Christians quit the pop festival field

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The Independent Online
AFTER A quarter of a century battling the elements, organisers of Britain's leading annual Christian arts festival, Greenbelt, have conceded defeat. It is to move from its regular site in the grounds of a Northamptonshire stately home to a weather-proof part-indoor venue. This year's August Bank Holiday will see the last Greenbelt of its kind: it will be resurrected next year with conference-style facilities alongside the usual field.

It's all a far cry from the festival's rural origins at a Suffolk pig farm, where a hippyish pop group raised the hackles of the Church establishment in 1974. "They were trying to take art out of church buildings and put it in the marketplace, but mainstream Christian culture didn't like this blurring of boundaries, and that's been the case with Greenbelt ever since," said festival manager Andy Thornton, who is putting the finishing touches to this year's festival, at Deene Park, near Corby. "It gained momentum as being the only alternative for church kids to [festivals] like Knebworth or the Isle of Wight."

In the late 1970s, Cliff Richard played on the festival's main stage; two years later, an up-and-coming Irish group called U2 borrowed another band's guitars to perform for 20 minutes. Nowadays, regulars include Deacon Blue's Ricky Ross and Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park who was lauded for "services to plasticine" at a recent festival. Broadcaster Simon Mayo, who has attended every Greenbelt since his teens, said: "I camped for eight years but I've enjoyed staying in a hotel ever since. I remember waking up with someone's feet in my face, in the freezing cold, and thought 'I'm just getting too old for this'."

The event also attracted opprobrium for its less wholesome guests. Parents and church leaders were outraged when a practising witch was invited to speak in a debate, and leaders of the infamous Nine O'Clock Service (NOS) staged a performance which featured a woman in a leather bikini.

"It became inflated into a horrible faux pas, but when NOS looked back on the event, they thought it was adolescent, putting two fingers up to the church," said Mr Thornton. "That's what art is about. Unfortunately, because NOS fell so spectacularly, people felt justified in [their] criticisms."

Simon Mayo said one of the reasons for a drop in numbers - from 30,000 at one point to less than 10,000 this year - was the proliferation of other holiday options. "People only have a limited budget and there are other Christian events which cater more for families."

Greenbelt is to move its main festival to the last weekend in July, and will join forces with Spring Harvest - another event which began in the 1970s at the conservative end of the church spectrum - in staging a separate youth "pop weekend".

But while secular festivals such as Phoenix and Pride have also suffered from low ticket sales this year, others such as Glastonbury and Reading are going strong. A spokesman for the New Musical Express said: "There were too many festivals this year, but I don't think anyone is down on the idea. Things like Reading and V98 are just carrying on as normal."

Although supporters have raised pounds 130,000 for Greenbelt, it is still struggling, said Mr Thornton. "We've seen a fairly steady decline of 500 people a year, which makes it almost untenable to build the amount of structure, and to afford the quality of art and music we want."

Next year's festival will offer accommodation from hotels to self- catering, and, for the hardy, a campsite. But the portable toilets for which Greenbelt was once famed will vanish. "Last year, for two days, it rained non-stop and the place turned into a mudbath. People who had kids in buggies thought 'I'm not really up for this'," said Mr Thornton. "We thought 'Shall we stay and piss off our core audience, or shall we go?' We don't want grime to represent Greenbelt. It's more about standing against oppression than enduring a campsite."