Greenbelt 2011 (Racecourse)

Greenbelt Festival 2011, Cheltenham, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Greenbelt Festival 2011
Location: Cheltenham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 August 2011, 10:00am

The building

The annual Greenbelt Christian music and arts festival is held at Cheltenham Race Course. The communion service takes place in a large field with a stage built at the front.

The church

Greenbelt has been running for over 30 years now at a variety of locations across the UK, although it has been based at Cheltenham since 1999. Around 20,000 people each year attend the festival: some for the day, others camping on site for the whole four days. The lineup of speakers and musicians is always eclectic. This years saw folk music from Show of Hand and Kate Rusby as well as political protest songs from Billy Bragg. Speakers included Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. The organisation's charity arm, called Trust Greenbelt, is, according to their website, "the gift of the Greenbelt community to global and UK initiatives that find ways of combining faith, justice and the arts, to combat exclusion, exploitation and injustice."

The neighborhood

The festival is held at the Cheltenham Race Course, one of the premier horse racing tracks in the UK that attracts tens of thousands of people to watch high quality horse racing. The race track is situated on the edge of the pretty town of Cheltenham. This affluent, well heeled, town is home to some fine Regency (early 19th century) buildings. It grew as a spa town and the pump rooms still exist, although nowadays they are used for concerts rather than taking restorative waters.

The cast

This being Greenbelt, there were a cast of many people. The Revd Martin Poole acted as MC; he had conceived and coordinated the service with a team from Beyond, an arts and spirituality group based in Brighton and Hove. The celebrant was the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, an Anglican vicar who is chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons. Worship was led by the Revd Vince Anderson of Revolution Church, New York City. The preacher was the Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber, a stand-up comic turned ordained Lutheran pastor and founder of House for All Sinners & Saints in Denver, Colorado, USA. There were contributions from others as well (including an unnamed woman who gave the Bible reading – see below).

What was the name of the service?

Greenbelt Communion Service – Sheltering Under God.

How full was the building?

The service was held in the open air in a big field. It was hard to judge numbers, but at least 10,000. There was room for more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered the field, a young female volunteer steward clad in festival chic of short skirt, dark tights, colourful boots, and bright yellow high visibility jacket gave me a printed order of service that contained the hymns we would sing and the liturgy used for communion.

Was your pew comfortable?

I sat on the ground but on a very clever folding chair that supports the back. Others sat on picnic rugs, in push chairs, wheelchairs, deck chairs, on parents' shoulders – whatever took their fancy, really.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Shambolic, chaotic, manic.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Prior to the worship starting proper, the London based gospel choir IDMC sang some gospel songs. We missed most of this so don't know what was said. But about 10.20 the music stopped and suddenly a voice said, "Ooh, aah, ooh, this is on, isn't it? Oh. Good morning." But this was merely a prelude to some announcements. The real opening words were: "Good morning, Greenbelt, and welcome to Greenbelt Communion. We're going to focus on the transient nature of God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We had printed orders of service.

What musical instruments were played?

I was a bit too far from the stage to see exactly, but I think there was a worship band: electronic piano, guitars, drums, etc.

Did anything distract you?

At a Greenbelt communion there are many distractions: body odors from unwashed campers, toddlers having tantrums, young ladies in festival chic. But the biggest distraction for me this time was the smell of bacon being cooked in the catering vans nearby.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

For Greenbelt it was fairly traditional. The Revd Vince and the gospel choir performed rather than led the singing. There were, of course, some gimmicks during the service. Long rolls of brightly coloured ribbon were rolled out. These eventually were woven together to form a sort of tent representing that we were under God's shelter.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – I found the sermon quite interesting but I didn't quite see what it had to do with the supposed theme of the service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Revd Nadia preached on John 1:1-5 and 9-14 (John succinctly summarizes God's nature, the relationship of Father to Son, and the Son's mission on earth). Jesus was God in the flesh. God made his home in human form. So in a sense God is with us in our bodies. We should therefore accept our bodies as they are. Struggling for perfection is wrong. When God created he said it was good, not perfect!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sharing of communion with 10,000 other people, although the pita bread for communion just didn't cut the mustard.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The Bible reading. The woman who read the passage prefaced it by saying she wanted us to think of the word "flesh" and that when flesh was mentioned we should grab some flesh, perhaps on the arm or thigh. Not only did this sound corny, but to be honest it was said with a bit of innuendo. Not good.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

This doesn't really apply. At the end of the service Mrs Diction and I were swept along with thousands of others to go to a talk in a nearby conference centre.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We stopped and bought some fair trade coffee from a stall. It was good, though not as good as the fair trade coffee in Greenbelt's own cafe. But the queue was too long for us this time.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – I've been to worse Greenbelt services, but whereas in the past I've been fired up, this one just left me cold. In fact, worship isn't about me but about God. As long as it is acceptable to him, then that is all that matters.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Not really. But the rest of the festival did on many counts.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The sight of the ribbons forming the tent in the sunshine.

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