Thought for the Week – Greenbelt

Joanna Kelly, congregation member and volunteer, shares her experience of attending Greenbelt, an arts, faith and justice festival with a long and rich history.

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Church Window Mask

Greenbelt is an arts, faith and justice festival which began in 1974. This year was its 50th anniversary and since 2014 it has been set in the beautiful grounds of Boughton House near Kettering, deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.  Every year on the August bank holiday over ten thousand Christians of all traditions and persuasions as well as people of other spiritualities and no faith at all, converge and set up a village of tents, coming together as community for four days to learn, to be challenged and inspired, to create, to connect to the earth and one another.

This was my first time at Greenbelt although not for want of trying. Twenty-three years ago, I attempted to persuade my conservative church youth group to ditch Soul Survivor (a Christian youth festival in the evangelical charismatic tradition with emotional worship sessions and persuasive preaching) and go to Greenbelt instead. However, someone argued that it was ‘theologically unsound’ as their older brother had attended once and been disturbed by the theme that year – “God as Mother”! This was heady stuff, steeped as I was in conservative traditional theology so although I was voted down by the rest of the group to my chagrin, I have been intrigued ever since. St James’s Piccadilly has long been associated with Greenbelt and so I could think of no better way to finally go for the first time than with a group of fellow SJP members. Here are some of their thoughts and impressions:

Debbie O’Brien – When I arrived to the wide-open skies, green fields, fluttering flags of welcome at Greenbelt this year I prayed “teach my heart to worship you God”. This morning (Sunday) at a wonderful communion service, my heart was flooded with worship, in song, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah, you’re not alone the angels say’, sharing bread and wine with thousands.

Elijah Kinne – I’m so busy all the time. Life seems to be on a rollercoaster and my base line state is summed up in one word, ‘Coping’.  “Perhaps try to be a little more aware of yourself and what you need while you’re there,” I said to myself.  Throughout Greenbelt, I had endless conversations and listened to dialogues and talks about the importance of inhabiting our bodies fully. Mindfully grounded in a spiritual return to a deep rootedness in the present with Christ by my side. The journey home has been in contemplation as I move back into that state of coping. There is so much vastness to be explored in the deep places. So much to sit with. So much to hold.

Sarah Legrand – My favourite moment this year was walking down a woodland track in conversation with a friendly four-year-old. “I’ve got a special bracelet” he confided. “It’s so I don’t get lost”. “Look, I’ve got one too”, I said, showing him my festival wristband. He looked at it thoughtfully and then at me. “Is that so you don’t get lost?”

When I do – which seems to happen more regularly these days than aged 4 – Greenbelt is somewhere that brings me back to who I am and lights the way forward.

Hermione Cameron – Some personal highlights for me included an unexpectedly uplifting talk from ‘the punk undertaker’ who gave his take on undertaking & allowing families space to grieve in their own way; being taken out of my comfort zone & invited to confront my own problematic ancestral history!; catching up with friends, old & new, while also giving myself permission/space to be alone; singing along to Christmas carols in august was surreal yet strangely cathartic.

Viv Inwood – Ben Okafor. Amazing also wild. And Wildethorn. Absolutely incredible. We should get him at our (Tuesday evening) Sanctuary service.

Frith Taylor – Something I found particularly striking about Greenbelt was the number of young queer people attending with their families, and the rapturous applause that met any LGBTQ+ affirming statements in the talks. It was extremely heartening to see queer teenagers so cherished in a faith community.

Audrey Sebatindira – I booked a ticket to Greenbelt this year when I found out many people from Circus Spirit were going. By far my favourite thing about the festival was the time it gave me to get to know some of the other SJP people there better. It was nice to have longer conversations, rather than the brief (but still lovely!) catch-ups we usually have after services.

Alice Codner – It was my first time at Greenbelt this year.  I found there a whole heap of fun and hilarity, a wide variety of brilliant musicians, and talks that faced challenging topics head on without pretence or avoidance.  I’ve come away feeling inspired in my faith, in my creativity, and in my participation in activism.

Felix Smith One speaker was asked where she found the sacred and answered that she found it in story-telling, in truly listening to others’ experiences and emotions. Greenbelt held many stories this year: the queer joy at Drag Me to Heaven, the work and campaigning on ending poverty, the L’Arche community processing their pain and grief together, and so many others. The sharing of these stories brought lots to cherish and lots to reflect on about which stories we tell, both as individuals and as a community, and which stories aren’t being heard.

Hazel Bradley – This year Greenbelt asked L’Arche to talk about how we are moving forward after the revelations of Jean Vanier’s abuses. Not an easy session to be part of! I was deeply grateful to so many people from St James who gave such support through their prayers, presence, tea and chocolate – and of course, Lucy who held it all so well.

Jackie Elton – 40 years since I came to my first Greenbelt (I’ve only camped 3 times!). Mostly about special moments of encounter with old friends and new. Speaking with the “Goth Rev” Caroline and husband Dave from Essex whose church is a member of Single Friendly Church who explained how they met and married via Christian Connection and whose Goth services I try never to miss.  Explaining to all who would listen, that I “dragged” Elijah to his first ever Greenbelt and loving his gig!

Greenbelt is really the opposite of an echo chamber and that is just one reason why it is so important. You can expect to be challenged and drawn out of your comfort zone in thought provoking seminars in which calls to justice, attention to human pain, our own and others, are mingled. You will be opened to the disruptive activity of the Spirit in a field in a Northamptonshire whilst being held in a safe space in which each of us is celebrated and welcomed wherever we find ourselves on the variegated and interconnected spectrums that make us up. One of my personal highlights was seeing a drag show hosted by our very own Barbara/Elijah in which the brilliant drag queen Ella Vaday of Ru Paul’s Drag Race expressed utter bewilderment and delight at the sadly surreal experience of finding herself in front of an audience of screaming Christian fans! I also loved dancing crazily at the Saturday night disco and seeing LGBTQIA+ young Christians and other folk of all kinds and ages so free to express themselves, to be who they are, as wild and joyful as God created us all.

There were many other special moments for me: a meditation in the woods each morning led by members of the group Contemplative Fire; camping next to a recently retired vicar from County Durham who helped me pitch my tent and told me she planned to spend her retirement looking after hedgehogs (less prickly than her congregation she said); and a seminar on the medieval visionary Julian of Norwich in which traditional theologies of sin and salvation were turned on their head. Most of all I loved spending time with SJP people and making connections with strangers, all of us family for the weekend and beyond.

Greenbelt, I say to you that I wish I had temporarily abandoned my church youth group 23 years ago and come along to join the dance. I sense my intervening life’s trajectory might have been a little different if I’d plucked up that courage back then! However, I’m so grateful to have finally been gathered in, for friendships made and deepened, for challenge, inspiration, hope and courage to take home and take forward renewed and refreshed.

Craft tent

Sunday Communion

Sunday disco

L’Arche seminar

Connecting in the woods

Entrance to the festival village

Morning yoga at the village hub

Jackie with the “Goth Rev”

Barbara with Carmen Dioxide (L) and Ella Vaday (R)

Laura Mvula performing on the Greenbelt main stage

A friendly dinosaur making friends with me and Debbie. Greenbelt is nothing if not surreal

The Jesus Arms – so you can be in the arms of Jesus whilst you drink beer