Presence, Participation, Peace

Last weekend I spent rather too much time watching coverage of the Glastonbury Festival. Glastonbury is an extraordinary event: where else do vast crowds roar on Metallica one day and Dolly Parton the next?

I have never been to Glastonbury, wanted to go this year but didn’t succeed in getting a ticket, and felt surprisingly bleak about not being there. That I should feel so surprised me somewhat, and I have tried to do some self-analysis about why this was the case.

There are plenty of reasons for thinking that watching Glasto from the comfort of one’s sitting room is a preferable option to being there. The festival is expensive to get to, and expensive once you are there. It is muddy and the bathroom facilities are notorious. Everything needed for camping has to be walked long distances onto the site. I am a veteran of enough Christian Bible weeks/festivals to know how much many of us complain about the far less challenging camping experience at such events, yet Glasto could sell its 140,000 ticket allocation several times over to those eager to embrace the discomfort and expense of being at the festival.

So, what’s the attraction?

Objectively, Glasto is not that expensive if compared with the price of a ticket for a regular concert. Paying £50-60 for entry to an arena or stadium event is typical, whereas for £250 at Glastonbury you can see more bands than you could shake a stick at. But I don’t think such financial mathematics are the main attraction.

The Glastonbury theme song the past few years has become Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ and as Guy Garvey leads the crowd singing one day like this a year would see me right it becomes clear why people flock to Glastonbury – and why I was sorry not to be there. As someone living in hope of the kingdom of God the biblical resonances are clear: For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10). That’s just it. It is about presence, and participation, and peace.

(Of course, I am not saying that Glastonbury is the kingdom of God! I recognise there is much that happens over a weekend at Worthy Farm that in no way correlates with how things will be in the kingdom, but bear with me.)

Presence. Being there is different from watching there. One of the interesting shifts of recent years has been the way in which the digital revolution has smashed sales of recorded music, but attendance at live events has soared. We want to be there, in the flesh, not just ‘experience’ it digitally. The mud and discomfort only underscore this – being at the festival is so much more real than watching it on TV.

Participation. Being present also means participation. It does not take any great imagination to see what happens at a rock concert as a form of worship, and functioning as true worship does – that it is not only directed towards the performer, but is something the crowd (congregation) gets caught up in. To use Piper-esque language, the more the crowd delights in the band, the more the crowd is delighted. And again, this delight can only be fully experienced by being there, mud on your boots, the hot breath of others around you. The same phenomena is seen in the growth of other mass-participation events, like marathons and triathlons – the desire to be doing something physically taxing, alongside a great crowd of others.

Peace. Glastonbury might not look especially peaceful – it is crowded and noisy! But the consistent testimony of those who attend is a sense of shalom – that for the short time of being there the normal rules are suspended, there is greater liberty and freedom and sense of well-being, and in that sense it is a peaceful place.

I like presence and participation and peace. On Monday I am planning to go into London to see the Tour de France. In part I am going because I am a fully paid-up MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra), but this is not the main reason. Fighting for space on the Mall will be less comfortable than watching it on TV (and I won’t even get such a good view as I would on TV) but I am expecting to experience something of presence and participation and peace. I want to taste what I tasted when the Olympics were in London and what I taste when the Bournemouth Air Festival happens and half a million people are crowded into our town. It is the same taste I remember from the 50th anniversary celebrations of VE Day in 1995. I get a little taste of it when 600 of us are doing parkrun in Poole Park on a Saturday morning. It is a taste I love, and it is why I was sorry not to be at Glastonbury.

Of course, all these tastes are merely that – a taste. What I am really longing for is the kingdom, for the feast! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.

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