Greenbelt Festival

"This mass of beautiful, messy faces moving in the desire for the fulfillment of truth. Flesh and blood and bone and gospel, listening and talking, praying and fishing for the face of the divine. The courage to believe in the God who is bigger than ourselves is definitely the fruit of heavenly hope. All grammar aside, it is a place of welcome, mystery, color, and divinity." -- Sarah Masen

Greenbelt is one of the premier Christian arts festivals. Though it enjoys a reputation amongst British evangelicals as a place of liberal theology and questionable practices, it is still the pioneering festival for Christians involved in the arts and culture in Britain. From humblebeginnings in the mid-seventies, Greenbelt has seen crowds of 30,000 and more, with appearances by U2, Cliff Richard, Deacon Blue, Amy Grant, and hundreds and hundreds of other musicians. That the festival continues to develop is no surprise.

"I think the festival is getting broader. It started off as a sort of rock festival with a few stages and bands playing, and it gets broader. People find more and more things in it; it's kind of a Pandora's box of treasures." -- Andy Thornton, festival manager.

Greenbelt's main attraction for most people is its music program. There is, of course, a stage where the main bands of the weekend play. Four bands a night take to the mainstage and usually enjoy a crowd of respectable size, although the number varies a lot. Most years there is also a Big Top, a tent which has a capacity of around 3,000, where smaller acts play and some bands play extra sets. There is always a little top in which up-and-coming groups can play and acoustic sets can be seen. And finally there is the Bandstand, the place where most surprises come as bands turn up on the day and book their spot. Artists from the newest of groups to mainstage acts like All Star United have been seen on this stage; this is also the scene for the nightly Winnie The Pooh stories which are quickly earning a place in Greenbelt legends. There are often impromptu acoustic performances, either in one of the many late night cabaret tents or even busking outside.

Greenbelt's other obvious attraction is the speakers. This is the one place where many people feel they can come and explore their faith free of taboos and within a supportive environment. Also, it is here that Greenbelt has earned its "liberal" label -- it has received criticism for many things, including inviting a "white witch" to be interviewed and the exploration of various aspects of sexuality. Whatever the rights or wrongs of these issues, Greenbelt and most Greenbelters assert the right to explore them and come to a fresh understanding, and this is the only place in British Christendom where these things can take place within such a large set-up. Rather than deep theology, Greenbelt is more concerned with how we, as Christ's representatives on earth, should engage with the culture around us.

"Fundamentally, Greenbelt is an arts festival. It is a celebration and exploration of culture in its widest sense. There's a bit of all kinds of art, and there's an exploration of many aspects of culture through it. It's a weekend that tries to look at what the Christian gospel is in everyday terms, different communities, and people's lives individually." -- Andy Thornton

For myself, Greenbelt is pretty fundamental. It's the beginning and end of the year in a way. This year was my third at the Greenbelt festival, which took place on the grounds of a stately home in Northamptonshire, England.  Despite a promising turnout on Thursday night, overall attendance was down for a second year running--possibly a result of the growth of several othersummer festivals or the changeable weather conditions. This is a worrying trend as the decreasing attendance threatens the festival's financial position. As a result of these problems, the Greenbelt Committee is trying a number of new initiatives.

The most obvious addition this year was a fun fair, complete with Ferris wheel and lots of lights. This appears to have been a financial success but has come in for a lot of criticism. Some people felt that it detracted from the mood of the festival, especially since there were a couple of reports of sexual harassment of young girls by ride operators and the lights were somewhat distracting when seen from the mainstage area. Many of the younger people who were attending with youth groups headed straight there and didn't get to hear any of the more traditional elements of Greenbelt.  Having said that, the fair did remove some of the more boisterous elements from mainstage, and the crowds were, in general, calmer (in a good way) than last year.

Of course, most people seem to attend Greenbelt for the music, and there was plenty of excellent music around. Personally, I enjoyed seeing All Star United, Switchfoot, Iain Archer, Over The Rhine, Vigilantes of Love (Friday) and Why?, Split Level, The Choir, Delirious? and Iona (Sunday) on mainstage. I was a little disappointed by The Choir's set, which wasn't the awesome experience I had expected, perhaps because Steve and Derri were the only regular Choir members present. Small crowds were a very noticeable problem at mainstage this year. The crowd for Split Level was absolutely tiny, and this is definitely an issue which must be addressed before next year.

