Much consternation was heard in this vicinity when rumors began to appear early last year that Greenbelt 1998, the twenty-fifth of its kind, was to be the last. From the days in the mid 80s when it was attracting crowds over 30,000, the growth of other events and a string of events hampered by bad weather meant that by 1997 attendance had dipped under the 15,000 mark.
It is my view that Greenbelt has been a very important factor in the church in Britain over the past quarter century, and the kind of forum which is essential if any meaningful exploration is to take place. Among some evangelical groups, however, the festival had gained something of a "liberal" label as it attempted to appeal to a broad church and yet explore cutting edge issues. Moves like inviting a "white witch" to speak at the event and connections with the Nine O’clock Service, a rave-worship event in Sheffield which collapsed among questions about its embrace of creation theology (a form of pantheism) and sexual scandals, meant that the festival had lost some credibility among some people.
On top of this, the average age of Greenbelters has been increasing. Many of those who started coming in the early days of the festival still stick with it. But they are often parents themselves now, and the camping format is not as practical. Many are forced to stay away until their children are at an easier age to bring to the event.
Festival manager Andy Thornton was more than happy to concede in statements that the event had occasionally made mistakes, but that's part of the way any event treading this path will pan out. Theologian Soren Kierkegaard has a story in one of his books where there is a frozen lake with an island in the middle. Around most of the lake the ice is thick and people are skating happily, but near the island the ice is weak. This would all be well and good, but there is a treasure on this island more precious than any other and it is essential that the people get it. But the people are oblivious and while they get more and more skilled at coming near the weak ice without venturing onto it, unless someone will venture onto it, the treasure will never be recovered.
The Greenbelt board realize that it is essential that there is some place where those who wish to push across the weak ice in order to reach the truth that lies on the island can make this exploration together. But they also have financial considerations to consider. As such they have been in talks with other organizations about how to continue and at this year's event the future plans were unveiled.
Greenbelt will continue, but it will be at a new location and over a different weekend. At the end of July a festival very similar to the present festival but with a broader range of arts and seminars will take place at Cheltenham Race Course, a venue which will allow both open-air and enclosed meetings and a range of accommodations. Mainly aimed at the older portion of the Greenbelt crowd, it will still be open to younger people.
In co-operation with Spring Harvest (who run a series of teaching/worship conferences over the Easter period) a new event called FreeState will be established for "adolescents whatever their age." This will be a forum where young people are encouraged to encounter God through the arts, but with a strong emphasis on popular music. The involvement of Spring Harvest will please many evangelicals as this organization has a lot more credibility with that group.
I have heard a variety of concerns raised about the new events. Some are worried that Spring Harvest's involvement will stifle the exploration at the event, others are worried that this is a separation of Greenbelt into young and old which won't work. Still others are concerned that if the "Greenbelt" event is family-based and the "FreeState" event is youht-based then those who don't fit into either camp will feel ostracized. How things will work out remains to be seen, but I for one am encouraged that this pragmatic approach will work out positively.