Friday, July 1, 2011

Day 4.172: Greenbelt and the Wild Goose

This post was included in the July Synchroblog - Stories of the Wild Goose.  See the end for links.

As a young British Christian in the late 80's, I first attended Greenbelt with my church youth group. It was, as far as I can discern, 1988 - although I would have guessed that that was my second one. In any case I was definitely there in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991 and probably in 1992. That means that the last time I went I was about half my current age.

This year, I attended the first Wild Goose Festival which has been, in part at least, modelled on the Greenbelt Festival and although I'd like to think I am a completely different person and that it was a completely different festival, there are definitely parallels in my experiences.

For me aged 17-20, Greenbelt was about music. First and foremost I mean listening to live music which I am inclined to love even if it is not the music I would listen to in recorded form. Then, in 1989, my little three-piece band took a generator and played gigs in the campsite in the rain from a caravan awning for our friends, people camping nearby and a few passers-by. In 1990, we did the same (in rather better weather and also played in the bandstand in the middle of the 'Fringe' area of the festival trying to win a Fringe-stage set in a feature they called "Gi's a Gig!". In 1991, we once again got a set on the bandstand but when the power went out mid way through, we picked up an acoustic guitar and entertained the crowd in the dusk gloom until it came on again. The organisers so appreciated our efforts that we finally got our Fringe-stage set.

So yes, it was about music - but also about a remarkable community and atmosphere. From the people who peeked their heads out of their tents when the rain cleared during our set in the campsite in 1989 to the people who we kept happy during a power outage in 1991. No-one wanted us to look bad or feel bad or point out that we were forcing our not-very-good music on them - it was about creativity and community and originality and everyone was happy to be part of it.

If I'm honest I would have liked to fit a little more music into my Wild Goose Festival visit, but by the time the last act was starting up at the main stage each night, our kids were getting tired and needing to be in bed.  Also, we needed to be in certain places at specific times to get them to and from their kids activities and find food to ensure their blood-sugar levels stayed within tolerable levels.

When, our friends first suggested we might go with them to the festival this year and described it to us, we said, "it sounds like Greenbelt."  We had no idea at the time that there was any relationship, nor did we know that this US festival was new.  As I began to look for information about it, I started to see the push-back from parts of evangelical Christianity against it.  Some of it was, shall we say, rather strong.  Of course, I already knew about the ties between evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics in the US before we moved here but I hadn't realised quite how pervasive that link is.   I have been learning, gradually, over the last four years and 172 days and now finding myself as something of a radical/progressive/liberal over here I was also keen to be involved in the non-musical parts of the event and to identify myself with the kinds of ideas that were being talked about at the festival partly because the word 'Christian' in America has become so divorced from what I hope to be as I attempt to follow Jesus.

Just one example was hearing Frank Shaeffer talk about how his family helped to shape the religious right in the US and how that led, in part at least, to the situation the country finds itself in now where for many Christians an event such as this is demonstrably anti-Christ because there are people there espousing social politics over war, ethical consumerism and other such 'evils'.  I also loved hearing about his mother's radical actions - taking in unmarried pregnant girls and a lesbian maid and her partner and taking an interest in the poor people she met, even when in the presence of the powers in the land.  He called her the best kind of hypocrite because her actions were far more loving than her words.

If this kind of conversation was going on at GB '90 it passed me by altogether.  Perhaps that is just as well as I was a rather conservative evangelical myself in those days - not in a way that would have considered social programmes un-Christian by a long stretch, but I certainly would not have been cheering on the New York State government's legalisation of same-sex marriage in those days. Having said that, it's notable that Greenbelt was fairly mainstream in British Christianity - Wild Goose has a long way to go to become mainstream here in the US - but we can hope!

But in the end for me it comes back to music - from Runrig ('88) and Bruce Cockburn ('89), to Jennifer Knapp in 2011 and from gigging in the Fringe in 1991 to singing Death Cab For Cutie and Sufjan Stevens songs with my friend by the campfire this year, music is the stuff that stirs my heart - but it is experiencing it in a unique community that has made my experience of these festivals so special.

Earlier thoughts and lots photos here.

UPDATE: Here are the other synchroblog posts.


  1. I've not read all of it yet but, if you haven't seen this I thought you might be interested in the 2 most recent articles here...

    Mike is on sabatical in Europe at the moment, and preached at St B's the weekend before last. Very good teaching I thought, about abiding. It's on the website if you want to listen...


  2. Good grief - was it that long ago. It was good to see some of those photos again - I was sure they had been lost at the bottom of a box somewhere. The one with you in dark glasses was when you were walking around the site at 10pm in the dark as I seem to remember - this was the year after the 'Gis A Gig' I am sure - Glad you enjoyed the Wild Goose festival though. Wild Goose is related to The Iona Community here, is it there as well?

  3. Haha - yes indeed! Thanks for the photos by the way Geoff - a lot of them are indeed your work and I should have given you due credit at the time of posting. As far as the canon, I can only use my scrap-book photo albums (where these photos have been safely filed away for many years - thank you!) as evidence but they indicate that photo to be 1991 - the same year as the Fringe and Scissors gig.

    The 'Wild Goose' name certainly comes from the Celtic tradition, but I do not know of any specific Iona Community links.


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