People tell me I'm an evangelical. I think that happened more by circumstance than conscious decision, but either way, the same people tell me I probably wouldn't fit in at Greenbelt. For the uninitiated, that's the British Christian festival now in its 42nd year, which draws from a wide range of church traditions to create a weekend focused on faith, arts and justice. This year's event kicks off tomorrow at Boughton House in Northamptonshire.
Like many people I'd developed a few preconceptions about Greenbelt. Its long-held welcoming stance on LGBT people has seen them cast as liberal by some, rather than broad; while others have suggested it has gradually played down its focus on scriptural exploration in favour of more right-on political discussion. So when a friend persuaded me to go along a couple of years ago, I had some expectations. I was expecting to meet some people with very suspect, very ill-thought-through theology that was more about their personal ethics than their Bible. I was expecting that my eyes would become sore from all the rolling. And I was on my guard against an imagined patrolling mob that would hunt down people like me and force them to renounce the Evangelical Alliance.
So what happened instead, took me somewhat by surprise...
1. I went to a very conventional worship service
Preconception #1 was that Greenbelt's worship opportunities would all involve house music, rhythmic chanting, bowing down to lion sculptures or some combination of the above. And while that's only a *slight* exaggeration of some of the expressions of worship on offer, there were also very traditional services and concerts. A tent full of well over 1,000 people turned out for a Rend Collective gig that wouldn't have been out of place at Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor. Greenbelt does offer a broad spectrum of worship styles, and that turns out to be genuine breadth, not just candles and bongos.
2. I ended up homeless, and was saved by new friends
I don't want to name names here, so let's just call my friend Camie Jutteridge. We were supposed to be tent buddies, and to be fair to him, he'd pointed out our accommodation several hours earlier (among about 7,000 other bits of canvas). As the evening entertainment drew to a close, Jamie headed off for an early night with a somewhat misplaced faith in my Scouting skills. I was completely lost, among an after-hours crowd of left-leaning folk music fans. Two people who vaguely knew me took pity and mercifully offered me a bed for the night; between them they rustled up an extra pillow, blankets, and a dry spot on an increasingly soggy site. The fact that my jet-engine-grade snoring gave them a sleepless night and caused one of them to go home exhausted the next day is not the important moral here; instead it's an amazing testament to the camaraderie and instant sense of community that exists between Greenbelters old and new.
3. I got challenged by voices I wouldn't normally listen to
One of the many reasons why Christian tribalism is problematic is that we tend to listen only to the voices that are within or complementary to our particular tribe. Having grown up in a broadly evangelical context, my experience of faith-based writing and teaching is largely defined within that boundary. At Greenbelt I found myself listening to people from way outside it; post-evangelicals and thoughtful atheists, Palestinian poets and Christian LGBT activists. And a lovely nun. And John Bell, who I discovered to be one of the most profound Christian teachers I'd ever heard.
4. The mud was the making of me
In strictly meteorological terms, I picked a terrible year to attend. To say it rained is akin to saying that Katie Hopkins has her critics. Not since the days of Noah had Cheltenham racecourse seen such a deluge, yet as an outsider the weather came with an unexpected benefit. Forced into tightly-packed tents to escape the rain, it was hard not to meet new people and discover the extraordinary breadth of delegates. Then, as one of the few people who'd actually checked the weather forecast and brought wellies, I began to employ myself as a kind of taxi service for slightly-built people who needed to cross the emerging swamps. In doing so I not only endeared myself to the festival regulars, but I also got an opportunity to practise a bit of good old fashioned Christian service. It felt good.
5. My attempts at sharing faith went seriously, weirdly wrong
And so to the strangest story of all. Like any festival, Greenbelt invites food and supplies vendors to come on to the site and sell their wares. Late one night, I found myself in an unexpectedly intense conversation with a couple running such an outlet, through which I was attempting to tell them about my faith in Jesus. They were happy to listen to this, provided that I first promised to listen to their worldview. Said couple were, as it turned out, Master Reiki healers, purveyors of the ancient Japanese art of energy channelling. And in hearing them out, I got seriously way over my head. At one point, the lady was asking me to hold an imaginary fireball while she cleansed my aura. Once I'd put it down, I told them about Paul's reference to the altar 'to an unknown God' in Acts 17. As a result, I feel sure that they are almost certainly now committed Christians*.
*Or still just Reiki fireball healers.
6. I met Jesus in a very crowded pub
In truth, Greenbelt turned out to be a succession of God-filled moments. The most memorable of all took place in the Jesus Arms, the wittily-titled onsite pub, which was so affected by the relentless rain that punters were standing in a foot of mud even at the bar. I arrived at the bar, carrying my friend on my back, to the rousing chorus of 'How Great Thou Art'; an impromptu service of 'Beer and Hymns' was talking place in the crowded venue. Someone handed me a glass of ale, and from somewhere else a song sheet appeared. In the midst of that most unlikely place, soaked to the skin and with a quarter of my body underground, I felt the presence of God among my fellow worshippers, and in the most profound way. If anyone ever tries to tell me again that Greenbelt has lost its soul, I'll point to that moment for conclusive evidence to the contrary. I might not be at the festival this year, but I'm certain that God will be.