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UK’s Anabaptist influenced Arts Festival coming to North America

   
 


Plans are underway for a version of the family friendly Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival to come to North America in 2011 under the name “Wild Goose Festival.”

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large crowd of people in an open air field with a tent stage in the distance
Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival 2008

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May 14, 2010
- Vic Thiessen

Winnipeg, Man. — U2, Bruce Cockburn, the Emerging Church Movement and Mennonites share one thing in common: each has been present, active and influential at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival. Established in 1974, it presently draws over 20,000 people each year to the Cheltenham Racecourse in Western England.

In 2011, the family friendly Greenbelt – under the name Wild Goose Festival – is being planned for North America.

I first heard about Greenbelt shortly after my and wife Kathy’s arrival in the UK (as international ministry workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network). We attended Greenbelt every year we could.

From our first day at Greenbelt, we were enthralled with the Anabaptist feel of the music, dramas and talks, many of which provided Christian perspectives on peace and justice issues. In a country where only a small percentage of people attend church and where the overwhelming majority of people under fifty no longer find Christianity relevant for their lives or the world, it was astounding and thrilling to see this huge crowd, averaging around 30 years of age, gathered every year to hear about what it means to follow Jesus today.

Why do they come? It’s the longing for Christianity with integrity that addresses issues like war, poverty and the environment. Like many in the Emerging Church Movement (which has close ties to Greenbelt), British Christians are looking for an Anabaptist-style theology and finding it at Greenbelt.

So how did Greenbelt come to embrace this ‘Anabaptist’ vision? In its early years, Greenbelt had a strong evangelical flavour, both in music and talks, but one voice in particular pushed the social action agenda which became a key component of Greenbelt’s character. That voice belonged to Graham Cray, Greenbelt’s first chair, who was a regular visitor at the London Mennonite Centre (LMC) in the 70s and 80s and a close friend of Alan and Eleanor Kreider, the LMC’s directors at the time. With Cray’s encouragement, early regular speakers at Greenbelt included Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Tom Sine and the Kreiders. The first bookstall at Greenbelt was provided by the LMC’s Metanoia Book Service.

With musicians like Cliff Richard, Larry Norman, Graham Kendrick, Garth Hewitt, Sheila Walsh and Canada’s own Bruce Cockburn, the first 15 years at Greenbelt witnessed phenomenal growth. In 1981, an unknown rock band from Dublin informed the Greenbelt organizers that “God told us to play at Greenbelt.” Thanks to Cray, U2 performed a twenty-minute set.

Over time, the Anabaptist themes remained but the connection to Mennonites was largely forgotten as large church agencies like Christian Aid got involved. Still, Mennonites/Anabaptists have had opportunities to speak at Greenbelt almost every year. Ched Myers – who often partners with his wife Elaine Enns to teach on matters of theology and restorative justice (Enns herself is a graduate of Canadian Mennonite Bible College) – was a headliner in two of the last five years. I was invited to be part of the Film Program and had numerous opportunities to speak on film and theology at Greenbelt during my last four years in London.

Greenbelt's mission is to “re-imagine the church as an infectious global conspiracy, working for God's peace, healing and friendship in previously unimagined ways.” Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, describes Greenbelt as “an increasingly important gathering for those finding it impossible to animate their faith journeys inside conventional church settings.” And Bruce Cockburn has said it was “the closest thing I’ve got to a church. There is a sense of community built around a worshipful intent and a shared understanding of the need to question in the context of faith.” For me, Greenbelt is one of the most exciting things happening anywhere in the Christian world.

Soon, it will cross the ocean.

The first Wild Goose Festival will tentatively take place near Kansas City in the summer of 2011. The director of Wild Goose is Gareth Higgins from Belfast, a popular speaker at Greenbelt during the past eight years. His faith is thoroughly Anabaptist and he is eager to have Mennonite involvement in the festival as Greenbelt did in its early years. The festival is meant to be North American (not singularly American nor Canadian) and will probably move to different locations each year (including Canada). Wild Goose will feature speakers like Ched Myers, Jim Wallis, John Bell, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne and have major involvement from the African American and native North American communities.

Wild Goose’s draft mission statement focuses on inclusivity and on the development of a radical community of grace, joy and peace which will seek to change lives and bring God’s healing and hope to the world. If this sounds familiar, it should: some of these ideas and language are used in the Mennonite Church’s Vision: Healing and Hope statement.

This an opportunity (indeed, a call) for North American Mennonites to get involved with what is anticipated to become a high profile event on the cutting edge of Christian faith, an event which speaks to all ages and all peoples and which may have a significant impact on the way Christianity is perceived in North America.

You are invited to get on board. Vic Thiessen was Director of the London Mennonite Centre from 2002 to 2009. He and his wife Kathy have recently returned to Canada where he is now the Executive Secretary of Support Services for Mennonite Church Canada.