Tony Cummings chronicles the 20 years of the world's leading Christian arts festival GREENBELT

Garth Hewitt
Garth Hewitt

Has it really been 20 years? The announcement that Britain's premier Christian arts festival is celebrating 20 years of existence sent us scurrying to our archives to dig out yellowing Greenbelt programmes then scurrying to our telephone to glean reminiscences from yellowing Christian music fans. On gazing at all those line-ups of artists past and present one is left in no doubt as to the enormous contribution Greenbelt has made to Christian music's development. One record executive said to me recently, "Without Greenbelt, contemporary Christian music would have floundered in Britain years ago." This truth is not without its irony. In the past Greenbelt seminar speakers and committee members have been withering in their denouncements of the 'cosy Christian subculture' suggesting, not without some validity, that a lot of CCM would not exist in the 'real world' of money-driven multinationals and street cred-driven indies. But whether they intended it or not, Greenbelt has been a key player in the stuttering growth of Britain's Christian music counter-culture.

It was in a field in Prospect Farm, Charsfield, Suffolk that loon-panted Christian longhairs announced to a startled religious establishment that God, not the Devil, created rock music. California's Jesus music was by that time making waves on the other side of the pond. So James Holloway, Peter Holmes, Jonathan Cooke and the rest of the Greenbelt organisers brought over a bunch of converted ex-hippies called The Sheep to do a rock musical lonesome Stone' showing Britain, or the 1,500 gathered at Prospect Farm that it was NOT after all the Age Of Aquarius. From these humble beginnings the festival grew and grew and grew becoming THE rallying point for all Christians determined to push back decades of retreat from artistic endeavour by the Church. As the years sped by, drama, dance, poetry, classical music and the visual arts were all given a unique platform while a seminar programme developed which became a springboard for some of the most challenging and radical teachers in the world Church (including of course Cross Rhythms columnist John Smith).

But it was contemporary music which continued to be the entity which drew the crowds. What kind of music? For years Greenbelt's seminar tents had disseminated the view of Art which Dutch theologian Hans Rookmaker had once expounded under the snappy one liner "Art needs no justification". It was argued, rightly, that John 3:16 didn't have to be stuffed into every song or - a dove inserted into every oil painting to make art 'Christian'. Greenbelt urged Christian artists to free themselves from utilitarian ' evangelical sloganeering. Many responded. But this brought new problems. Bands and soloists who saw their art as a spiritual mission to minister in evangelism and exhortation found it harder and harder to get an invitation to play Greenbelt. Some artists began to complain that there were restraints on them using the 'J' word from mainstage and Big Top. And evangelical exasperation reached new heights when Greenbelt began to book non-Christian artists like the Proclaimers and Bob Geldof. To Greenbelt's critics the most serious problem of all was what they saw as the festival's move from its evangelical roots, when evangelical organisation Deo Gloria Trust sponsored the event to become a broad Church festival. Liberal theological elements were, according to the critics, allowed to usurp the event for their own 'radical' agenda. Certainly there had been a succession of controversies resulting from the liberalisation of Greenbelt: a secular feminist film on pornography; a witch interviewed about her beliefs; an exhibition of homosexually-orientated paintings; most controversial of all, the Nine O'clock Service (NOS) from mainstage in 1992 when New Age imagery and bikini-clad dancers largely bemused an audience expecting a worship service. But Greenbelt takes pride in its ability to shock conservative religious sensibilities. Its need to 'push back the boundaries' have become almost a religious creed of the festival's organisers.

Greenbelt is today clearly at some kind of crossroads. In recent years the attendances have dipped considerably, being many thousands less than the halcyon days when Cliff sang "We Don't Talk Anymore" to 33,000 rapturous Greenbelters, or when BBC Radio 1 gave the festival annual high profile national exposure. The purchase of a 'permanent' site at Church Stowe only to have a licence for a festival denied them was clearly an administrative and public relations disaster. The growing suspicion about the event by evangelical youth workers, historically one of Greenbelt's mainstays of support, is also clearly having an effect on attendances. Yet despite its problems, Greenbelt remains in 1993 the premier showcase for Christians involved in the Arts. On the music front, it is still the yardstick by which contemporary Christian music careers are measured. Europe largely remains a closed door to American CCM performers until they've 'done Greenbelt' while there is hardly any British Christian band or musician who hasn't made the pilgrimage, if only to play in Gissa Gig anarchy of Greenbelt's Fringe.

