This weekend I returned to what has emerged as one of my spiritual homes; a pilgrimage of sorts to the Greenbelt Festival, held in Cheltenham annually.
A collision of justice, faith and the arts, the ‘Christian’ festival attracts 20-odd thousand people over the extended weekend for a whole variety of different talks and performances. In the past, acts like Royksopp have graced the mainstage, and the appearance of controversial figures from both ‘secular’ and religious worlds has earmarked the whole thing as being a little bit different.
I’ve always loved the festival. Being someone with strong beliefs that I had challenged and forged for myself, it was an awfully lonely place to be when you’re surrounded by those who unquestioningly accept whatever their default position is.. even more difficult when that position is intolerant towards others. At Greenbelt, where people openly discuss how they really feel and live and believe, ‘issues’ such as homosexuality are debated, but also.. on the ground.. fought for. Girls kissing girls or swearing or drinking aren’t judged off the bat – people are loved and open for who they are.
After years of lugging around big cameras to festivals, I have started to volunteer in the Press Office at Greenbelt, which brings me right into proximity with the supposed ‘controversial figures’ that the festival attracts and invites.. be that Bishop Gene Robinson or former MP Clare Short.
This weekend saw the prominent gay rights activist Peter Tatchell appearing. If you’re not familiar with who he is, you may recognise him from when he confronted Nick Griffin recently. Reason enough to like someone instantly as far as I’m concerned. The fact that he could appear at a ‘Christian’ festival and receive what was reported as a standing ovation gives a glimpse of what Greenbelt is like, and why it’s important. There’s definitely something there.
Sadly, I’ve felt fairly downhearted about the whole thing after a bit of an incident on the Sunday afternoon. Going along to a discussion in the programme that was down as ‘the spirit of the thing’, to talk about how to take the vibe or special nature of the place and transplant it in different locations and ways, I hoped to become involved afresh in the Solas Festival venture. Solas was meant to be a starting point to find some of that community that so many of us longed for and found at Greenbelt and bring it to a Scottish context.
Initially involved with the project, I became disillusioned with the way people were treated and things handled, like so many things that are related to ‘the church’. Hoping to find new breath in the idea whilst at Greenbelt, instead I found myself being patronised by trustees who turned up late, scorned any criticism and desire for change, and left you feeling worthless. Wearing a special wristband or wielding certain roles seemed to have overtaken a basic grace and compassion when dealing with people.
It became difficult to feel quite at home after that. I do still love Greenbelt, but as the spotlight was briefly shone into the inner workings behind the scenes, I got the same feeling I did when I realised just how badly people were being treated by Elders consumed by power in the church I used to be a part of.
It struck me that the ‘spirit of the thing’ was exactly that… the spirit. It was not and is not something created by those who sit on boards or committees, but in the discussion and debate and people who make it so. The festival could die tomorrow, but what is important is that a space like that can exist – a reminder that spirituality and justice are powerful and real and the ridiculous, fascist views of the church are not the whole picture; that some people out there don’t get it.
With something the size of Greenbelt, the politics and corruption of power that exists at the organisational levels can be ignored as it is rarely seen in the usual run of things. When the idea was tried to be supplanted into the minnow that is Solas, the hypocrisy was out for all to see… and it was ugly. It’s harder to hide pretense when it’s in a much smaller area.
I feel like I’m almost betraying something that I owe a great deal to, but then, it’s not the festival to whom I owe anything. It’s the people and experiences. I do still love Greenbelt and what it’s become and sustained to be by the people who make it up, but I do not like the insular politics that have become apparent and which are just as bad, if not worse than those that exist within the institutional church.
A word of warning to those involved in creating the space that I love dearly: it’s far too easy to become consumed with your own self importance when you think you’re out on the edge of something. When that happens, you make a mockery of the very things that you purport to believe and stand for. It’s all too easy to let the structures of power of something great to become evil in themselves.
All will come crashing down from their holier-than-thou pedestals in time; that includes those in the trendy liberal corner as well as those who preach hatred against homosexuality. It’d be wise to remember that.
Hell, maybe we should all just shut up and stop questioning and buy our ticket and play the game properly. I’m pretty sure that would be far easier, but when was it meant to be easy? Criticism of any position is fine, as long as it doesn’t come from inside it would appear.
I’m wearied by the whole thing. The more I learn of the inner workings of things such as this, the harder it is to reconcile that with my experience of the festival itself. I fear that it could end up swallowing my perception of the latter, and that’s not something I relish.
“The problem is that you’ve become too trendy. You need to be relevant.” – John Smith.