Sunday Reflections #4

This is going to be the first of a pair of Sunday Reflections on how some pretty major changes came about in my life, and led me to the point I’m at right now regarding Life, The Universe and Everything.

As I’ve already mentioned, church was a big part of my Sunday experience for many years, from when I became a Christian aged fifteen in 1990 up until 2015, when I stopped going completely. I’ll look into that one a bit more next week, but a change took place earlier that’s worth looking at.

Almost as soon as I became a Christian, I became aware of the Greenbelt Festival, an annual event that’s been running since 1974, which makes it (a) almost exactly the same age as me and (b) one of the longest-running festivals in Britain. Apart from being cancelled in 2020 for obvious reasons, and being held on a much smaller scale last year, it’s been an annual fixture. It was founded very specifically as a Christian arts and music festival, although it’s changed somewhat now, and it’s probably best described as an arts and music festival with strong Christian themes, but that not all the content is specifically Christian. Although it started off strongly evangelical in nature, it soon became a much more eclectic mixture of church traditions with a bit thrown in from all over the theological spectrum. It ended up being quite distinctly liberal. I first went in 1994, and I’ve been back most years since. It’s changed a fair bit in that time, but back in 1994, it represented my first exposure to Christians with a more pragmatic view on traditional moral hot potatoes, such as homosexuality, marriage and all the other sex-related things that a lot of traditionalist Christians have a massive problem with. It really was quite an eye-opener, and gave me plenty to think about, as well as having an absolutely fantastic selection of bands playing – in the first three years I went, I saw The Proclaimers, Midnight Oil, 808 State and Jah Wobble, all of whom were fantastic. After the 1996 festival, I started uni and didn’t go again until 1999, which proved to be bit of an existential crisis in Greenbelt’s history. The 1999 festival was tiny and almost didn’t happen at all, having moved to Cheltenham Racecourse in an attempt to cut set-up costs in the light of a serious cashflow and debt problem. Over the coming years, the festival evolved into a new form, and stayed at Cheltenham until 2013, when it moved to a new greenfield site at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, for the 2014 festival onwards.

Trailer for a film Greenbelt commissioned in 2013 to mark the fortieth festival.

I always camped with a big group of friends, and that was always the biggest draw for me, especially after I moved to Scotland in 2009, and saw a lot less of my friends from London. In time, that became the sole reason why I went, but that’s getting ahead of myself a little. For many years, while I felt stuck in a church that I really didn’t like but felt considerable pressure to keep attending, Greenbelt was a little oasis of sanity in my spiritual life. It was full of people doing the things I felt faith should lead people to do. It wasn’t about trying to convert people or defend a particular form of worship and theology – plenty of people hated it for that reason. It was about creativity, compassion, a sense of community and belonging, and wrestling with big questions in a mixed-up world – all the things that attracted me to faith in the first place, before things turned sour and I turned away from it all.

People there did extraordinary things and turned lives around in incredible ways. A couple of highlights from the speaking programme included a guy who went to jail after obtaining access to a weapons manufacturing facility and causing huge amounts of damage by sabotaging equipment, motivated by his pacifism, and an interview with an innocent man who spent 20 years on death row in America for a crime he didn’t commit. These things have really stuck in my head over the years, and make me grateful for the Christians who have been motivated by Jesus’ words to do something radical, rather than just stick their noses into places they don’t belong.

On the Sunday morning of Greenbelt each year, a big open-air communion service was held. As it was always intended to be a focal point, a time where the whole festival community came together, it was a big and sometimes quite spectacular event, always a bit out-there and different from what I was used to in church. It was also the only thing on the programme at the time, so that pretty much everyone would go.

Video diary, made by a friend, of the communion at Greenbelt 2010. I’d been absent from it for a few years by then.

Well, for years, I thought pretty much everyone went. If I’m honest, I rarely enjoyed the communions. They were often either too traditional or too experimental for me to be able to get into, the sheer volume of people made me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic, and I just really didn’t get much out of them. As time went on, I found myself going to them just because I thought I should, and because there wasn’t really an alternative.

That all carried on until one year I decided not to bother. I can’t recall exactly when it was, but I’m guessing it must have been around 2005-ish, not long after the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway extended to Cheltenham Racecourse, thus providing me with a steamy and enticing alternative to the communion service.

A British Railways 9F locomotive, shot in all its steamy glory, at the precise time the 2006 Greenbelt communion was taking place.

The first year I didn’t go to the communion, I felt really guilty about it, like I was doing something really bad. I think all Christians who have broken out of regular church attendance have been through this, the worry that the sky might fall in if their habits change, and they stop being as pious as they were before.

I thought I’d be alone in not going, but as I walked through the campsite on the way to my much more secular entertainment, I noticed lots of people still around, in groups around their tents, just chilling out and enjoying the peace while most people were at the communion. You could still hear it, but it seemed much more peaceful, and that peace soon became something I appreciated. Many more moments of quiet thought followed at subsequent Greenbelts, both on Sundays and at other times, and I’ll follow up on those next week as things unfolded in an interesting direction ten or so years later.

This was a modest beginning in reclaiming Sundays as a day of rest on my own terms, moving away from feeling I had to be in a certain place, doing things in a certain way. It was good to realise that taking a step in that direction didn’t bring about anything bad, and certainly wasn’t worth losing any sleep over. It was a minor victory, and something I’m very glad I did.

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