Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Greenbelt Festival 2010
Location: Cheltenham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 August 2010, 10:30am
The service was held in a large field housing a big stage that was used throughout the festival as the main spot for the various musicians that performed throughout the weekend. The field was part of the Cheltenham Racecourse, a horse-racing track, where the annual festival has been based for a number of years. From the field, you get a view of the festival village, which includes a big top tent and in the distance the Cotswold Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The Greenbelt Christian Arts and Music Festival started in 1974 and has been held at several different locations in the UK before moving to Cheltenham Racecourse in 1999. The numbers attending each year vary, but around 20,000 people attend to see various musical acts and comedians and to hear talks from theologians and thinkers. (This year, the line-up included the jazz musician Courtney Pine, the poet Roger McGough and the psychologist Oliver James.) Although a Christian festival, it is quite broad and not everything is exclusively Christian. The vast majority of people at Greenbelt camp in tents or caravans. The festival runs for four days, with Sunday being the third day; by then, people are starting to look disheveled and, in some instances, slightly smelly. Not your normal church congregation (well, not in my church anyway!).
Cheltenham is an attractive, affluent town. It grew in the 19th century as a spa town, with people coming to take the waters at the pump room. There are some fine Regency and Victorian buildings. The town hosts two of the top private schools in the UK — Cheltenham Ladies College and the Boys College. But despite the genteel faade, Cheltenham has some secrets. It is home to the UK government's listening centre, the GCHQ. So, that person in front of you in the queue for the toilets at Greenbelt could be Christian — or a spy! The Cheltenham Racecourse hosts the Cheltenham Gold Cup every March, a famous horse race held over the jumps.
The worship was led by the Revd Martin Poole (a vicar from Brighton) and Stuart Townend (a writer of contemporary Christian music). The preacher was the Revd Kate Coleman. Maggi Dawn gave the blessing at the end.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service. The service included communion and was titled "Glancing at God," which reflected the theme of the weekend, "Looking sideways at God."
How full was the building?
The service was held in a big field, so there was plenty of room for people. It was hard to judge numbers in the congregation but it must have easily been over 10,000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not as such. Various stewards (in their distinctive high-visibility yellow jackets) were handing out the orders of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
There was no seating. You brought your own. I sat on a camp chair that was quite comfortable. Other people sat on the ground on picnic rugs or small stools, and I fancy I even saw someone sitting on a shooting stick!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a buzz of conversation. People were talking about the bands they had seen the night before, how they'd slept, what they were doing later. And all the while the worship band and "scratch choir" were having a last-minute practice. The children's "scratch choir" also sang several action songs. But although the conductor of that choir tried to get people involved, he and the children were largely ignored.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The exact opening words of Mr Poole were lost because most people weren't paying attention. However, I think he said, "Good morning. Welcome to Sunday worship." He then did a shout-out to find out where people had come from to the festival.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used a printed order of service that had the liturgy and the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
From where we were seated, I couldn't entirely make out the worship band but it contained a piano, guitars and percussion.
Did anything distract you?
There are lots of distractions at an open-air service like this, from babies crying, toddlers having tantrums, to the afore-mentioned smelly adults. But there were two specific distractions. A few feet away from me, a man was accompanying the hymns on a bongo drum. Who the heck takes bongo drum anywhere, let alone to worship?! The other distraction, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit, was an attractive young lady who sat nearby wearing festival chic, a take-off of a look started by the model Kate Moss when she attended the Glastonbury festival several years ago. It typically consists of colourful wellington boots, coloured tights, a short skirt or "Daisy Duke" cut-off shorts and whatever top suits. Many young women attending Greenbelt wore variations on this look. The young lady in question was wearing fishnet tights and a short denim skirt. She was very shapely and had lovely legs so I was distracted. (I don't think Mrs Diction noticed me drooling!)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As a Mystery Worship report from 2008 shows, Greenbelt can have some weird worship. I was told that 2009 was an all-time low. So this year, it clearly was decided to play fairly safe and it worked. The service was quite conventional, with three hymns (though why sing "Thine be the glory" when it's not Easter?) But there were some twists. For example, we were all given a small mirror and invited to hold this against the service sheet to decipher the mirror writing printed there. The mirror writing contained responses to prayers of confession. Unfortunately, this being Greenbelt, we were then invited to turn our backs to the stage and look at the stage through the mirror. This was symbolic of turning our backs on God. But not many people did this, as it would have meant getting off the ground, out of deck chairs, etc. Mr Poole asked the congregation to help dramatise the Bible reading (1 Kings 19:1-13 Elijah prays that he might die, but God intervenes in the form of wind, earthquake and fire) by making the sound of the wind, stamping on the ground for the earthquake, waving red paper napkins for fire, and whispering "God." It was effective. Communion was a sung eucharist using a Stuart Townend song. This was contemporary and effective, too. We'd been given brown paper bags containing a communion kit of a pita bread and a small bottle of wine. And this was shared among about 10 people. In our group we passed the bread and wine around one to another.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Mrs Coleman had a very natural style and was easy and engaging to listen to. She is a Baptist minister and I sensed she would have liked to preach longer and expand her message. This would have been good, but she must have been told to keep the sermon to a length more suited to Anglicans!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She started by reminding us that when we set out in the car. we look in the mirror and check for blind spots. We all have blind spots. We need to develop side sight and think of things in new ways. In this way, we can encounter God anew. Elijah was used to encountering God in the dramatic and spectacular. If Elijah was to move on in faith, he needed to encounter God in new ways, such as in the "still small voice". We can encounter God in new ways too, through new people we meet or new experiences. In Jesus we see how God uses side sight. Who would have expected God to appear as a baby? Who would have expected the Son of God to die on a cross? We often have the benefit of hindsight. We need to ask God to give us side sight to enable us to find him in unexpected places. And help us to see the things we don't see.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The communion. A group of 20 friends all enjoying time together with Jesus. A real feel of the Last Supper.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Following the reference to blind spots and not seeing our weaknesses, we were all asked to stick the small mirror to our foreheads so we could see ourselves reflected back from our neighbours. Nice idea, but it seemed really corny and cringeworthy.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing as such. People left to go off to join queues for talks, toilets, showers, coffee stalls, etc.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It depends. You either drank your own (brought in a flask) or went to a coffee stall or even the on-site bar (The Jesus Arms) for a wee libation. There was plenty of choice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – You wouldn't want something like this regularly. However, I was greatly moved by the service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. There was a really positive feel throughout the whole festival and there is something amazing about being in a place with so many other Christians.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I think that would be the way we sang "How great thou art" at the end. It was a slightly different arrangement, but it really worked.