John Pantry
John Pantry

This year's Greenbelt attendance will surely be up on the disappointing one of 1992, it being no coincidence that the really huge attendances have all been on the years of Cliff Richard's appearances. From a CCM angle, the bill for Greenbelt '93 looks, i creatively and spiritually, exceptionally strong: Rez, Out Of The Grey, Julie Miller, The Electrics, Over The Rhine, Guardian, Eden Burning, there are many artists to attract Cross Rhythms readers. This then is Greenbelt, by degree marvellous, exasperating, dangerous, pioneering and a dozen more adjectives. Will Cross Rhythms be at Deene Park to report on what happens and interview the stars and wannabes? Does Judith Chalmers have a passport?

1974 Prospect Farm, Charsfield, Suffolk
Liberation Suite, The Sheep, Jamie Owens, Out Of The Darkness, John And Brian, Kevin Gould, Narnia, Millstone Grit.
Highlight: "The Sheep, looking every inch like the Californian hippies they were, performing the 'Lonesome Stone' musical complete with high volume and smoke bombs."
Adrian Thomas

1975 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle 'Estate, Bedfordshire
Liberation Suite, Garth Hewitt, Cum Spiritu, Parchment, Fish Co, Cornerstone, Genesis Reconstruction, Free Way, After The Fire, Water Into Wine, All Things New.
Highlight: "Liberation Suite doing an appeal from the stage. About 40 responded and the group told me about 10 became Christians."
Peter Meadows

1976 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Adrian Snell, Garth Hewitt, Bryn Haworth Band, Graham Kendrick, Meet Jesus Music, Reynard, Nutshell, Ian Smale and Friends, All Star Saints Band, Portico, Snatchback, Aidan.
Highlight: "Meet Jesus Music played well over their time limit. We all loved it - the other bands hated it. I've met very few other Christian bands who could galvanise an audience like they did. It wasn't good playing so much as their spiritual dimension."
Eric Baxter

Cliff Richard
Cliff Richard

1977 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
After The Fire, Kenny Marks, John Pantry, Canaan, Bill Mason, Brian Smith & John Dorsett, Ishmael.
Highlight: "After The Fire playing, quite literally, an explosive set and showing just why CBS had signed them."
Campbell Logan

1978 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Jessy Dixon, Giantkiller, Graham Kendrick, Nutshell, John Pantry, Ever After, Wellies, PTO, Parchment, Adrian Snell, Fish Co.
Highlight: "Fish Co - as they were then. Lunatic, crazy, imaginative, completely over the top and six million miles down the road."
Steve Spicer

1979 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Cliff Richard, Tom Howard, Randy Stonehill Band, 100% Proof, Giantkiller, Harmoniser, Rev Counta And The Speedos, Ever After, Parchment, Kainos, Aleksander John.
Highlight: "Christian punk, or as near as we ever got, bawled out by Ishmael and his mates when he was a rad rocker, before he hit the Glorie trail.
Tina Matthews

1980 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Larry Norman, Mark Williamson Band, Adrian Snell, Daniel Amos, Jerusalem, John Pantry, 100% Proof, Deliverence, Giantkiller.
Highlight: "I liked John Pantry. He was just relaxed and being himself. Technically, everything went wrong for him but he coped. Brilliant.
Heather Vernon

Jessy Dixon
Jessy Dixon

1981 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Cliff Richard, U2, Bonnie Bramlett, Joe English Band, Barry McGuire, Sheila Walsh, Barratt Band, Casual Tease, Male Voice Choir.
Highlight: "Sitting up near the front, close to the stage and getting a really good view of Casual Tease in all their weird get-up."
Rachel Salter

1982 Avenue Meadows, Odell Castle Estate, Bedfordshire
Bryn Haworth, Resurrection Band, Edin-Adahl, Steve Flashman, Andy Pratt, Moral Support, Kenny Marks, Servant, Charlene, The Barratt Band.
Highlight: "Norman Barratt playing the blues almost as good as B B King."
Brian Tucker