Monday, 31 August 2015

Greenbelt 2015 - The Bright Field

They say (not sure who 'they' are, but...) that if you do something once it's innovative; if you do it twice, it's tradition; and is you do it three times, you've ALWAYS done it. This year was my third visit to the Greenbelt Festival, gathering for a second year at Boughton House, near Kettering, a wonderful greenfield site, with rolling fields for camping, caravans and for the festival itself.

After the 'shock of the new' last year, as the festival moved from its previous home of Cheltenham racecourse, there was much talk of how things would develop, and some worries about the financial viability of the venture. This year's event turned out to be noticeably and significantly smaller than the previous year, and it was interesting to see how things would begin to 'bed in' at the still relatively new site. There had been some criticism of the venue last year, so how were the concerns raised going to be addressed? How would a smaller festival 'work'?

I have to confess that, following my first visit to GB (for its 40th anniversary year), I was totally captivated by its ethos and intention: to provide a setting for issues of spirituality, theology, justice and peace to be discussed; to offer the best in contemporary art, literature, performance and music; and to offer spaces for people to explore ways of worship that were both innovative and challenging, and outside the norm of most people's weekly experience. In the light of that 'captivation' I signed up as an 'angel' - one who offers round the year financial support to the festival to enable it to carry on and provide these opportunities to explore the issues it does - so that, as best I could, I could enable this to continue.
The Bright Field

How did it work out this year? Well, the programme was leaner (and fitter?); there were fewer venues on site in which to catch the speakers and performers, in fact everything seemed smaller. Allied to this was a smaller number of stalls/ food outlets on site than previously - I was highly disappointed to miss my Goan Fish Curry this year (though the food I did purchase on site was excellent). The Angels' Lounge, though also smaller than previous years and at times quite crowded, still provided the much-needed facility for mobile phones to be charged, as well as the opportunity for conversations with friends old and new. And conversation was key this year, as soundings were taken of how the festival might develop in future years. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

The Mud Bath
I came with not much of a 'must see' list this year, but those acts that I did get to experience on the whole did not disappoint. Harry Baker's verbal dexterity, word-play and inventiveness was phenomenal, and The Unthanks were quite simply mesmerising. It was great to have the chance to hear 'Thought for the Day' regulars such as John Bell, Giles Fraser, Mona Siddiqui & Lucy Winkett for more than 3 minutes. Maybe my biggest disappointment of the weekend (apart from the weather from Sunday lunchtime) was, I'm sad to say, The Polyphonic Spree, who just didn't do it for me in the way I'd hoped they might. But then, not everything is for everybody, and the diversity of an event like Greenbelt is one of its greatest selling points for me.

Will I come next year? Well, like I said, it's not only traditional now, it's what we always do over August Bank Holiday weekend - just as traditional as plodging (love that word!) through mud by the end of the festival and frustratedly putting away a wet tent. Maybe things will change: maybe one year the sun will shine all the time on the Bright Field, but the companionship (sharing of bread) that one finds among God's people, as well as in the Arms of Jesus (!) will always be one of the biggest draws for me. It may be 4-5 hours drive each way, but Greenbelt: we'll see you next year! (probably)

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Church of Prog

Reflecting on events of nearly 2 weeks ago can be difficult, but I've been without the means to share any thoughts for the past 2½ weeks due to lack of Broadband, and this is my first opportunity to share my thoughts on 'that weekend' in Kings Cross earlier this month.

It is safe to say, I think, that for most of us who were there this was one of the most hotly anticipated events in the history of ever. A band whose popularity (if one can use such a word in Progressive circles) has been growing over the past 5 or six years - since the release of 'The Underfall Yard'; whose line-up seems to be constantly developing; and who have not played a live show in over 20 years, and never with the current line-up - at least to paying customers, were now finally taking to the stage to present their particular brand of Progressive Rock to a waiting and endlessly patient fan-base.

Arriving at the venue on the Friday evening, having caught the train from Cumbria earlier that day, one could sense - almost taste - the anticipation in the air. The venue was well-chosen: big enough to accommodate the numbers who would be attending over the three shows, yet intimate enough to make it feel almost like a family gathering. And to some degree that's what it was.

Over the years of their ascendancy, Big Big Train have built an online community of followers and fellow-travellers - the Passengers - who have been instrumental to a large degree in bringing these shows into being. Much wisdom and frivolity has been shared, and many friendships forged over the aether, and it was wonderful to be greeted by, and to greet, people one had never met 'face-to-face' as old friends - sometimes people who had travelled from overseas to be there - united by a common love for fine music.

