An Altar in the World: worship & spirituality at Greenbelt 2017

An Altar in the World: worship & spirituality at Greenbelt 2017

As we gather at Boughton House for our fourth Greenbelt there and our 44th festival overall, we look forward to what Corrymeela leader and poet Pádraig Ó Tuama describes as his “annual sacrament of goodness and greenness”.

There is no denying a spiritual dimension to even booking a ticket for Greenbelt. It is an act of faith as well as an act of the imagination. The journey we make to get there is part pilgrimage. And the meeting and greeting as we see old friends and new is a sharing of the peace.

We’ll be announcing the worship programming in more detail by the end of April (watch the lineup pages), but in the meantime, here’s the heads-up on what to expect.

A new location

After listening to feedback about festival-goers desire for quiet and the problems of noise-spill, we’re building a brand new zone for the worship programming at the festival this year. This summer, you’ll need to make the journey across the pontoon bridge and to the right of The Mount and over to the tranquility on the west side of the lake to get to the ‘worship zone’. We like the idea of “withdrawing to the far side of the lake”. We’re sure we’ve heard of someone else doing that? We’re not for a moment suggesting that our spirituality is somehow to be withdrawn and disconnected from the hurly burly of our lives. It’s just that in a festival setting we’re trying to make space for the best possible experience of a multitude of different ambitions.

We’re working on ideas for the journey across to the new zone: what we’ll encourage people to take with them and leave behind; how the walk will be lit and signposted. We want to raise the game with our ambition around creating a space for worship and reflection and prayer at this year’s festival. We’re excited about this. And, as the journey across to the zone is all on the level, it will importantly be accessible too.

The venues themselves

Once on the far side of the lake, you’ll find a cluster of venues there.

The Shelter and The Canvas programming from last year will be housed in a new, large stretch-marquee-style of space which can be used as one big venue or divided into two – hosting rich and varied Christian worship and also spirituality and thoughtfulness from other faith traditions, too.

A brand new prayer venue (name yet to be decided) in the same area will be dressed and vibed as a space for people to be able to take time out to say prayers and remember – from whatever tradition or background they come. The space will be unprogrammed. But it will be lightly ‘held’ by a team from the local church in Geddington and others.

The Grove will also be sited somewhere in this location (we’re yet to decide its exact footprint), acting more as a fringe space this year, still lovingly curated and vibed but deliberately a bit more off the beaten track this time around.

And once again our experienced Spiritual Direction team will be on hand to lead you in 45-minute accompanied walks around the festival site to reflect on your life.

The programming you’ll find

In terms of the sorts of programming you can expect to experience – this will range from a Catholic Mass to a Goth Eucharist, and from a global Satsang service to Taize service and liturgies led by the Iona Community on the theme of The Common Good. We’ll also have the Nine Beats Global Collective in residence with us all weekend and they will lead daily sessions in The Shelter, featuring wonderful musicians, writers and leaders from all around the world, including the Rev Vince Anderson from New York City and Mikael Rahbaek Andreasen from Denmark. We have a special performance from the wonderful Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, with a set especially conceived around the festival’s theme and knitted together with reflections by the Rev Lucy Winkett from St James’ Piccadilly.

Thanks to a new partnership with the folks at St Martins in the Fields in Trafalgar Square we’ll have sacred choral music and also reflections on some of the sacred masterpieces in the National Gallery’s collection of fine art. Courtesy of Urban Expressions and the Anabaptists we’ll have worship that focusses on peace-making. 

Meanwhile, in the Grove, expect Forest Church services, all-age Wild Church activities – and lots of stuff that knits nature connection together with Christian devotion spirituality (as well as referencing how other faith traditions revere and respect the good Earth, our Common Home). From guided walks to foraging and dance, The Grove will not be intensively programmed with back-to-back-sessions and will be designed to provide a great place to just be over the weekend. For all ages.

