“What God might be up to”
Greenbelt Festival and the United Reformed Church are going into partnership for the next two years. It’s a plan involving scrap metal, cake, flash mob liturgy and big questions, as Stephen Tomkins discovers
There are acrobats clambering around a huge wooden wheel. A brass band appears in the middle of a field and is soon surrounded by a whooping crowd. A woman in a tent explains what faith has to do with fashion. A man with a guitar sings “songs for the healing and songs for the coming home”. India’s first female bishop presides over Communion. A panel discusses how to build a grassroots movement as children run past with homemade kites. Strains of “Thine Be the Glory” waft from the beer tent.
Greenbelt is an event not quite like any other in Britain. It has happened for more than 40 consecutive years since 1974, bringing together faith, the arts and social justice. Though it started out as a straightforward Christian music festival, it now has a broader focus, including a vast range of worship, theatre and comedy, and talks on radicalisation, dementia, peacemaking and liturgy, all explored in the context of Christian faith.
In January 2016, the United Reformed Church became an official associate partner of Greenbelt for two years. It is supporting the festival financially and making contributions to the festival programme. In 2016, those events will be on the overall theme of “Scrap the Church?” (note the question mark!), inviting festivalgoers to have a radical rethink about the Christian Church. Is it doing the work of Christ on earth, or getting in his way? Is Church fit for purpose or has it missed the point of God’s kingdom? Do we plough on as ever, or is it time to do something new? The “Scrap the Church?” events include flash mob liturgy, a scrap metal church art installation, a panel discussion, and a young people’s “cake and debate” session. There will also be a URC exhibition stall hosting daily events.
“It’s really wonderful,” says Paul Northup, Creative Director of Greenbelt, “to be in partnership with a denomination with such a long, rich history of radicalism and theological thoughtfulness. Greenbelt tries to critique both church and culture, and the URC is keen to explore the big questions: ‘What is Church? What will it be in the future?’ – those questions that we want to ask too.”
The URC’s reasons for the partnership are twofold, according to Francis Brienen, the denomination’s Deputy General Secretary (Mission). “We want to support Greenbelt in being an invaluable resource for churches,” she says, “and we will be using the opportunity to let people know more about the URC and what we are about. There is a shared spirit between Greenbelt and the URC: we want to see the world transformed by an imaginative, questioning, inclusive, engaged people of God. Individuals and groups in the URC have enjoyed and contributed to Greenbelt for many years, now we are looking forward to working together on a bigger scale.”
One of the organisers of the URC’s programme is Anne Sardeson, who is creating the flash mob liturgy. She describes it as: “Worship springing up in the unexpected places to make us wonder about what God might be up to when we’re least prepared. I hope.” A longtime Greenbelter, Ms Sardeson describes the festival as “a place where lots of things meet: different ways of talking about God; different ways of thinking about life; different people; different ideas and energies”.
This reflects Paul Northup’s experience, coming to Greenbelt as a teenager in 1984. “I belonged to a little village Baptist church,” he says, “and I thought that was the way you could be Christian. Greenbelt gives you a bigger sense of what it means to be a person of faith. It gives a global perspective. It puts you cheek-by-jowl with other traditions, introduces you to new ideas and experiences, and that is enriching.”
August 2016 will be Greenbelt’s third festival at Boughton House, a greenfield site near Kettering in Northamptonshire, after 15 years at Cheltenham racecourse. “It’s fantastic,” says Mr Northup. “We’re still settling in, but it’s a beautiful site that offers respite from the hurly-burly of the everyday world.”
Is Greenbelt for you? Northup’s advice is: “Give Greenbelt a go, even if it’s just for one day. Look at Greenbelt as a potential resource for church work the year round, a window into other possibilities. It exists for Christians who are committed to living a full life in this world and making a difference, through justice, creativity and generosity. It is a space to equip and inspire and resource and provoke Christians to live more deeply in their present settings.”
If you have a leadership role in a local church, and haven’t been to Greenbelt before, there are drastically reduced tickets for ministers and paid worship leaders and youth leaders attending for the first time. Instead of the full adult ticket price of £145, you pay just £50.
As for me, I’ll be there for the 15th year in a row. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Stephen Tomkins is editor of Reform
This article was published in the May 2016 edition of Reform.