The concert itself was simply stunning. The music was tight - you wouldn't know that this was the first time it had been played in front of an audience - and David Longdon's vocals particularly shone. As a front man he was engaging with the clearly knowledgeable audience, and even performed a little role playing during 'Summoned by Bells' and 'Wassail', when he became the Green Man. Comparisons with Peter Gabriel were evident: in fact he seemed more at home in character than as himself at times. (What would Genesis have become had he got the gig ahead of Ray Wilson?)

The set came from material from the band's more recent recordings (2009 and later), in fact mainly from English Electric, and brought goose-bumps and even tears to many a grown man's eye, performed as it was with passion and flair. After each show the band were on hand to talk, pose for photos and sign autographs, adding to that sense of community and family that I mentioned earlier.

Reflecting in my hotel room after the Friday gig, the nearest analogy I could find for the events of earlier that evening was that it had been like the best of Church. That may surprise some, but indulge me for a second. There was clearly worship there, and the well-worn liturgy of the lyrics brought us together in a real, powerful and tangible way. But there was also this togetherness, this fellowship: what the New Testament calls 'koinonia' - mutual sharing & unity - that one so rarely finds, but when one does it transforms.

As a Christian minister, I would want to say that if more people's experience of church was like that, many could be the stronger for it. The Prog community is a wonderful 'koinonia', united by a love of beautiful music, and it was great to be a small part of it - not only on 14th August, but also (somewhat unexpectedly) on 15th too!

I only hope I don't have to wait another 20 years to share again.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Farewell to Sheffield

The Methodist ministry is, by its very nature, an itinerant one. Mr Wesley's ordained preachers were never meant to stay in one place for long, and, however settled one may be in a place, one knows that there will come a time to move on. For me that time has now come, and after 11 years in Sheffield the stressful process of uprooting is here.

All such moves are hard - on the minister, their family, and on the churches - as relationships, attachments and familiarities change and dissolve. All of my moves have been so, for a number of reasons, particularly the one that brought us here, as my leaving was not the most pleasant, and the experience left me with numerous 'issues' that took many years to resolve themselves. But this parting seems to be hitting me hardest of all of them.

One reason is the relationships that we as a family have built up - or re-established -  here over the past 11 years. Jude, my wife, was born here: in fact the house she was born into is only about 400 yards from where we currently live. Her brothers still live here, as well as members of the wider family, and old friends from school and church. This is 'home' to her. It was in this city that mine and Jude's relationship began, developed and, 27 years ago, was celebrated in marriage. Our two sons - boys of 13 & 11 when we came here - are now men of 24 & 22. This is the place, above all the places we have lived, that they now call 'home', and leaving children to forge their own lives is never easy for a parent, but that we must do.

The churches to whom, and with whom, I have ministered, are another reason for this parting being hard. As I have mentioned, I was not in a 'good place' when we arrived in 2004, but the love, care, support and prayers of God's people have pulled me through and, I believe, have made me a better minister as a result. It's not always been an easy ride over those years, either for me or them, but the good people of Stanwood, Rivelin Glen (latterly Hall Park Head), Stannington, Dungworth, Walkley and (principally, as they are the only congregation that I've been associated with for the entirety of my time here) Wesley Hall have shown me such love and support that I will always cherish and remember with great affection.

One thing that has amazed and appalled me in equal measure is the amount of junk that we have accumulated in our time here: junk that has now been recycled, charity-shopped or shredded. I hope that, having de-cluttered quite savagely, we can keep the amount to a minimum in future.

And so we move on:. a move that, for my sake as much as for the churches, is needed. We are both ready for and in need of fresh challenges and stimulations to bring out and develop the gifts that God had given us. I  leave one beautiful part of God's world for another, and as a Yorkshireman move back into 'exile' after 17 years back in 'God's own county', as we depart for Kendal and the Lake District. There there will be new geography to get to know; new people and situations to familiarise myself with; and new responsibilities as I take on the role of Superintendent Minister for the first time - a job, if I'm honest, I have coveted for a number of years, and one for which I am, perhaps, only just ready. I trust that, as always, God's timing is perfect. We'll see!

So, goodbye Sheffield, the City of Steel, a city on the move.