My Glastonbury ‘moment’ was during Mumford and Sons’ set. As someone who is height-challenged, watching bands at festivals can be, well, a challenge. Having fought our way through the dense, drunk crowds to a good spot close to the stage the only thing I could see (when stood on tip toes) was the top of Marcus Mumford’s head bobbing away.
Halfway through the set, a tall guy who had been blocking my view took pity on me and asked if I wanted to sit on his shoulders. Swept up in the Glasto-love-in I was soon high up, able to see the whole band on stage playing their hearts out and the vast sweep of 100,000 people singing along to Lover of the Light. As I sang out with the crowd the words seemed even more poignant. That’s what I am, a lover of the light. Like I said, it was a euphoric moment. The fans bellowed out the Mumfords’ blatant God-inspired songs of redemption, forgiveness, love and hope for the whole of Somerset to hear. This was nothing short of a worship service.
There are some pretty dark parts of Glastonbury; it’s the most hedonistic, drug-fuelled, tanked-up, disgusting, pleasure-seeking environment I have ever been in. Most people are out for the ultimate high; five days of oblivion and they’ll take as much of whatever and use whoever, to get that rush. Shangri-La, the early hours’ adult playground blend of cabaret, music and carnage, on the physical and decadent extremes of Glastonbury is the epitome of this. The theme this year was the afterlife which the guide describes as “promising all manner of hellish opportunities”; a place to lose yourself. Purgatory, the seven circles of hell, the hell stage and the gates of heaven all featured in this huge venue nick-named ‘the perverted Pandora’s box’. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Yet Glastonbury is also beautiful, inspiring, friendly, oozing with creativity and unbelievably spiritually open. Life’s usual boundaries and restrictions are down which can present amazing opportunities. For the past seven years, I’ve been involved in an arts venue called Elemental which advertises “holy sofas, smoky prayers, plump technology and gritty love”. Run by a team of Christian creatives and headed up by the Love Bristol movement, it offers free hair washing, beauty treatments, tea and coffee, comfy sofas, prayer, healing and prophetic ‘life readings’. There is a daily line-up of exceptional musicians and DJs, all in a peaceful atmosphere surrounded by inspiring art work, sculptures and life-affirming words.
The presence of God is so tangible that people are often physically knocked-back when they walk into the venue and ask “What is this place?” This year in a new location next to the healing fields, there was an unprecedented number of people asking for prayer, prophecy and healing. The encounters and conversations flowed around the campfire until the dawn rose. I genuinely believe some people’s lives were changed forever by stepping into our little spirit-filled venue.
If there are places in Glastonbury that seem like hell (not least the vomit-inducing toilets) then there are other pockets and moments that seem closer to heaven where, as Rob Bell describes in Love Wins, it is “as if the whole world was a thin place… with endless dimensions of the divine, infintesimally close, with every moment and every location simply another experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time”.
A thin veil between heaven and earth, where a diverse band of party-goers sing together in unity and love and the worries of the everyday life seem a million miles away. Elemental is one place where heaven is being brought to earth at Glastonbury. But it’s also found in the overwhelming wealth of talent bursting out of hundreds of venues, in the warmth and friendliness of the festival punters, in the atmosphere of freedom and celebration, in the ‘togetherness’ of it all.
There have been a number of acts I’ve seen at Glastonbury over the years that have played and spoken with a prophetic edge over the crowd. This year Billy Bragg, Alabama Shakes, Laura Mvula and Kate Tempest among others spoke out truths to an audience hungry for hope. Perhaps though the ultimate symbolic and heavenly act of the festival was when Mumford and Sons closed Glastonbury, not with one of their own hits, but by inviting other bands who hadn’t headlined to join with them in singing “I get by with a little help from my friends”.
A band at the peak of their careers with every right to bask in the glory of their phenomenal achievement and fame, humbly and actively inviting others to share in this golden moment with them. To sing together – we can’t do this by ourselves, we need our friends, we need someone to love us. What a perfect and profound way to end the festival.