Confessions of a Greenbelt virgin

Well, what to say about this? A thoroughly positive experience all told, and next year I intend to be back with family – and with a slightly different agenda for the four days! Not only had I never been to Greenbelt before, I’d never even been to a festival before, so I had very little real idea of what to expect. Some random comments, with photos, in chronological order.

The journey to Cheltenham from Wales was a long one, and quite difficult, so I arrived at around 2 o’clock just in time to join a staggeringly long queue for entry onto the site. Prudently deciding to abandon the car for a couple of hours and wander around I bumped into a clergy colleague – my ‘next door neighbour’ who took pity on this poor neophyte and invited me to set up my tent next to his, which I duly did. So far, so positive.

It then took me ages to try and find a copy of the programme for the four days. This seemed to me to be a significant failure on the part of the organisation – I would have thought this material should be sent to every ticket holder in advance, to facilitate their planning. It would certainly have helped me. Having to trek about and then pay £7 or so for the programme seemed a bit rude, to be honest.

Anyhow, I got myself established on the campsite – in a place that seemed a long way away from the main action! – and then wandered in to see what was happening. I started listening to John Bell’s first talk, but – as I’m quite a fan of his – I felt that I knew what he was going to say, so I carried on exploring, and made contact with a few friends in time to watch Billy Bragg on the main stage.
This was good – really good – but not quite as good as the gig I went to in Cambridge a while back. We then spent some time at the Tiny Tea Tent, where Paul Trathen stumbled across us. As you do. I felt exhausted, so I went to bed pretty quick.

Saturday started for me with a chance to listen to James Alison, definitely one of my theological heroes.
I’d love to get one of his T-shirts! As with John Bell, though, I had a strong sense of ‘I know what you are saying here’, even though this time I stayed to the end. I then tried to get into Paula Gooder’s talk on the New Testament – she’s someone I know slightly from Uni – but it was completely full, so I wandered up to the chill out place in the Panorama cafe, which was handy. I then managed to get to the Centaur (great venue) to hear Martyn Joseph’s ‘The Rising’, which was really good, and definitely the first highlight.
Lots of very interesting thoughts from the assembled, but two things really imprinted themselves on me. The first was Billy Bragg’s story of the song ‘We Laughed’ (see here) which made me cry, the second was one contributor talking about pursuing a career in song-writing and saying ‘fall in love with the process’ – ie don’t get hung up on results. I think that holds to all sorts of writing, and is certainly a maxim I’m going to try and follow.

I then went off and enjoyed lunch with some friends – great selection of food available at the festival, that was one of the really impressive aspects – and took in some Matt Redman songs. I love ‘Blessed be your name’.
After this, I went to listen to a couple more talks – John Bell on the vocation to protest (up to his usual high standard) and then John Smith on Pop McWorship, which was ‘right on’ in all sorts of senses. I loved the way he described Greenbelt as the place where the Sanhedrin were absent. That made sense in all sorts of ways. After a bit more food (!), we finally managed to track down a place that sold beer, where some of us listened to a moderately good stand up performer, and then towards the end of Saturday, I took in part of Kanda Bongo Man’s set, which was really good, but I was too tired to really appreciate it, so I headed back for the tent to crash.
Sunday began with something that I had been really looking forward to – the Greenbelt Communion service, and I was particularly pleased that the two groups of people that I knew at the festival were combined in a little group for the service. As for the service itself, my reaction was mixed. Possibly I had got my hopes up too far, but it wasn’t as good or uplifting as it could have been. First the positives: gathering the thousands together; the way communion itself was done; the releasing of the red balloons.
Negatives: music was weak; talk was moderately good but no better; a distinct sense that it could have been more unashamedly Christian (tone more than words – something glorious). It wasn’t so much that it was bad, it was more that it could – and perhaps should? – have been really, really good. Anyhow, I’ll still look forward to next year’s.

So, after this (which took up most of the morning), I managed to get some time with some new friends, which was great, and after a bit more food, went off to wander around and soak up the atmosphere – definitely one of the best things about the whole experience for me. The rest of the day passed quite strangely. To begin with some of the group now had to leave (boo!) and I missed them, and then a planned meeting fell through, and I spent quite a while – probably too long – wandering around on my own, getting caught up in a fire alarm at one point.
I went back to the tent early and read a book into the night.

Monday was the best day, a really wonderful time. It began with the Taize service which fed me where I was really feeling hungry, and I then went to hear Theo Hobson talk about George and the Dragon and the meaning of ritual.
This was really interesting and has provoked a lot of thought about liturgy and worship and related matters. I then fell in with some friends at the Tiny Tea Tent (again!) and had a really good natter. After that, probably the best talk I listened to of the whole weekend, by Mark Yaconelli – very entertaining, and sufficiently thought provoking. That was followed by another lengthy conversation; then – at long last – I managed to track down Dave Walker and force a beer into his hand (he was most unwilling).
That was good fun, and it’s good to have a human sense of what lies behind the cartoons. That was rapidly followed by a dash to listen to After The Fire, with West Mersea Church’s favourite guitarist (grin).
It was clearly a great gig – unfortunately I couldn’t really appreciate it as the sound quality at the back of the marquee was quite poor (try a YouTube video here). After that – a bit more beer with Paul and his good lady, and my new friends, all very cheery, then more food, then sampling Duke Special – moderately special – and five minutes of Delirious – not my cup of tea – and finally a quiet pint with the guy who probably did most to get me to come in the first place.

Now that I’ve been, I’ll have a very different agenda for next year. Lots of things I didn’t do, but that seems par for the course. In 2008 I’ll want to a) go to talks given by people on topics I don’t know much about, rather than my ‘heroes’; b) go to a lot more worship events; c) pack properly – like taking toilet paper; d) plan more time for the conversations, which were what really made Greenbelt for me. And I will definitely ensure that I am in place for the beer and hymns… And oh yes – I came away with a lot of books, various presents, and a drum. Which is doing me a lot of good!