For some people the annual Greenbelt festival, with its blend of music, arts, justice and spirituality, is an article of their faith. It provokes a fierce devotion in those who would never dream of being anywhere else on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
But as the trustees of the festival have made clear, Greenbelt faces serious challenges. It moved to a new site last year, costs rose and the event lost money which has meant using up their reserves. They are looking at a smaller festival this year and the future seems uncertain.
I have written before on R&R that Greenbelt has been my favourite Christian festival because of its outward focus and commitment to justice. I have been many times and cherish great memories of inspirational seminars from people like Jim Wallis, Dave Andrews and John Smith.
But the disappointing side of Greenbelt is it’s tendency to be too right-on and predictably liberal in both its politics and theology. In terms of who is invited to speak, it definitely pushes the envelope, but only in one direction. Too often, in my experience, more conservative perspectives are sneered at rather than engaged with.
‘Guardian-reading echo chamber’
I didn’t go to last year’s festival but I saw a panel of people they had assembled to discuss poverty. From the make-up of the panel, it was hard to see where much disagreement would come from. A friend of my mine who did attend the discussion, confirmed my concerns: ‘It was like being stuck in a Guardian-reading echo chamber.’ However worthy, no one ever finds a panel of nodding heads very exciting.
Also, the youth work I have seen, and participated in, at Greenbelt lacks the kind of conviction which brings energy and vibrancy. In contrast to the approach of an event like Soul Survivor, there was a timidity and uncertainty about the core Christian basis of what was being shared. There needs to be more than a commitment to ‘inclusion’ to inspire and excite young people.
The Chair of the Greenbelt Trustees, Andy Turner has written honestly about the challenges facing the festival and asks some fundamental questions, including:
- Is there a big enough audience in the UK for a progressive festival of arts, faith and justice? Do the wider demographics of religious institutions suggest Greenbelt’s audience is disappearing? Or is a Festival like this now more necessary than ever?
- Is Greenbelt still needed? (10,500 people who bought tickets in 2014 think so… but are they enough?)
- We love the young people who attend the Festival but there’s not enough of them so how can Greenbelt become more their thing again?
I think that fundamental to answering all these questions is the core issue of spiritual confidence. In my opinion, Greenbelt needs to re-discover its spiritual mojo. The Christian faith has been a huge part of Greenbelt’s story, and it will be fundamental to its vision going forward.
Greenbelt needs to rediscover it spiritual nerve: to be prepared to be properly radical by getting back to the roots from which it was birthed. In many ways, the church is more than ever committed to social justice – but often the new initiatives are not coming from liberal and traditional churches. It should have more contributions from charismatic churches and learn from the spiritual vibrancy of other events like New Wine and Big Church Day Out.
The source of inclusion
Greenbelt cherishes its inclusivity. But, this inclusion comes from a divine source – it is not simply self-generated.
Christians believe that God created the abundant diversity of humanity. That each and every person is made in God’s image. And that this God continues to reach out to everyone with grace and the most inclusive love possible.
We worship a God who is radically inclusive. But we don’t worship inclusion itself. There is a big difference: the unearned grace of God must always remain central and not be replaced by a celebration of human tolerance. This means talking confidently about Jesus, as well as justice.
There are many examples of institutional Christianity that are dying across the country – but there are also forms of faith which are flourishing. I hope Greenbelt can re-discover its spiritual confidence and continue to be a gathering which inspires engaged, Christ-centred spirituality that makes a real difference in the world.
See Greenbelt’s website for more details about the 2015 festival.