Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Greenbelt 2013: the 40th birthday celebration

Guest post from Sorted's agony aunt, Jojo Meadows

I’ve been told that life begins at 40, but as I approach this grand age, the idea alarms me a little. Why? Well, I wonder whether previous years count if life begins at 40. But of course they do! In nearly 40 years of being on this earth, I have been shaped, moulded and altered by my former years and experiences. (PS, I’m not dead yet, although the phrase “former years” makes it sound like I’ve already popped my clogs!)

The same could be said for Greenbelt’s journey. The arts, faith and justice festival has embraced the idea of turning 40, growing gracefully and victoriously though its own conquests and challenges.

Greenbelt is held every August bank holiday weekend at Cheltenham Racecourse. Enriched by the beautiful surrounding area, this sprawling piece of land is turned into an animated community hub with a fresh vibe. The exclusive Racecourse accommodates 20,000 like-minded people, many of whom have travelled from far and wide to be part of this creative, abstract and non-denominational festival.
A variety of individuals, independent groups, non-denominational churches and established denominations come together each year. 

Festivalgoers relish the opportunity to explore and expand their faith and knowledge through creative art or inspiring talks that are primarily focused on spirituality and social justice.

Greenbelt’s got talent
This year, the weekend kicked off at five pm on the Friday with a dynamic array of acts. Popular comedian Milton Jones was on top form, as always. Renowned for his appearances on Mock the Week and Live at the Apollo, his ability to woo the audience with his waggish swagger is memorable to say the least.

Peter Rollins also impressed at the Jerusalem Venue, captivating his audience with deep theological circumlocution. Peter was enticing, dishing out a “taster” of what was to come; preparing the ears of his listeners and critics for the main talk on ‘Divine Decay: Living the ‘Death’ of God’ at the Big Top.

Folk On stormed the Mainstage and their combined wit and ability to entertain teens and the elderly alike made for excellent viewing. They even encouraged the crowd to have an old-fashioned sing-along. These comedy heroes have influenced Milton Jones as much as he has them.

Bottles and buddies
The Jesus Arms, or in the words of Ben Jones (a member of Ikon) ‘Back in the arms of Jesus’, proved to be a beer tent with a difference. On sale were spirits, cider and ale, with apt names such as ‘Jonah and the Ale’ chosen by various punters and workers. It was all in very good taste!

For me, Greenbelt was like going from home to home. I met old friends and made new ones, feeling really comfortable in my own skin. The friendliness of others caused me to feel like I belonged. As a single mother, I would say that whether you are married, dating or single, do not allow insecurity or intimidation to deter you from going. It is more or less impossible not to feel welcomed in this streamlined and seamless festival, which houses an aromatic throng of creative, opinionated, arty, dexterous and thoughtful souls.

Get together
As I walked around, breathing in the celebratory atmosphere, it was clear to me that this is how festival life should be. Actually, it is how everyday life should be lived. There was no strife, no angst, no collision of opinion without a respectful response, and people seemed happy to be around one another and accept people regardless of who they were. The atmosphere was enriched with different views, yet somehow the reverence bestowed was not about religion; it was about a unity of love and a meditative understanding that we can all celebrate and join together as a community.

One community that really caught my eye was Belfast-based Ikon, which facilitated a deeply creative act of worship entitled ‘The End’. While walking into a dark and deeply mysterious room, each of us was given a balloon, which symbolised our own lives. We then had to attach the balloon to a body part or item of clothing. Either the number ‘1’ or the word ‘one’ was written on the balloon.

We walked into a sultry atmosphere knowing that a thought-provoking experience that tantalised our sensory abilities awaited us. The delivery was as good as expected; combining a fresh blend of visual imagery, theatre and interaction with the audience. When interviewing a couple as they walked out, one described it as “a form of art within worship that has caused me to want to step out of what I know and look and reflect with a new ideology”.

Black and light
Another event that caused a stir was the Gothic Eucharist, which took place in the Aspire Venue. A choir called nChant, all dressed in black, led the worship and engaged with the 400 people who turned up. Despite being an ‘outsider’ on the surface, I wasn’t treated this way at all. In fact, I was very much included in the beautifully mysterious gothic worship and communion.

