This is the second part of Foundation’s story (told in “autobiographical” form). In this instalment I describe first impressions of the Greenbelt Festival, another vital ingredient in the creation and development of the group.
Last time I described my first exposure to "alternative worship" and the "post-evangelical" scene in the year 2000, while attending a smaller charismatic church in London, St Stephen’s Westbourne Park, which was on the edge of the Greenbelt scene. Just as it was this church community that introduced me to the post-evangelicals, it was also they who introduced me to Greenbelt.
When I was in big London evangelical congregations during my early Christian days (1997-9), “Greenbelt” had been a byword for all that was bad in the church – New Age, pagan or liberal spirituality – mixed in with acts and speakers who weren’t even from the church. In short, Greenbelt was dangerous. Not coming from Christian family origins, I had rapidly assimilated evangelical views and took such judgments at face value, as being both true and necessarily negative. However, my new comrades at St Stephen’s (still evangelicals, but of a different stamp) assured me that I would love it. They also assured me that it was very different to the week-long praise and prayer jamborees that I had avoided during those big church years. So in 2001 I decided to take the plunge and attend my first Christian festival, on the late August bank holiday weekend.
I arrived at Cheltenham Racecourse on Friday afternoon around 4pm, just as things were starting to whirr into life. Queuing for a programme I caught a glimpse of dreadlocked protester types, skaters, families, and monks in brown robes milling about. Having got coffee and cake (for many Greenbelters, a staple diet) I sat down on the circular concrete steps of the small arena in the Grandstand to enjoy the view of tents, stalls and mounting, antlike activity under the cloudless sky. When the opening beat, scratch and riff of Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” kicked off from the towering banks of speakers, I knew I was home.
Much as Critical Mass the previous year had been a revelation, so was this. It suggested the existence of another Christian world entirely. But who were these people? A definable group existing all year round, a secret society working out of its own particular churches... Or a population emerging just once a year from the nooks and crannies of every kind of congregation – every maverick, every square peg in a round hole, from Orthodox to Baptist – to assemble in the August sun? From the sheer variety of types present, it seemed to be predominantly the latter. I learned that some were the waifs and strays of conservative churches. Others were liberals for whom there was a general advertised church trip. And for others again, Greenbelt was their only church, a place they came once a year having otherwise retired from active involvement. But some, I noted, were indeed entire groups formed specifically with a “Greenbelt” ethos: the secret society of my theory. These were the post-evangelicals, the alternative worshippers, such as I had encountered at Critical Mass. So this was further food for thought. Perhaps one could inhabit this atmosphere all year round.
I have several fond memories of that first Greenbelt, or perhaps of the early cluster of Greenbelts as inevitably they tend to merge in my mind. But a few impressions stand out, and they are related to what happened next.
First, there was a real engagement with the arts and unfettered creativity. I had been part of the Christian arts scene in London and liked it well enough, but the attitude at Greenbelt seemed more organic: not so much art as evangelism or conscious witness, but rather as the spontaneous expression of God’s own creativity, working through artists. Art as an exuberant explosion, rather than a tool to be used. And it was art in every possible medium, a banquet of which the Critical Mass event of the previous year had been a mere foretaste.
Secondly, and probably as a consequence of the attitude in the first point, there was none of the awkwardness of the Christian culture I had known for the past four years. But at the same time an irresistible atmosphere of Christian spirituality pervaded everything. Late at night, up in the area round the Grandstand, there were things going on that struck me as simply better than anything in the culture outside. Or at least better when all jumbled up together in this way, under the canopy of this safe and welcoming ethos, this spiritual atmosphere. There were incredible bands, talks, skateboarding kids, a nightclub, a bar crammed with old friends reunited after a year’s separation... and no trouble. No sense of danger such as one felt at many festivals. (In confirmation of this impression: later I took my seasoned secular festival-going sister-in-law, who arrived sceptical but departed completely convinced.)
Thirdly, the soul or heartbeat of the whole event, it seemed to me with my increasingly partisan gaze, was the form of worship I had experienced at St Luke’s Holloway: alternative worship. Up in the Grandstand there was a large room designated the New Forms Café, which featured a lineup of groups from across the UK conducting alt worship services throughout the evening and into the early hours. The room was equipped with sophisticated tech including multiple screens, projectors and speakers. The mood was ambient, chilled - an extension of that darkened back room at St Luke’s with the looped images and sofas. Among the groups on the roster was one from Bristol, called Resonance.
The above image shows the small arena in the Grandstand as referred to in the story. Credit must be given to Steve Collins, whose superb Small Fire website is a photographic chronicle of Greenbelt and alternative worship, with a focus on the latter's peak years of 2000 to 2006.