On the music front, one good change this year was a Thursday night introductory session where many of the weekend's musicians came and played fifteen-minute sets. This attracted a fair crowd and allowed bands to plug their main sets and the rest of us to wile away Thursday night.

Mainstage sets used to draw crowds numbering well over 20,000, but these days 10,000 is the most anyone can expect. Not surprisingly, Delirious? drew the biggest crowd of the festival, and the anticipation evident in the crowd was amazing. Unfortunately, their set was spoiled, for me, by a high energy but technically lack-lustre performance and extreme adulation of the band by the crowd. The atmosphere for the following band, though, was totally different. Iona's amazing performance and huge soundscapes had the crowd spellbound and made for an atmosphere that could be described as worshipful.

Sets in the Big Top were notable for the heat. There were a number of technical problems for the crew in this venue, but it was the setting for the sets of many a guitar-rock based band, as well as the final evening's dance sets from Raze and Goldie, which had the tent packed. Dance music continues to grow in popularity amongst the crowds at the festival, with a dedicated tent for club nights this year.

The smaller venues were notable for the eclectic range of artists who performed there. The Little Rock Top had artists from the established Sarah Masen (whose set was also spoiled by technical problems) to Pierce Pettis, to some very young and obviously inexperienced acts. I particularly enjoyed the Honey Thieves' Monday afternoon slot as people came in and danced away despite the awful conditions outside. Iain Archer's smaller show also captivated the audience with his fluid guitar playing.

Possibly the most interesting set of the weekend was All Star United on the tiny bandstand. Away from the huge scale of the mainstage, the guys made it feel very friendly, really showing that they are more than just glitz. The crowd was excited and very quickly got into the music, but the band seemed to have even more fun than their audience. It was a perfect Greenbelt moment.

The one area of music which did seem a little under-represented this year was the more extreme end of rock. For those looking for metal and industrial, there was little worthy of their attention. One band, who put on a good show, was a Hendrix-y, hard rock outfit called Dust, but apart from them, metal was almost impossible to find.

The seminar program seemed a little more concentrated this year. I heard a talk by Graham Cray (principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge Theological College and a noted commentator) on post-modernity and one from Mike Riddell (a New Zealander who was expelled from his baptist church) on culture. Other seminars included talks on various issues by John Bell of the Iona community, several on post-evangelicalism, and many on social action.

Social action continues to grow as an emphasis of Greenbelt. This year Monday was given over to an event called Overground. This was advertised widely as a separate event. The mainstage line-up was almost exclusively mainstream, and there was a drum-n-bass night in the big top featuring techno star Goldie. Seminars focused on social action. One speaker meant to appear was an anti-roads campaigner (famous for digging tunnels around the proposed sites of roads and hiding in them) called Swampy, but, unfortunately, he couldn't attend as there was a warrant out for his arrest!

Unfortunately the day was something of a wash-out. Heavy rain led to lots of mud, few people came for the day, and many weekend visitors left early. There were many complaints about the increased security on the day. Financially, too, the day was a failure, but Greenbelt chair Andy Thornton stands by what they hope to accomplish. "It was a financial flop, although you should hear the praises that we got from all the artists who came. They said that Greenbelt was the best atmosphere at a festival they'd ever been to. Even with the dreaded security. . . . If we are going to make our festival open and accessible to people outside the church, we will have to be wise about how to keep the atmosphere right. Last year people complained about the amount of drugs and alcohol on site. This was not reported at all this year. We succeeded in one thing!"

"I would like Greenbelt to not be a 'ghetto' event but still to sparkle with the distinctiveness of the light of God amongst the people. I think this will be a longish walk and demand the participation of all supporters. If the reputation of Greenbelt is improved by artists like Goldie (who is nothing if not credible) letting people know it's a good event to play, then our hand is strengthened. It would be hard for you to imagine what we go through in trying to get acts to our 'Christian' event. We are constantly breaking down stereotypes and building trust." 

"OverGround did not achieve what we expected or wanted. On one level it was a failure, on another it was part of a process which we believe was an honest offering to God; we will work to receive what we can learn from it and capitalize on the opportunities that come out of it."

There was much to enjoy about Greenbelt this year. As well as what I have mentioned, there is always the unique atmosphere of the festival and the chance to meet up with old friends. Despite the many criticisms I have heard, I have yet to hear anyone say they won't be back next year. 

I know I will.

By: James Stewart 

Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth