Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Greenbelt Festival 2012
Location: Cheltenham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 August 2012, 10:30am
This was an open air service held in a very muddy field at Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire. At the front of the field was a large stage used to house pop acts that perform over the weekend. But in the middle of the field a small stage had been built, and this had an altar on it. Given the very muddy conditions (the previous day the site had been hit by several torrential thunderstorms), it wasn't clear whether the intention had been for the altar to be located there all along, or whether it had been moved as people could not get to the front of the stage due to mud and deep puddles. (Well, not so much puddles as mini-lakes!)
Greenbelt is an arts, faith and justice festival that has been running at various locations in the UK for 39 years. It has been at Cheltenham since 1999. Around 20,000 people each year attend the festival: some for the day, others camping on site for the whole time. The lineup of speakers and musicians is always eclectic.
Cheltenham itself is a lovely, genteel town with a population of around 120,000. The racecourse is located on the edge of town near the Cotswold Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Cheltenham was a 19th century spa town where fashionable folk would come to take the waters. Nowadays it is home to two prominent private schools and plays host to a number of other festivals, including music, jazz, literature and science, as well as the famous horse racing festival in March of each year. The UK government's listening post GCHQ is also located in the town, so be careful what you say as they might be listening!
This being Greenbelt, there was a cast of thousands. An air of confusion surrounded the whole service due to the weather and the Greenbelt team having to work around the bad conditions. So it was never made clear who was who. The lineup for the service in question is listed in detail on Greenbelt's website, so let's proceed on the assumption that the folk listed there are the ones who appeared.
What was the name of the service?An Elemental Eucharist
How full was the building?
It is very difficult to judge numbers, but there were probably at least 10,000 people present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. As people trooped in from different directions, we were handed an order of service by one of the volunteer marshals who were identifiable by their bright yellow high visibility jackets.
Was your pew comfortable?
There are no pews. You bring your own chair. Usually Mrs Diction and I sit on the ground on a picnic rug, but given the muddy conditions we stood for the whole service. Other people sat on camp chairs and deck chairs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It's always chaotic, but this year was an utter shambles! People were hunting round trying to find some dry ground on which to sit or stand. And then as the service started, the RAF's aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, happened to fly over, making a lot of noise and causing people to concentrate on the nine aircraft rather than the celebrant.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
They were lost, given the deafening roar from the aircraft. But they were probably (according to the order of service) an invitation to join in singing the chant song "Come all you people come and praise your maker."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had an order of service that contained the liturgy and the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a worship band made up of a number of musicians. We were stood a long way from the stage, and there was no big TV screen this year, so I could tell exactly how many, what instruments, etc.
Did anything distract you?
Mud, standing water, the Red Arrows.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The theme of this year's Greenbelt was "Saving Paradise," so it was to be expected that nature would feature in the worship. Consequently there were lots of animal-themed songs that were suitable for children. So until the eucharist, worship felt like a being in a Sunday school class for seven-year-olds with learning difficulties. At the start of the service, people were given a brown paper bag containing a pita bread and a small bottle of wine. These were then shared with a group of around 20. This time the youngest shared the bread round and the oldest the wine.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I didn't time it. It was not actually a sermon. Instead there was A Piece for Voices written by Nicola Slee, a theologian and poet with a particular interest in faith development, liturgy, and women’s spirituality. It was some minutes before the people around me and I realised that the reading had started, but I would estimate it lasted no more than 15 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – The Piece for Voices consisted of four female voices taking the part of the four elements (earth, fire, water and air), with another voice being Jesus and the narrator. Sadly, the piece was read slowly and ponderously, and all the narrators had bland, dull voices. I'm sorry, but someone really needed to have found people who could read with passion and not monotony if the piece had any hope of working. As it was, I found it all awful and meaningless.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
That's a good question! In essence, it focused on fire (the Holy Spirit?) being present throughout Jesus' life. Fire was there in the beginning in the stars. It helped to boil the water used by the midwives at Jesus' birth (Matthew and Luke must have missed that detail). After each reference to Jesus and fire, there was then some contemporary comment linking to fire. The weirdest was, "I like to make cakes and cupcakes." This prompted a comment from someone standing near me: "Blessed are the cupcake makers," which got a few people giggling. There was also some reference to "the daughters of Jesus." Maybe The Da Vinci Code was right after all?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As always, the sharing of the eucharist was special. The words of the liturgy were good. And the worship band played a song by the folk rock group The Waterboys called "Bring 'em all in." The words were slightly adapted to fit and I found it very powerful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the Piece for Voices has to get a mention. As does the sheer idiocy of the suggestion that in order properly to commune with the earth, we had to take our shoes and socks off. Hello! Have you seen the mud? But the most hellish part had to be the singing of a song called "Wonderful world" by Fischy Music (go look it up). As we got to the verse "Beehive, honeycomb, racing pigeon flying home..." I lost the will to live! Where were the words of Wesley? Or Watts? Or even Graham Kendrick?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Afterwards there was a slight sense of being stunned by the sheer awfulness of the service. Then I trudged off through the mud to find a cup of coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was a case of buying your own coffee from one of the many stalls around.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I love Greenbelt. I love the good speakers. Many were excellent. I also like the wide variety of music. But the main act of worship seems to get worse and worse. Mrs Diction and several women in our group commented afterwards that there is a tendency at Greenbelt worship to let women take the lead, as if to prove to the Roman Catholic Church and the Forward in Faith movement that women do indeed, after all, have a ministry. But this is done to the exclusion of men, and so it is every bit as exclusivist as a male dominated service. And Greenbelt, please note: not all denominations have a problem with women in ministry, so you don't have to keep trying to prove your point!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. Even though the eucharist was special, I came away feeling very, very flat. I'm sorely tempted to give it a miss next time or try something else.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"Blessed are the cupcake makers."