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“Division is a sin” - Greenbelt 2016

Greenbelt's magical variety affirms a deeper truth, one emphasised by the Archbishop of Canterbury: Alex Baker reports from this year's festival

Greenbelt 700

Click on the images or this link to access our Greenbelt 2016 gallery on Flickr

No one comes to Greenbelt to work on his or her tan. You pack wellies, a fleece and an easy-to-carry umbrella. So I arrived on the Friday, as if in a dream where everything looks familiar but something is off, wearing shorts and flip-flops. Squinting and sweating, the ever-handy umbrella realised a new purpose and provided some shade. Monday was the same. I barely recognised the place in all the sun. At least Saturday and Sunday were reassuringly wet and grey - familiarity is part of Greenbelt’s many charms, after all.
Greenbelt was again being held in the fantastical grounds of Boughton House where dells, mounds, waterways and wooded clearings are the perfect location for the many acts on offer. The news beforehand was of a slightly smaller festival, but you wouldn’t have noticed. There were large crowds for all the key events like communion, and the same long queues to get into venues. And no matter how big or small the event, there’s always the pleasant certainty that you’re going to bump into someone you know.
As in previous years, there was a full programme on offer which made for some tough decisions on who to watch. Sunday evening saw me legging it across the site to catch Gungor’s beautiful music in the Glade Big Top, hear Mark Yaconelli talk about Disappointment, Doubt, and other Spirtual Gifts in the Treehouse, and take in a few minutes of Francis Spufford reading from his new book Golden Hill in the Leaves tent. Somehow, I was able to catch all of them. All also had time to sit down for an interview with me, so keep your eyes open for those in upcoming Baptist Times’ articles. Yaconelli’s talk (below) was so popular that I was half expecting people to be lowering their friends through the roof of the tent.
Greenbelt Yaconelli

Greenbelt was also host to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Revd Justin Welby, who drew large crowds for his Q&A panel with vicar and Gogglebox star the Revd Kate Bottley on Saturday at midday. Both brought the banter for an interview which was hardly going to appear on Newsnight, but did manage to sneak in enough of Welby’s wisdom for entertainment and reflection. In response to a question on the issues that could divide the Church he was quite firm: “Your sister and brother are never the enemy” adding that “division is a sin” before wryly concluding, “the best friend of Christian unity is the email draft box. Always re-read before you send”.


Welby was back on stage on Sunday to take part in Communion. Thereafter, he attended a ceremony where he handed out the Michael Ramsey Prize for contemporary theological writing. The winner of the £10,000 prize was Dementia: Living in the memories of God by John Swinton, Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the School of Divinity with Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. The book outlined how both people with dementia and those without the disease are the same before the eyes of God, who never forgets who we are.
One of Greenbelt’s inherent charms is all the occasions and acts you stumble upon walking around the site. I watched interpretative dance among the trees. I heard former Baptist Times editor Hazel Southam (below) read from her new book My Year with a Horse in a small clearing. I sheltered from the storms in a tent where a panel, which included Lutheran theologian Nadia Bolz Weber, were discussing whether to scrap the Church (spoiler alert: they decided not to). I witnessed loud cheers from the big tent as local favourite Folk On stepped in at the last moment after Saharan desert rock band Terakaft were unable to secure the visas they needed to make it to Greenbelt.

Greenbelt Hazel Southam

The music, generally, was quite a spectacle. Hot 8 Brass brought the jazz-infused sounds of New Orleans to the stage – not to mention every kind of brass instrument you could think of. Michael and Lisa Gungor (performing as Gungor) had violins and a guitarist to perform songs from their most ambitious creative project thus far: One Wild Life which is comprised of three full-length albums – Soul, Spirit and Body. And Ben Caplan and his amazing beard gave a virtuoso folk performance to a rapt audience on Saturday night.

Greenbelt Hot8

But in the end there was one image which stuck with me from Greenbelt 2016. It was during the storms we had on Saturday. With apocalyptic clouds above and torrential rain everywhere, people were running in every direction to find shelter. The tent I was in was not particularly spacious, yet every time some poor soaked punter ran in some space was found. Every time I thought we must have run out of space, we somehow managed to squeeze in another soggy festivalgoer.

In the age of Brexit and tabloid fears of refugees, it was reassuring to see how people could still find the space if they tried. “Division is a sin”, as Welby had said.  

Alex Baker is a photographer (www.alexbakerphotography.com).

You can see photos from this year’s Greenbelt here



Baptist Times, 01/09/2016
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