MORE THAN 17,000 young people spent the Bank Holiday weekend camping out in tents and caravans in the grounds belonging to Lord Luke near Odell in Bedfordshire. They were taking part in the '81 Greenbelt Festival, the eighth of its kind. and an experience which has to be lived to be appreciated.
In many ways, the Festival was like any other Rock Festival. drawing together top artists from all over England and as far as the USA, including Cliff Richard, Garth Hewitt, Network, Barry McGuire. Joe English, James Taylor. It was different in that the four days of Rock by more than a score of different bands, in different styles were to celebrate the Gospel message.
A wide range of arts and crafts were present at the Festival including a Spanish mime artist, theatre companies such as "Footprints", who did a highly amusing version of the parable of the unforgiving servant using the 40s British film style. Morris dancers. a Welsh male voice choir and even a band from the Salvation Army.
One man, a shoemaker by trade, was making sandles from old car tyres. He jokingly said he had come to Greenbelt "to cut out a few souls", and asked whether we had read "the bit of the Bible when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and God gave tham some sandals that never wore out". People were still wearing the sandals he had made at Greenbelt more than five years ago.
Lord Luke had hosted the thousands of campers for seven years and every year. he has had to turn over more acres to the organisers as numbers swell.
He has even had to alter his farming to accommodate the Festival and has reseeded fallow land with grass just to make the site more amenable. He spoke of the enormous . respect he has for the Festival and thehappiness he has seen there although he was "not too keen on the Festival music".
The sloppiness usually associated with Rock festivals was not to be found at Greenbelt. The preparations and organisation had been very tight. James Holloway, to whom Greenbelt owes its inspiration had been on the site for three weeks before the. event.. 120 toilets had to be built, and cables and plumbing had to be installed.
A sunrise service began the day on Sunday and in spite of a late night on Saturday. it was attended by hundreds of young people. Each day in fact began with a Bible meditation. Bishop Taylor of St Albans took part in Greenbelt for the first time and hundreds of young people packed into the tent (Christened St Cuthbert's) to listen to his homily.
There were between 80-100 hours of Christian teaching during the Festival on such issues as: Reconciliation, Third World Poverty. Justice. Violence and Human Rights.
Unemployed people were allowed a special entrance fee and John Punton held a seminar on what the Gospel had to say about unemployment. He urged the employed to enter into the stigma and suffering that the unemployed are hearing and "who are paying the necessary cost for our society to get back onto its feet."
He said: "As long as work is determined in terms of paid work. people will always suffer when unemployed". He asked the unemployed to "be open to the rest of us, to stay open and give us the opportunity to be alongside them".
The Festival ran a service to inform young people of their rights and the benefits available, with support from Government employees. James Holloway explained that Greenbelt has now. entered a broad section of church Society. "As yet", he said, "there are not many inroads into secular society. Greenbelt has challenged some of the set Church ideas and now it hopes to attack decisions that politicians and economists make on our behalf."
Graham Gray, chairman of Greenbelt and Anglican priest in York, commented on the fact that Rock and Christianity had formerly seemed miles apart.
In his opinion, "feeling that they don't mix is a mistake, all expressions of life need the impact of the gospel."
Greenbelt is one of the largest attended events on the Christian calendar in this country. It provides a platform for Christian Arts and has been the beginning of a religious experience for the type of young person who would never put a foot inside a church. What the people at Greenbelt had in common was far stronger than any historical religious difference. Personal contact overcomes much.
The organisers of Greenbelt are relentlessly self-critical. They are constantly checking that they are not getting into rut. either in thir outlook or in their music. "The Festival,they said, is aimed at the next generation of adults in the Church. It would like to provide a radical alternative Christian culture in the world."