This was an open air meeting set in the grounds of Boughton House, one of the grandest and best preserved stately homes in all of England. For the Greenbelt festival, a number of meeting tents of various sizes had been set up. The communion service was held at the Glade Stage, the largest pop-up venue. It wouldn't have been out of place at any other major summer music festival.
Greenbelt has been running since the 1970s. Having been held at Cheltenham race course for the last few years, this was the first time it was held at Broughton House, though it had previously been hosted at nearby Deene Park. The festival labels itself as being about "arts, faith and justice." It is described by some as the Christian version of Glastonbury, the arts festival that is held each year near Pilton.
Boughton House is situated a few miles east of the Northamptonshire town of Kettering, a fairly featureless town. The only places nearby of any interest are the house whose grounds the festival was located in, a nearby theme park called Wicksteed, and Rockingham Speedway a few miles north in the neighbouring town of Corby.
The service was led by the Revd Becca Stevens, an American Episcopal priest who founded Magdalene, a network of residential communities of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction; and the Revd Mpho Tutu, an Episcopal priest and the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The worship was led by songwriter and recording artist Marcus Hummon; songwriter and producer Levi Hummon; and Joshua Matheny.
What was the name of the service?Communion Service
How full was the building?
The whole area was packed. I couldn't do a head count, but it was certainly in the thousands, possibly 10,000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I arrived at the festival site, there were two people standing by the entrance giving out some programmes.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pews would have made it an interesting challenge. We were mostly sat on the ground, with some of us putting down coats or picnic blankets. Some brought their own collapsible chairs. I had to adjust my seat, as the ground was littered with some very hard lumps, which I was later informed were actually compacted cow pats. There wasn't an awful lot of leg room, but we were able to stand occasionally to get the circulation going again.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was sort of a kind of gentle anarchy. There wasnt lots of milling about, but people were walking about trying to find friends and family or a spare patch of grass. The sheer number of people made it quite noisy, but it could have been a lot worse.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to the Glade Stage."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We had a specially printed service booklet that contained some of the lyrics to some of the songs and all the words of the liturgy.
What musical instruments were played?
I couldn't see the full set from where I was, but there were certainly two guitars. I think there were also keys and drums.
Did anything distract you?
The biggest distraction was the sheer number of people. This was supplemented by a number of flying insects, the most novel of which was a large dragonfly that snuck up upon a young lady in front of me. She let out a short squeal when it came from behind her head into her eye line.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very much trying to be all things to all people. There were times it got so happy clappy, it was turning into a barn dance. One song in particular was so happy clappy it made "Shine Jesus Shine" seem like the Allegri Miserere. But for the more ecclesiastically conservative, there was a chanted liturgy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I wasn't able to time it, as it wasn't clear from the start that it was a sermon. At as estimate, I think it was about 15-20 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – Becca Stevens spoke with a very strong Nashville accent that seemed somewhat out of place in rural Northamptonshire. She did, however, come across as nerveless, which is impressive given the size of the crowd she was addressing. However, the mark was for not for the style, but rather for the content – read on!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was a summary of a recent book that the preacher had out. There was no exposition of scripture; instead, we got a lengthy anecdote about some mystical oil that had magical healing properties. The whole story struck those of us who were scientifically literate as utter hokum. While a few talks at previous Greenbelts have in essence been adverts for the authors' books, I thought Mrs Stevens' remarks were inappropriate for a communion service and represented a gross misjudgment on her part, as well as a missed opportunity. Several other people I spoke with later said they felt the same way.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Looking around the crowd, I noticed people who were black, white, gay, straight, able-bodied and disabled. All were welcome to share in worship together.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
For me, it was the actual communion. Trying to get communion to multiple thousands of people at one time would always be a logistical nightmare. What they did was to state repeatedly that we had to gather in groups of 15-20 people. As I had come by myself and am an introvert who finds talking to strangers very stressful, this was hugely uncomfortable. It was also very Anglican in style which, to me as a nonconformist, added to the sense of alienation. So I just sat quietly to pray and politely declined a couple of offers to join a group.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone just got up and started to move off either to get lunch or go to another venue on site for a talk, poetry, drama or music. Having been disappointed by the sermon, I headed over to a venue entitled The Mount, where oddly enough they had some sermons that had far more substance and were more thought-provoking than that given in the communion service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no specific after-service coffee, though you could get it from several venues on site. The coffee served in the Christian Aid tent was generally burnt and delivered in an oversized paper cup, though that which was served in a venue called The Tank was by far the best and put into a proper mug.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The Greenbelt festival as whole was great and I would consider coming back. However, I think I might skip the communion service unless it were a bit more ecumenical and less Anglican-biased.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The communion service didnt. But that was unusual for the festival as a whole, which was broadly positive.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The missed opportunity to preach a great sermon to such a large audience.