Today is the official start of a festival known very much to a those of a certain Christian ilk. It’s been running over 40 years around various parts of England, sometimes in the grounds of stately homes, sometimes on a racecourse.
In the words of something very close to me –
“Greenbelt was devoid of the very things that put me off all other forms of Christian holiday. It had a firm focus on music and the experimental, was theologically liberal to the point of sometimes being shocking, and therefore attracted interesting people.”
Born at a similar time to the festival – which also began in the same county – I went to my first Greenbelt in 1990, in Northants, just as I was becoming old enough to be autonomous. It was a rebellious thing to do for someone of my background. My Dad’s response to my wish to go was “pass the vinegar”!
I came back shocked and recall writing to the festival’s chair and receiving a generic reply, including things that I hadn’t. Clearly many others had been unhappy too.
I can’t remember much about why – just that Greenbelt didn’t match my idea of Christianity. One reason that was its focus on social justice, not gospel spreading, and its toleration of issues like homosexuality. Ironies coming up…
Curiously one thing I do recall complaining about (for his book called “Cleaning the Bog and other spiritual gifts”) was a writer I embraced later on. I was reading the late Mike Yaconelli’s book “Dangerous Wonder” just last night. His talks involved the biggest queues of the festival, yet he was moved every year, and surprised, fearing that next year, they wouldn’t come. Perhaps I find his book a little juvenile now, with its stories of waterbombing and other pranks, but I love his spirit – real, passionate living, and a God who is much more into loving us than berating us and getting it right.
It took me 6 years to try Greenbelt again – now a postgraduate, a little broader of mind and less easily shocked. This time I had a little epiphany – one I couldn’t share with my housemate and her church, who’d tutted at me for going to GB – and I made some large and sudden lifestyle decisions because of that.
As a composing musician, the music at Greenbelt was important; a highlight was seeing Iona at the only full band gig of theirs I ever attended. But the book tent, people, ideas and new ways to worship were also of interest.
I went back the next year, but felt that the mud and the lank hair and skank feeling of no proper washing outdid the things I enjoyed. I vowed I would not camp again.
Then Greenbelt moved – further from me, but into new student halls of residences for the over 25s – happily an age I’d recently passed – and onto the tarmac of Cheltenham racecourse. I enjoyed discovering Cheltenham – my first spa town – and having a town close enough to take a break from the long weekend of festivalling, which can get quite intense and insular. Spiritually, it still felt appealed. At last, Greenbelt and I were a best fit, although it was smaller and less atmospheric than its Northants days.
Now that Safe Space for LGB Christians felt different.
In 2007, I was living close enough to attend Greenbelt for a day. I started calling my spirituality Glastonbury rather than Canterbury. I was going to an alternative branch of the latter who didn’t approve of the former. I was no longer in the Christian pop music loop and found most solace in a tent of contemplation, and a spiritual advisor. I listened to Yaconelli’s son and felt that whilst the voice was recognisable, I wasn’t finding the ghost of the father through him. Nor did Mike’s own books work so well for me now.
I now cared very about social justice and I embraced the inclusion that Greenbelt showed, but it strangely felt that it, not I, was more conservative. It had taken steps back to towards it more evangelical roots while I’d pole vaulted from mine. We had passed each other like comets, riding together for a time, and veering into disparate directions.
I wasn’t sorry to leave and to explore Cheltenham. I felt that I’d be unlikely to go again – especially as Greenbelt left that site and reverted to camping.
So why is Greenbelt something I’m writing about now, except that it’s now happening?
Because those Cheltenham visits inspired scenes in my new novel, all about that Safe Space, those seminars where evangelical and liberal meet, where social justice and faith come together. It’s the final chapter.
I think it may be for me and Greenbelt. I approached them to share the novel – naturally – as I’d not only given them a few thousand words of space in it at the most crucial point, but its being all about the kind of things its attendees care about, such as modern church life and those that are a bit different.
But I found that the social justice they preach wasn’t being practised. The book tent has a contract to exclusively sell books on the site and it wants 50% of the cover price to sell yours – though it excludes self published ones when they’ve little space. I pointed out that most books don’t have that cut to spare and this causes the author and publisher – which are both me – who’s spend perhaps years crafting the book, to make a loss. I was asked to send a free copy to the team for a possible social media mention. A 40 year old festival commanding tens od thousands of £150 tickets each year, asking a new self published author in financial struggle to send a book for them to consider a tweet?
Hence I’m not at Boughton House near Kettering this weekend and may not be again.
But I do hope some festivallers – past and present – might enjoy reliving those Cheltenham years and joining in my fictional weekend at the pivotal point of other Elspeth’s journey.
You don’t know what I mean, and you’d like to?
Then go to http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com.
More about the fairness of publishing will be appearing on this site.