As festivals go, there isn’t anything quite like Greenbelt. Part Occupy encampment, part faith gathering, part arts festival, it brings together a surprisingly eclectic mix of people and performers. From the infectious sing-along political protest songs of Grace Petrie to the spiritual, meditative rhythms of the Taize community; from a thundering stump speech from Owen Jones to the measured tones of Lancaster University sociologist Linda Woodhead examining the crisis of religion in Britain – Greenbelt has it all.
The 41st festival, which describes itself as ‘where arts, faith and justice collide’, was held for the first time in its new home in the woods and fields of Boughton House near Kettering. Having spent 15 years parked in the middle of Cheltenham Racecourse, the festival has returned to its roots with its new venue, which is in a completely greenfield site. Gone are the ubiquitous William Hill kiosks and horse statues, replaced with towering oak trees and an enchanting lake. A definite improvement.
This year’s theme was ‘travelling light’, which revellers carting armfuls of stuff from the distant car park no doubt wished they had done. Among the myriad topics being discussed, two prominent ones were on the environment and sexuality – or the greens and the gays, as one festival goer quipped.
Edinburgh University Professor of Ethics Michael Northcutt did a fine job expounding his political theology of climate change. Christian Aid Director Loretta Minghella urged people to engage their MP on climate change ahead of Britain’s general election next year in her talk ‘No Planet B’, while John Bell of Scotland’s Iona Community charted the damage caused to the environment by the Church’s doctrine of human dominion over the earth and the rise in creation-focused Christianity.
One of the biggest cheers of the weekend was received by Vicky Beeching, the evangelical Christian commentator and theologian who recently announced that she was gay. The standing ovation she received when walking out on stage to chair a discussion entitled ‘Can We Reimagine Marriage?’ was a touching moment.
There is always a satisfyingly international feel to Greenbelt and this year was no different, with contributors from all corners of the earth congregating in a Northamptonshire field. Mpho Tutu spoke movingly of her father’s legacy in South Africa, Filipino activist Lidy Nacpil shared stories of her country recovering from Typhoon Haiyan and the need for international action on climate change, and Saharan blues band Tinariwen brought the sounds of arid north Africa to the slightly damp revellers dancing in Monday’s rain showers.
The events of Gaza were not forgotten either. Not only was the site dotted with sculptures of large keys – a symbol of the Palestinian hope of return to their lands following the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, in 1948, there was also a discussion about how people in Britain can be part of ‘Kairos Communities’, an initiative encouraging the Christian community to stand in solidarity with those suffering in Israel and Palestine.
The biggest crowd of the festival went to iconoclastic activist/priest/musician Sinéad O’Connor, who packed out the glorious Glade Stage.
But Greenbelt isn’t really about the big names and the predictable; it’s about stumbling across the unknown and finding beauty in the unexpected.
Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns journalist at Christian Aid.