And, of course, we have our annual Sunday morning festival communion service, when everything comes to a stop and we pause to celebrate our faith and journey together and remember who we are in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The communion service last year was a real highlight of our weekend and we look forward again to gathering for this act from which the festival as a whole flows. We’ll blog about this year’s communion service in more detail any day now.

But worshipful and devotional content will not just be found in these venues and in this space over the weekend. There will be many speakers and performing artists, songwriters and comedians who will wear their faith firmly on their sleeves as they perform this Greenbelt. And, of course, even the festival’s pub, The Jesus Arms, will be filled with hymn-singing when it plays host to the near legendary Beer and Hymns over the weekend.

Worship at Greenbelt more generally

However, the greatest mistake to make with worship at Greenbelt would be to think that:

it will always develop along a linear trajectory. Instead it will ebb and flow across the decades as it always has (in the early days and throughout the 80s there was far less worship at the festival than there was in the late 90s and the years at Cheltenham, for instance – the emergence of the alt. worship scene became an essential and life-giving strand of the festival programme for many, many years).

it will attempt to replicate and reinforce the experiences and practices festival-goers have in their church settings week by week. It will not. Greenbelt is not a worship and teaching conference. It is a festival of arts, faith and justice – one that celebrates artistry and activism from a very distinctive and deliberate Christian theological position and with a distinctively Christian worldview.

it should be about making people feel comfortable. Greenbelt is not a church. It does not have pastoral responsibility for those who attend (although for those who need a listening ear, that is available at the festival). Instead, always from the margins, Greenbelt seeks to stir and challenge and provoke and – forgive the arrogance – to break new ground as far as it is able.

it has to be explicitly be tagged as “worship” and be in a worship venue for it to be worship. Instead, Greenbelt’s ‘no-splits’ worldview understands our whole lives, expression and action to be acts of worship. So all the artistry and activism we programme is worship too – whether or not the protagonists choose to see it that way!

When things ebb and flow, they change too. There’s no doubt that one of our losses at Boughton so far has been the rich and varied alt. worship programme that it was possible to host and programme at Cheltenham Racecourse (with its plethora of inside rooms, easy hanging and projection environments etc). But rather than stay in mourning, we listened to the new site in order to find our feet there, to ground ourselves in our new context. The Grove and Forest Church sessions have naturally flourished at Boughton as a result. But other threads will emerge in time as Boughton becomes more and more our home.

Also, with less venues to work with now and still a continuing vision to be an ambitious arts festival with a firm faith foundation, the challenge of programming is always a dance and a balance. One in which our task is to be radically open and welcoming to all while still being true to our Christian identity. 

As Greenbelt recovers its mojo after the shock of moving to Boughton, our hope is that its horizons will once again broaden beyond the the festival itself – recovering a year-round ambition and presence. This will take time. But with care, it might be that as an organisation, Greenbelt will find itself better placed in the future to host and collaborate, to revisit what it might mean for it to become again the emerging church practitioners hub it became in the nineties and noughties. But for now, we have to recognise that we cannot do all the things in one weekend we might want to.

This Easter, we’ll be announcing some Greenbelt-favourite lineup items. The people and the programming that are so popular they are like festival staples. We plan to announce these on Maundy Thursday. We know that familiar and favourite things are a vital part of any great festival bill. But the challenge of Easter is, of course, that everything must change if it is to stay alive. Even after three years living cheek by jowl with him, Mary and the disciples didn’t recognise the risen Christ when first they saw him again. He was the same. And yet he was utterly different. They discovered him in gesture and story, in habit and practice. In the same way, Greenbelt’s DNA winds unaltered across its four or more decades, but the shape and form it takes waxes and wanes with time. We will always be remixing the favourite and the familiar at Greenbelt. We believe that The Word is best read when it is “made strange”.

We’ve borrowed the title of Barbara Brown Taylor’s classic book in the title to this blog piece as it seemed to chime with our view of the whole of the festival at its best being imbued with a sense of wonder and worship.