As many of you know, I have been going to Greenbelt for the last few years, and I am passionate about the festival. I want to explore here why that is - something that has been brought to focus in the last year with the major financial problems the organisation has had.
The first reason for my support of it is that it is unique. There are, of course, other events around the country like Spring Harvest and New Wine, as well as Soul Survivor. I do not have a problem with any of these, and did go to Spring Harvest for many many years, which is where my experience of these events comes from. There is a reason that these events are quite different from Greenbelt.
Spring Harvest is not a festival, but a conference. The difference - at least when I was attending - was that a conference is very structured, with sessions that are clearly timed, meaning that there are clear breaks for mealtimes. In the professional world, these are crucial times for talking to others, chatting, sharing ideas across sub-groups. A conference is very structured, both time-wise and (often) content-wise. When I went, the mornings were a structured set of talks, each group supposedly coving a similar set of ideas, in different ways or from different perspectives.
More significantly, the evenings were big, all-together events - it was only the later years that an alternative evening celebration developed. Even then, the celebrations had the same themes. I should clarify that the big celebration were fantastic - I loved them, because they were proper celebrations on a large scale. They were times when I felt a member of a big group, a part of something larger than me and mine.
But Greenbelt is different. The form and structure is different, but - more crucially - the purpose is different. It is not a conference, it is a festival. It is not as regimented - there is all sorts of things going on at different times. It is quite possible for two people to attend and experience completely different festivals. It is quite possible to attend different talks and get opposing or irreconcilable arguments. It is possible to go only for the music, or only for the talks, or only for the Tiny Tea Tent. The only "communal" aspect is the Sunday Morning Communion, and that is, like everything else, optional.
But it is the purpose that is so crucially different. The purpose of the conferences - Christian or work-style - is to impart information, teach the latest idea. The big draws are often well-known writers and speakers, this is a chance for them to tell people about their latest ideas (and sell more books).
Greenbelt is different. Well, not entirely - for many of those performing, they are there to sell their merchandise. They are doing the rounds, although the rounds are more likely to be the festivals than the conferences. Greenbelt is there to give people a chance to explore, engage, discuss. Greenbelt is a place where someone can say anything they want. But more importantly, anyone can answer, challenge, debate and argue. You can claim that black is white, and you will find someone to agree with you and someone to disagree. But there is a good chance that you will find these people are prepared to listen as well as argue.
I think most importantly, the theological position of Greenbelt is different. The conference circuit is on the Conservative Evangelical part of the theological spectrum, whereas Greenbelt is much wider. In its early days, most of the music came from the Evangelical Christian music culture (and the attendees too). While this has changed, this early focus on the arts has remained. It is the only place where the Christian faith and the arts collide in this way, where Christians can have their ideas and understanding challenged by the insights from the arts. It is also a place where those who do not sign up to the Christian faith can explore spiritually with no pressure. Or, of course, just get to experience some great performances.
This is why Greenbelt is important. The target audience - in terms of what it does, not necessarily the organisation's definition - are those people who are spiritually on the edge. Those who are on the edge of church and churches, for whom the standard route and approach is not one that works. It is for people who want to explore spiritual truth, not be told what they should believe if they want to join in. It is for people who want to understand what faith means when people disagree.
It is also for those who would explore faith and spirituality that is not book- or word-centred. Given that Jesus never wrote a book (he may well have been illiterate), and that so much of the biblical teaching is done visually (although it is reported to us in words, because smartphones hadn't been invented then), this is a vital aspect of Christian faith.
It is for those of us for whom living faith is about constant exploration, not formulaic expressions. It is for people who like discussions where their view is changed, and they come away with new insights - not necessarily agreement with others, but a greater understanding of their position. It is for people who can say "I'm sorry" and "I am wrong. Thank you."
For me, and I know for many others, church does not provide what I need any more. For me, Greenbelt gives me a message that I can still be a Christian, despite all of my doubts, anger, illness and failure. It tells me that I don't have to conform to any particular system or hierarchy to be a Christian. It tells me that I don't have it right, but that I don't have it all wrong either.
So if you have never been, can I encourage you to consider it, and give it a try. And support it, even if it doesn't work for you, because it is a crucial part of the spiritual life of this country.