The worship consisted of a deep tribal drumbeat with a medieval chant that brought shivers to my soul. I started to come alive, stirring up dark things that I had suppressed, bringing them to the fore so that I could reflect upon and deal with them.

The main service was led by Skye Denno and three assistants, having been written by Skye’s husband Joel. Their intention was clear as they talked with passion and zeal about their convictions. The talk was based on the four elements: fire, water, earth and air and each priest took one of these elements.

Three readings took place and the communion table sat prominently in the middle of the room. Various ‘alternative’ representatives from around the country helped to distribute the sacraments to symbolise unity. Everyone was treated equally, whether they presented themselves as ‘traditional’ or ‘alternative’.

Pennie Ley, who participated in the prayers during the communion, explained how much support and love she and others had received. Friends and family of Sophie Lancaster (who was tragically murdered six years ago after defending her boyfriend from a group of people who were taunting the pair for dressing differently) regularly attend to remember who Sophie was and to celebrate her legacy.

Surprisingly, after optional baptismal vows were offered, followed by the ancient tradition of sprinkled water with rosemary, one girl stepped forward asking to be baptised properly. She wasn’t disappointed.

A house away from home
A new venue I stumbled across this year was the GTV Treehouse. GTV has been on site for five years, filming and capturing short talks, acoustic music events and punters’ opinions on the festival. However, over the last few years, Greenbelt’s organisers have revealed a bigger and better vision for GTV. As a result, the setup was a little different this year. Walking into the blackout studio space, it felt like a really intimate venue. The grass was soft underfoot and birds were tweeting in the background, and the set was kitted out like a traditional tree house, with fresh wood and naked bulbs aplenty.

Speakers gave short talks on themes such as, ‘I raise a glass...’ and ‘When I am 40, I hope…’. There was also an eclectic mix of discussions on subjects such as storytellers, godless churches, Gandhi, eating as a subversive activity and failure. Evenings at the Treehouse featured a host of lyrical music, poetry sessions and conversational panels on women in the church.

The venue is unique as everything is pre-filmed, which provided a relaxed atmosphere for the audience, but with acts such as Martyn Joseph, Miriam Jones, Alice Wroe and Sanderson Jones on hand, we were kept entertained with a host of witty anecdotes and stories. The talks and music events will be posted on the website as free podcasts throughout the year for people who couldn’t attend the festival and for use in churches, so don’t forget to take a look.

And… breathe…
One service I really have to applaud is St John Ambulance. Its staff patrolled the length and breadth of the festival day and night, catering for every incident. They were so attentive and professional in their duty, and I had first-hand experience of this. While walking some distance from the main arena, I had a sudden asthma attack. Two St John patrollers were walking by and could see my struggle. They practically carried me to the medical centre, where I was treated immediately. They monitored me after the attack and had someone watch me the whole time.

As I sat with a mask over my mouth, breathing in the oxygen and treatment, I started to reflect on Greenbelt and how it originated, as well as the trials and tribulations it has encountered. I felt so honoured to be part of this 40th birthday celebration. So thank you Greenbelt for persisting in the face of adversity and for bringing a fresh, dynamic approach.

Best for last
The weekend was packed with an array of delights; the ‘gold’ glistened like a pirate’s booty. Within the treasure stores were the likes of Lemar, Clare Balding, Pip Wilson, Gareth Higgins, Steve Chalke and Fat and Frantic.

Then, as a finale for Greenbelt’s spectacular 40th birthday celebrations (almost like the icing on the birthday cake) came Belfast’s very own Duke Special, a talented singer/songwriter whose lyrics draw you in as though you are a musical note or a word uttered from his own mouth. Duke’s stage presence, along with the full Greenbelt orchestra, made it feel like a warm portion of sunshine had collided with the stage.

A DVD showcasing Greenbelt’s history is now available here, and I would highly recommend that you buy it.

Read more from Jojo in Sorted magazine - click here to buy your September-October issue today.

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