wanted to find out how, if at all, the gothic Christians balanced on the edge of Christian spirituality.

My accompanying Baptist and Anglican friends, and I, were immediately struck by how ‘traditional’ the service was.  Indeed, having expected to attend a radical experience , my friends were quite disappointed!  The music, provided by ‘nchant’, a combination of contemporary worship songs with medieval chanting, would not have been out of place in a Catholic Mass of bygone days. On questioning Fr Alex Gowing-Cumber of Chelmsford Diocese the next day, he reflected that Goths aspire, ‘ to an age rooted  in tradition... that in a time constantly changing very rapidly, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel, it still works, it’s God.’ On whether he was concerned that Christian Goths may dabble in other spiritual paths, Alex said he didn’t see anything to overly concern him. At the end of the day, he insisted, he is just a vicar with an ordinary parish. And yes he does wear his big stompy Goth boots and piercings on hospitals visits!

Fr Martin Poulsom, SDB identified that GB has been working quite hard to be more inclusive to Catholics in order to appeal to a larger cross section of the Christian community. He also believes the ‘back story’ of Greenbelt can be off putting to Catholics who don’t know anything else about Greenbelt but believes, ‘because there is so much choice on offer now there is something for everyone.’ In addition to Mass on Saturday afternoon celebrated by Fr Martin Newell from the London Catholic Worker community, Fr Martin Poulsom offered reconciliation alongside clergy from other denominations. Together with these opportunities of explicit Catholic expression, there were numerous other contributors agencies present , including Fr Richard Rohr, Pax Christi UK, CAFOD and Traidcraft.

Greenbelt doesn’t shy away from political controversy; neither does it actively condone the activists it provides a stage for. Rather, Greenbelt provides for us, the discerning punter, an opportunity to engage in discussion and challenge our grey matter, in addition to simply having a great time. As artist Yvonne Bell commented that the laid back ethos of Greenbelt simply, ‘allows Jesus in.’ In reaching out to those very often on the fringes of some of our churches, one really must question what Jesus would do. As someone who paved the way in reaching out to children, tax collectors, criminals and sex workers, on what side of the Greenbelt fence would He stand?

Noelle Griffin is a Catholic Deputy Head Teacher and Catechist living in the West Country

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