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Reform Magazine | December 7, 2023

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God’s playground: Greenbelt at 40

God’s playground: Greenbelt at 40

Stephen Tomkins pitches up at the festival

Some say that at the first Greenbelt, festival-goers were outnumbered by police. In 1973, music festivals were associated with violent clashes between police and hippies, so when a new one sprang up on Prospect Farm in Suffolk, local residents reportedly barricaded themselves into their houses, and all police leave in the county was cancelled. A couple of hours into the festival, it was clear that a fieldful of Christians listening to poems, songs, and talks such as “The Biblical Basis for Rock Music” was not quite the threat it had appeared, and most of the police were stood down.

Greenbelt has come a long way since then, not least in that it has an attendance of 20,000 and a police presence of two. What started out as a music festival now stretches from Franciscan meditation to rap Shakespeare, and from art workshops to stand up comedy. The talks programme has included Rowan Williams on mystical experience, Anita Roddick on activism, Billy Bragg on prison, and Lucy Winkett on prayer.

At the same time, it has graduated from a youth event to something for people of all ages, and – not unconnected with that – from a succession of fields to Cheltenham racecourse, where audiences can enjoy the indulgence of solid ground and ceilings, and above all real toilets rather than unspeakable holes in the ground.

“Greenbelt is about creating a space,” according to its director Paul Northup, who first came to the festival in 1984 in a youth group minibus. “It’s a clearing, for people to ask questions they might not otherwise be able to ask, to think thoughts they might not otherwise be able to think, to be provoked and challenged. And it creates a space for an encounter with kinds of artistic expression they wouldn’t otherwise come across, that changes and motivates them.”

The festival has had its troubles. Visitors in 1986 faced not just rain and mud, but Hurricane Charlie. Some campers ended up sleeping in village halls, others went to hospital with hypothermia. In 1991, a panel discussion involving a pagan, and an art exhibition including a nude, led to denunciations in the Christian media. Campers endured a succession of miserable August bank holidays in the 1990s. From a peak of 30,000 in 1990, attendance fell to 6,000 in 1999, and Greenbelt lost money, getting into substantial debt.

“It all but wiped Greenbelt out, really,” says Northup. “If various trustees hadn’t remortgaged their houses then it would have ended at the end of the 1990s.” The problem, he believes, is that Greenbelt was created by “fairly radical, nonconformist mavericks” on the fringe of church life, because they were frustrated by the lack of room for creativity and experiment in Christian culture. It had then grown to a huge event geared largely to youth groups. The mavericks still wanted to push boundaries – “to be prophetic in a way that wasn’t always that responsible”. Youth leaders were nervous and decided other events would be safer.

After its attendance dropped, however, Greenbelt rediscovered its mission to offer something different from mainstream Christian culture, and has built up a large loyal following of all ages and from a variety of Christian backgrounds.

What takes people to Greenbelt? Andrew Rumsey, a minister who goes with his family, says: “In some ways, attending Greenbelt aged 16 set the course of my life, offering a creative kind of Christianity that I could imagine myself pursuing. Spiritual home is a cliché, but sums it up.”

Rebecca Timnis, who performs in the comedy programme, says: “For three days of my year it feels as if everything is possible, that kindness and friendship can prevail and that the church can be a place where all are welcome and instead of asking ‘Why?’ we ask ‘Why not?’”

And according to Steve Foster, who oversees theatre at Greenbelt: “Every summer we get to build God’s playground”.

For Paul Northup, the highlight has been campaigning: “At Greenbelt, you feel part of a community that wants change and is dynamic enough to be part of effecting change. From early anti-apartheid moments, through Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000, to Make Poverty History, Greenbelt provides a really powerful voice in the life of the Christian community in this country, and people are made to pay attention.”

If I might step in here myself for a bit, as someone who has been repeatedly inspired, challenged and refreshed by Greenbelt, I’d like to list all the qualities that make it an annual fixture in my own calendar. But I won’t. I think the point is better made by one story. There are many that could be told, and this is one of them.

2011 was the year the musician Billy Bragg did his talk about prison and his Jail Guitar Doors programme where he uses music in prisons to give inmates the opportunity to start changing their lives. He brought with him Leon Walker, who first went to prison for four years when he was 17, and followed that up with five more prison sentences throughout his 20s, all for drug-related crimes. Leon told his story, which culminated in discovering songwriting through Jail Guitar Doors, and his attempts now to make it in the outside world as, among other things, a law-abiding citizen and musician.

Then he sang. He performed charming, down-to-earth songs about his day-to-day life, and we responded with huge applause – loving the songs, but also thrilled by the privilege of seeing one person against the odds turn his life around, and feeling that for this moment we were part of that new beginning.

As Walker beamed, Billy Bragg whispered something to him, and he nodded vigorously. Asked later what Bragg had said to him, Walker replied: “He said: ‘This is better than drugs, isn’t it?’ And it is, it really is.”

It was a unique moment, but there’s nothing unique about unique moments at Greenbelt, they’re a regular feature.

In the interests of editorial balance I should add that despite all the indoor venues, a seriously rainy weekend can also be a seriously muddy one. But is the risk of mud really something to put you off visiting God’s playground?


Stephen Tomkins is the editor of  Reform Magazine


This article was published in the June 2013 edition of  Reform.

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