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Festival, Cheltenham, England
Photo: Ben Askew
| Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction.
Festival, Cheltenham, England.
The service was held in a large field housing a big stage
that was used throughout the festival as the main spot for
the various musicians that performed throughout the weekend.
The field was part of the Cheltenham Racecourse, a horse-racing
track, where the annual festival has been based for a number
of years. From the field, you get a view of the festival village,
which includes a big top tent and in the distance the Cotswold
Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The Greenbelt Christian Arts and Music Festival started in
1974 and has been held at several different locations in the
UK before moving to Cheltenham Racecourse in 1999. The numbers
attending each year vary, but around 20,000 people attend
to see various musical acts and comedians and to hear talks
from theologians and thinkers. (This year, the line-up included
the jazz musician Courtney Pine, the poet Roger McGough and
the psychologist Oliver James.) Although a Christian festival,
it is quite broad and not everything is exclusively Christian.
The vast majority of people at Greenbelt camp in tents or
caravans. The festival runs for four days, with Sunday being
the third day; by then, people are starting to look disheveled
and, in some instances, slightly smelly. Not your normal church
congregation (well, not in my church anyway!).
Cheltenham is an attractive, affluent town. It grew in the
19th century as a spa town, with people coming to take the
waters at the pump room. There are some fine Regency and Victorian
buildings. The town hosts two of the top private schools in
the UK — Cheltenham Ladies College and the Boys College.
But despite the genteel fašade, Cheltenham has some secrets.
It is home to the UK government's listening centre, the GCHQ.
So, that person in front of you in the queue for the toilets
at Greenbelt could be Christian — or a spy! The Cheltenham
Racecourse hosts the Cheltenham Gold Cup every March, a famous
horse race held over the jumps.
The worship was led by the Revd Martin Poole (a vicar from
Brighton) and Stuart Townend (a writer of contemporary Christian
music). The preacher was the Revd Kate Coleman. Maggi Dawn
gave the blessing at the end.
The date & time:
29 August 2010, 10.30am.
What was the name of
Sunday Service. The service included communion and was titled
"Glancing at God," which reflected the theme of
the weekend, "Looking sideways at God."
How full was the building?
The service was held in a big field, so there was plenty of
room for people. It was hard to judge numbers in the congregation
but it must have easily been over 10,000.
Did anyone welcome you
Not as such. Various stewards (in their distinctive high-visibility
yellow jackets) were handing out the orders of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
There was no seating. You brought your own. I sat on a camp
chair that was quite comfortable. Other people sat on the
ground on picnic rugs or small stools, and I fancy I even
saw someone sitting on a shooting stick!
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a buzz of conversation. People were talking about
the bands they had seen the night before, how they'd slept,
what they were doing later. And all the while the worship
band and "scratch choir" were having a last-minute practice.
The children's "scratch choir" also sang several
action songs. But although the conductor of that choir tried
to get people involved, he and the children were largely ignored.
What were the exact
opening words of the service?
The exact opening words of Mr Poole were lost because most
people weren't paying attention. However, I think he said,
"Good morning. Welcome to Sunday worship." He then did a shout-out
to find out where people had come from to the festival.
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
We used a printed order of service that had the liturgy and
What musical instruments
From where we were seated, I couldn't entirely make out the
worship band but it contained a piano, guitars and percussion.
Did anything distract
There are lots of distractions at an open-air service like
this, from babies crying, toddlers having tantrums, to the
afore-mentioned smelly adults. But there were two specific
distractions. A few feet away from me, a man was accompanying
the hymns on a bongo drum. Who the heck takes bongo drum anywhere,
let alone to worship?! The other distraction, I'm slightly
embarrassed to admit, was an attractive young lady who sat
nearby wearing festival chic, a take-off of a look started
by the model Kate Moss when she attended the Glastonbury festival
several years ago. It typically consists of colourful wellington
boots, coloured tights, a short skirt or "Daisy Duke" cut-off
shorts and whatever top suits. Many young women attending
Greenbelt wore variations on this look. The young lady in
question was wearing fishnet tights and a short denim skirt.
She was very shapely and had lovely legs so I was distracted.
(I don't think Mrs Diction noticed me drooling!)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
As a Mystery
Worship report from 2008 shows, Greenbelt can have some
weird worship. I was told that 2009 was an all-time low. So
this year, it clearly was decided to play fairly safe and
it worked. The service was quite conventional, with three
hymns (though why sing "Thine be the glory" when it's not
Easter?) But there were some twists. For example, we were
all given a small mirror and invited to hold this against
the service sheet to decipher the mirror writing printed there.
The mirror writing contained responses to prayers of confession.
Unfortunately, this being Greenbelt, we were then invited
to turn our backs to the stage and look at the stage through
the mirror. This was symbolic of turning our backs on God.
But not many people did this, as it would have meant getting
off the ground, out of deck chairs, etc. Mr Poole asked
the congregation to help dramatise the Bible reading (1 Kings
19:1-13 Elijah prays that he might die, but God intervenes
in the form of wind, earthquake and fire) by making the sound
of the wind, stamping on the ground for the earthquake, waving
red paper napkins for fire, and whispering "God." It was effective.
Communion was a sung eucharist using a Stuart Townend song.
This was contemporary and effective, too. We'd been given
brown paper bags containing a communion kit of a pita bread
and a small bottle of wine. And this was shared among about
10 people. In our group we passed the bread and wine around
one to another.
Exactly how long was
On a scale of 1-10,
how good was the preacher?
7 Mrs Coleman had a very natural style and was easy
and engaging to listen to. She is a Baptist minister and I
sensed she would have liked to preach longer and expand her
message. This would have been good, but she must have been
told to keep the sermon to a length more suited to Anglicans!
In a nutshell, what
was the sermon about?
She started by reminding us that when we set out in the car.
we look in the mirror and check for blind spots. We all have
blind spots. We need to develop side sight and think of things
in new ways. In this way, we can encounter God anew. Elijah
was used to encountering God in the dramatic and spectacular.
If Elijah was to move on in faith, he needed to encounter
God in new ways, such as in the "still small voice".
We can encounter God in new ways too, through new people we
meet or new experiences. In Jesus we see how God uses side
sight. Who would have expected God to appear as a baby? Who
would have expected the Son of God to die on a cross? We often
have the benefit of hindsight. We need to ask God to give
us side sight to enable us to find him in unexpected places.
And help us to see the things we don't see.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The communion. A group of 20 friends all enjoying time together
with Jesus. A real feel of the Last Supper.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Following the reference to blind spots and not seeing our
weaknesses, we were all asked to stick the small mirror to
our foreheads so we could see ourselves reflected back from
our neighbours. Nice idea, but it seemed really corny and
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing as such. People left to go off to join queues for
talks, toilets, showers, coffee stalls, etc.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
It depends. You either drank your own (brought in a flask)
or went to a coffee stall or even the on-site bar (The Jesus
Arms) for a wee libation. There was plenty of choice.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 =
6 You wouldn't want something like this regularly.
However, I was greatly moved by the service.
Did the service make
you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. There was a really positive feel throughout the
whole festival and there is something amazing about being
in a place with so many other Christians.
What one thing will
you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I think that would be the way we sang "How great thou art"
at the end. It was a slightly different arrangement, but it
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