What’s Greenbelt and does it fit the model

Ok, today might be a bit long because it’s when I look at what Greenbelt is and how it might fit the typology for pilgrimage set out yesterday. (and please remember this is just one part of my essay I’ve hacked and pasted). When you’ve gone through it I will leave it for you decide yourself, if you are preparing to go to Greenbelt , whether you are preparing to go on pilgrimage.

The key text for this bit was Northup, P, Thirty , (2003), Greenbelt Festivals, London.

Northup, (2003) produced a short history of Greenbelt for the thirtieth festival. In it he explains how Greenbelt started in 1974 on a farm in Suffolk. It was seen as a “celebration of Christian Music in the UK” (Northup, 2003, p6), but from the beginning involved preaching and speakers in addition to the music. Throughout its history Greenbelt has changed site on a number of occasions, moving firstly to Odell Castle, then to Knebworth, Castle Ashby and Deene Park before finding it's most recent home at Cheltenham Race Course.

Northup (2003) explains the original funding for Greenbelt came through the Deo Gloria Trust , which remained the sole sponsor for the first 10 years of the festivals life. As the festival developed the sources of funding changed and sponsorship started coming from other groups such as Christian Aid and through additional support from festival goers themselves through the Greenbelt Angels scheme. Today Greenbelt is sponsored by a range of groups including: Traidcraft , CMS , YMCA ,ICC , and Ecclesiastical Insurance according to the website (http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/?s=85 15/4/06).

Theologically its emphasis has remained broadly evangelical throughout, but there have been shifts throughout the years particularly with an increasing emphasis on issues of social justice which have created tensions.

The festival grew in size during the 1970's and 1980's, but by the late 1990's as Northup (2003) and others have chronicled the festival was in severe financial crisis. This means that recent festivals have had smaller numbers, but it is currently growing again.

Greenbelt has not appeared to have an explicit expectation of how it has expected those attending to benefit. However, the key idea which was put in the 1977 programme was “Greenbelt is a life-affirming festival based in contemporary culture but committed to the development of a truly Christian mind and lifestyle.” (Northup, 2003, p11). This is similar to the mission statement which appeared in the Annual Report 2003 -2004.

There is certainly no emphasis on formal miracle at Greenbelt but the revival of faith for those at the edges of the church has become an important part of Greenbelt, which is why in addition to the main Sunday morning communion service a range of alternative worship sessions have developed as part of Greenbelt. Also in his article “Life beyond The Festival” Paul Northup argues for many of those who attend Greenbelt has become a key element of their Christian lives and a place they wait the rest of the year to go to in order to revive their faith. (http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/index.php=134 17/4/06). Indeed, whilst the faith and enthusiasm of festival goers differs it is clear from my own observation and the anecdotal evidence of a number of my friends that many do intentionally take time out to go to Greenbelt to remove themselves from everyday life and engage with an experience which has the potential to impact their lives and lifestyles, when they go back into “the real world”.

The concept of communitas which the Turners (1978) refers to can be seen as occurring at Greenbelt, although I would argue that whilst underlying has been more evident as occurring at various points in the festivals' history than at others. The key to this is often the communion service on the Sunday morning which the majority of festival goers attend. The Turners (1978, p13) explain this as being common because of the way the symbolic power the Eucharist has a ritual and how it is this which can turn a group of people with similar intentions but no formal connection into a community that is focused on a common, idealistic goal. The following quote from Mike Yaconelli illustrates the moment this happens at Greenbelt:
“I was moved to tears just looking over the crowd and seeing black, white, young, punker, straight, children, elderly, worshipping God in total unity. For ninety minutes, the real world of hatred, prejudice, pettiness, and selfishness were forgotten. We were the invisible Church made visible for an instant and it was truly overwhelming. For a few fleeting moments I got a glimpse of what heaven will be like and I shall never forget it.” (Northup, 2003, p2)

It is also this concept of communitas which has led to the rise of initiatives such as “A Year of Living Generously” (http://www.generous.org.uk/about/?PHPSESSID=66ec6333e479551b789857d0a223fbe4 17/4/06) This type of initiative which involves people identifying changes in their everyday life whilst removed from the everyday situation, to then be enacted when they return to the mundane is also, I believe, evidence of the liminality of Greenbelt for some, if we use the Turners' (1978) interpretation of this concept, which we have already discussed.

So Greenbelt has grown and then reduced in size and started growing again over the last 30+ years. During this time the organisation has changed considerably, and structures and regulation, formal and informal have grown. Initially as Northup (2003) and others have made clear the festival was run from a caravan on the site and the organisers were very naïve. It has moved from appearing to start with a similar organisational ethos as the East Anglian Fairs which developed on Norfolk and Suffolk farms (also Greenbelts original home) at the same time to being an annual event run on a corporate location, which is hired for the event.
The regulation of the festival itself depends upon the “professional” festival management team and a group of volunteers who take on a range of roles .

Although Greenbelt, as a festival, takes place on the edge of Cheltenham the racecourse does, for the course of the festival, become a village in its own right. The 2005 festival programme illustrates the range of retail opportunities and food outlets available on site. In addition to the pub which is part of the racecourse site and organic beer tent, which was also added last year, there are a number of other key meeting points. These in addition to organised events such as Speed Dating all mean that the leisure aspect of the festival has as much emphasis as the spiritual in many ways. There is also an informal leisure element which grows up around the campsite after the “formal” activities of the day have finished. On many occasions I have observed, or heard, informal gatherings occur, often involving a range of people gathered around a guitar and some wine. This may involve friends, who meet up at the festival on a regular basis

So we have seen how Greenbelt has some elements in common with the ideal type we have identified the Turners giving to liminal pilgrimage. However, it could be argued that many of these elements can be seen in any contempory mass event, particularly if one compares Greenbelt with other music festivals. Indeed much of what we have identified at Greenbelt can also be seen to occur at the Glastonbury festival , although crucially there is not the overtly Christian aspect of Glastonbury that Greenbelt has in the communion service . Also, as already pointed out, Greenbelt has changed its location a number of times over the years and is clearly not associated with one site, sacred or otherwise and so clearly cannot be viewed as a pilgrimage in the traditional sense.

5 thoughts on “What’s Greenbelt and does it fit the model

  1. Thank you for this. Fascinating reading, and I like your tie-in to pilgrimage.

    I’ve heard, via the Ship and here, plenty of things about Greenbelt: you’ve filled in the many gaps in my knowledge. Thanks.

  2. Very interesting article – thanks. I went to Greenbelt for the first time last year and I am going again this month. It certainly didn’t feel like a pilgrimage, more like a retreat, but with noise and lots of people, so not traditionally retreat-like either.
    I certainly agree that it is a kind of spiritual battery recharging place.

  3. Last year was my first visit in 20 years. I was a little unnerved at some of the changes that have taken place. I miss the big music stage most of all. Sitting in the mainstage area was not my idea of fun.

    I did like the talks that I could go to but found that some were over subscribed and in very small venues.

    I’m going back this year and hope that I’ll enjoy it again.

  4. Thanks Ian & Farli for your kind comments(blushing).

    T&E, I believe from the website that they are changing the main stage this year and so may be more like yestayear in that respect.

    Hope you both enjoy this year & maybe we’ll catch up at the Wibmeet

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