Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, England

Greenbelt Festival 2008, Cheltenham, England


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Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Greenbelt Festival 2008
Location: Cheltenham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 August 2008, 3:00pm

The building

Cheltenham Racecourse is located on the outskirts of Cheltenham, near the scenic hilly region known as the Cotswolds, and is perhaps one of the most famous racecourses in the UK alongside Ascot, Epsom and Aintree. It is situated in a natural amphitheatre just below the escarpment of the Cotswold hills. In addition to the racetrack and grandstand, Cheltenham features several auditoria and function rooms, making it a popular venue for concerts, meetings and exhibitions as well as racing. The service I attended was an open air communion service held in a field with the only "building" being the main stage of the festival. That said, the field was well appointed as fields go. From the field there were views across the racecourse towards the Cotswold hills in one direction and the Malvern hills in another direction. So the view was very pretty. The people attending the service were invited to enter "the temple" (see below) through several "gates" (some garden trellises with ribbons around them) representing the north, south, east and west (a reference to Luke 13:29).

The church

The Greenbelt Festival, an annual event stretching over several days, is probably the largest Christian music festival in the world. The first Greenbelt was held in 1974 on a pig farm and was called by The Sun newspaper "the nice people's pop festival." Although Greenbelt's appeal lay at first in its unashamed celebration of the arts, particularly rock music, over time the heart and mind of Greenbelt broadened and strengthened to include a biblical vision of global justice engaging with political powers. Attendance reached its peak around 1990 but gradually declined during the ensuing decade. Since moving to Cheltenham, however, Greenbelt has seen attendance more than quadruple. The festival regularly attracts the biggest names in Christian music as well as many well-known Christian speakers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is currently the Festival's patron. Greenbelt today sees the church as an infectious global conspiracy, working for God's peace, healing and friendship in previously unimagined ways.

The neighborhood

Cheltenham is a large spa town and borough in Gloucestershire, England. Its popularity began with the discovery of mineral springs there in 1716. The town has an image of wealth and respectability and is noted for its fine examples of Regency architecture. Wealth and respectability, however, did not necessarily spring to the minds of us festival goers, surrounded as we were by the aromas emanating from hot dog and donut stands mingling with stable-related smells. Anything unusually interesting about the immediate neighbourhood, did you ask? Other than that, no.

The cast

The Revd Lusmarina Campos Garcia, a native of Brazil and pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, and the Revd Terry MacArthur, a native of the United States and the liturgist and choir director of the same church. Pastor Lusmarina wore a white cassock and colourful stole. The Revd Terry, on the other hand, was brightly attired in orange shirt and white trousers with white braces (suspenders). Music was provided by a group called Aradhna, which has worked to create an authentic sound for Indian Christ-centered worship that had previously relied on Western hymns.

What was the name of the service?

Greenbelt Communion 2008 – Rising Sun.

How full was the building?

It is difficult to give a figure but I imagine there must have been somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people present. But there was room for more – it was a big field!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. We drifted in with the other thousands through the aforementioned ribboned trellises. We were given our service sheet by a young man who was a member of the L'Arche community, an international network of faith-based group homes centered around people with learning disabilities. He was very cheerful but did not welcome us as such.

Was your pew comfortable?

We brought our own pew in the form of a folding camping chair. It was comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Manic. People were chatting and eating their picnic lunches. The Revd Terry was running through the various songs that would be sung during the communion.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

To be honest I don't know. I too was chatting to people around me and so wasn't really paying attention. But according to the printed order of service, the opening words were probably: "We welcome the four processions coming to the temple from the north, west, south and east."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everyone was given an order of service with the prayers, hymns and songs printed on it.

What musical instruments were played?

Aradhna played a selection of Indian instruments including sitar, sarod (a string instrument somewhat resembling a lute but with drone and sympathetic as well as melodic strings), and Hindustani violin (tuned differently from the Western violin and played without vibrato). There were also some other musicians playing a digital electronic keyboard and guitars.

Did anything distract you?

Maybe it's easier to say what wasn't a distraction. But as I know you really want me to say what distracted me, here goes. The weather. It was cold and wet. The Revd Terry's colourful taste in haberdashery. Pastor Lusmarina's opening remarks (read on!).

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

It was lively and the crowd (congregation would be the wrong word) were there to have a good time. It felt exactly like it was a crowd at a music festival joined together to see an act on the main stage. Pastor Lusmarina wrote the liturgy used. There were a number of hymns all reflecting (sorry) the rising sun theme. We had "From the rising of the sun" and "Summer suns are glowing" (with much ironic laughter given the rain). We also managed several Asian hymns in Japanese, Hindi and Thai. We even held forth with two verses of "Hark the herald angels sing." Finally we sang the Beatles' "Here comes the sun" as best we could, again amid spasms of ironic laughter). We were given "goodie bags" containing the communion elements to share among 20 people or so. The bags also contained coloured ribbons to wave, throw in the air, and tie around your neighbour’s wrists as directed by the Revd Terry. I didn’t get a ribbon and so felt a bit at a loose end during these bits.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I again have to be honest. During the sermon it began to rain heavily, and like everyone else I got distracted by putting on my coat, putting up my umbrella, etc. So I didn't keep an eye on the time. But it was no more than 10 minutes.

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

4 – Pastor Lusmarina began by saying she wished she were on the beach at Copacabana in her bikini! An odd statement for her to make, as I wouldn't exactly call her a "looker". But I suppose that was one way of grabbing the attention of the crowd, although personally I drifted off into a reverie of Brazilian beach volleyball players! Her English appeared fluent but it was heavily accented and I found it a bit difficult to follow. She was a pretty good preacher in terms of how she delivered the sermon. But as you will see below, I just had trouble agreeing with her theology.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theme of the festival and the service was Rising Sun. She explained how the rising sun was used in the Bible as a metaphor for Jesus, as in the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:1-3.) She said that the sun needed to shine once more, particularly on countries of the developing world. But to my ears it sounded as if we were worshipping the sun, not the Sun of Righteousness. I found myself tuning out because of the many distractions but also because the message seemed to be unchristian.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

That's easy – the communion. I received bread and wine from two 11 year olds. One of them plonked the bread into my hand with a cheery "There you go," but the other kept a tight grip on the cup of wine, as if he was hoping to drink the remaining wine himself! But somehow I was really touched by the experience. There was a real sense of mystery.

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

There are a few things that spring to mind. The Revd Terry may be a choir director back in Geneva, but he was terribly behind the beat for most of the songs. And his outfit! We concluded he is probably a big fan of musicals. The sermon. Singing "Hark the herald angels sing" in August. The fact that where we worshipped was referred to as a temple. I could go on. But the real low point was singing the Beatles' "Here comes the sun" as if it were a hymn, with it pouring down with rain all the while.

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

People drifted off to the next event, their tents, or (in our case) to the coffee and donut kiosk.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The fair trade caffe Americano and fresh donuts I purchased were excellent – though they cost almost £10 for two coffees and two donuts.

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

1 – This was my first time at Greenbelt and I thought the experience in general was great. I will come back. But this particular service was dire. It was wishy washy liberalism at its worst.

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

Despite everything I've said, the communion was very special. So strangely I will say yes.

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

I think it will be the Revd Terry in his orange shirt and white trousers camping it up singing "Here comes the sun." I just wished he'd sung an encore of "The sun'll come out tomorrow" – I could tell he was wanting to!

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