Britain's best Christian festival – now with added Muslims
Where can you go to see giant slugs battling mad, tuba-wielding Aussies next to giant interactive
sculptures on the lawns of a stately home for the amusement of watching children? Greenbelt
Where can you go to hear a leading Corbyn committee economist take questions from
women first and about banks in terms of Jesus Christ driving moneylenders from the Temple?
Where can you hear left wing comics sing about the Queen murdering Donald Trump and
the world slam poetry champion (2012) and his best friend rap about panda love and Christian
youthworker versions of 90s RnB?
Well, the Edinburgh Fringe.
But also Greenbelt festival, the nicest festival in Britain – which this year got a bit braver. It invited Muslims.
Greenbelt is a Christian festival, complete with outdoor Sunday Communion in wellies, Fairtrade
food stalls and a smattering of Jesus-friendly t-shirts. It has long featured non-Christian acts among the
Jesus-loving artists. But it;s more than just 'a Christian festival, but cooler' –– though it is that: in the
80s that meant Christian rock music, now it means embracing the LGBTQ+ community.
But Greenbelt has long been more than a Christian festival you could invite your non-Christian friends to
without creeping embarrassment. Greenbelt 2017, like many Greenbelts before it, is a little glimpse
of the Kingdom, dressed in clumsy, fallen clothes, preaching the gospel of inclusion as an expression
of the gospel we all know.
Greenbelt 2017 was a music festival with depth. It was a theatre, literature and fine arts biennale
with stand-up and a beer tent. It was a gathering of SJWs with prayer, puppet shows, of
revolutionaries with dancing and Newton Faulkner crooning (may God have mercy on our souls). It
was a congregation of Christians where feminism was assumed, not tolerated; refugees were
listened to, not pontificated about; and Muslims were not feared or condescended to, they were
given a space in which to curate content that Christians could enjoy.
Some conservatives were alarmed at the prospect, or at least suspicious of the agenda represented
by the inclusion of another world faith at a Jesus-inspired festival. But if an agenda was being
pushed, it was an odd one, exemplified by inclusion of faith-neutral dance and a Muslim comic with
the Twitter handle @Zafarcakes (which rhymes with jaffa cakes).
The Amal tent at Greenbelt 2017, a space where Muslim (and specifically Sufi) spirituality, arts,
thought and comedy could be easily accessed – got Greenbelt some predictable press and typical
tutting on social media this year. It proved to those hungry for proof that the longstanding liberal
thread that had run through the festival had extended too far, and Greenbelt was no longer a
Which would have puzzled anyone on Sunday morning taking Communion (led by
entirely by people with disabilities, because inclusion is not just about gay people and Muslims) or
the swaying-room- only 'Beer and Hymns' session in the pub / beer garden called the Jesus Arms
where pints were raised and cheers broke out at every lyrical mention of the Resurrection.
If you wanted to get away from all things churchy, you might have been disappointed. Might.
Because, among the Goth Eucharists and the sessions musing on the meaning of the comma
summarising Jesus life and ministry within the Creeds, the Red Tent welcoming anyone identifying as
a woman and the radical nuns and Communist theologians making proclamations progressive
enough to please the most jaded lefty heart, Greenbelt also featured the comforting, the gentle and
the affirming of a loving, lovable faith. Something quite different from what many of us, rightly or
wrongly, Christian and non Christian, associate with the Church.
In the case of the Muslim tent, of course, the Church wasn't overrepresented – at least not on stage.
Droves of Christians came to watch the likes of Bilal '@zafarcakes' Zafar tell the hilarious story of
how he annoyed the EDL on Twitter by pretending to be a Muslim-only bakery, or the sublimely
beautiful and fascinating Sonia Sabri dance company and their accessible introduction to the
complex, beautiful world of south Asia's Kathak dance tradition. Islamic world music DJs, Christian-
Muslim dialogue and, of course, Palestinian voices enriched the experience of a festival that has long
hosted non-Christian performers, and nobody, to my knowledge, apostatised in either direction.
Even the notorious 'Sufi Soul Sessions' (Sufi worship workshops, essentially) were hardly worth the
fundamentalist ire they drew before the festival began. I went to one. I tried out their chants as a
way to praise Jesus. I stopped, sat down and enjoyed the music. I'm an evangelical, but I thought I'd
give it a go (that may be the Greenbelt spirit). It wasn't for me, but loads of people seemed to enjoy
it. And, despite my own misgivings, I found myself thinking: that's okay (actually, perhaps that is the
Greenbelt spirit). But it was more than okay.
At a time when most Muslims are being vilified, some Muslims are trying to stoke Islamophobic
backlash with terror attacks and the white middle-class of Britain seems unable to get deeper than
Nadia off of Bake Off and Mo Farah with it's Muslim engagement, maybe some uncomfortable,
close-quarters contact is what is needed. I say maybe. Obviously it is. And if it takes a Christian
festival where the daughter of the current Archbishop of Canterbury speaks about her depression in
a minor tent and John Bell denounces 'rampant heterosexualism' in a big one (while the rest of us
drink big, reusable glasses of cider or tiny cups of tea) then, sorry, Dr Dawkins, I like their way of
doing it better than your way of not doing it.
Greenbelt makes me proud to be a Christian – even in the moments when it gets things wrong.
Because that is what the Church is meant to be about. More than that – it's what a festival is meant
to be about. If you've never been before, do yourself a favour and go next year. Bookings are open
now for the ludicrously keen. Get in, before your local mosque buys up all the tickets.
Jonty Langley is a recovering fundamentalist and reluctant progressive who works for a mission agency by day and argues with people on the internet by night. He also writes. Find him on Twitter @JontyLangley