Pop up Church: Jesus goes to #Somersault14

I’m going to get around to blogging my thoughts on Judges chapter 4 (you know, Deborah the prophet who led the people of Israel?) and how that links in with the authority of men and women in leadership, but in the meantime, here’s a guest post by my friend Jane from our time together at the Somersault festival…

How does a village of 200 respond to 15,000 guests for a long weekend? When we heard that Somersault, a brand new music festival, was coming to the Castle Hill Estate the local community reacted positively. Event organisers Mama & Company worked well with us, offering fundraising opportunities for church and village hall. For me as vicar the festival raised a missional and pastoral question. A characteristic of Anglican parish ministry is that we understand ourselves not only as the vicar of the church, but also of the whole parish. So my question was how I might offer spiritual and pastoral care to this transient community.  The parish is the central part of the Castle Hill Estate, home of the Earl and Countess of Arran, so we are used to large events – but this was to be on an altogether different scale. The church is healthy but small and this was beyond the resources of our regular congregation, who were also involved in the fundraising effort.

Whatever we offered needed to be in keeping with the character of the festival. It was billed as a summer camp, a lifestyle festival. Headline performers were Jack Johnson and Ben Howard and other activities included circus, theatre, some top chefs, surfing trips to the beach, expeditions onto Exmoor, children’s activities, ‘Wild Wellbeing’ and more.  The festival charity was Surfers Against Sewage – Jack Johnson’s favourite charity.

We needed a vision, an open door and resources – human and financial.

First the open door: At a community meeting I thanked Mama & Co for coming and for the way they were working with us, spoke of my sense of spiritual responsibility and asked what we might give back. They welcomed my offer and at a later meeting with Lady Arran and Mama & Co I shared my ideas.  With an open door I now needed a team and finances. I’m thankful to our bishop and archdeacons who offered financial support – and for a core team I drew in my colleague Andy Dodwell (surfer and vicar) from Barnstaple and also Rachel Collins who is pioneering in Braunton and Croyde.  A team came together (mostly Andy’s contacts) and I was delighted to also have Christian Surfers and the Barnstaple Street Pastors on board. Ian Adams joined us for a couple of days bringing his wisdom and valuable experience of spiritual practices. We came to give – but we have been outgiven.  I think all of us on the team left exhausted but hugely encouraged, blessed and changed by the experience.  There was a lot of joy about!

Our core value was hospitality. The Benedictine understanding of unconditional welcome for the stranger in the name of Christ is for me a key starting point in mission and undergirded all we offered at Somersault.  So – we hosted ‘The Living Room’ – a tent furnished in a quirky retro style with sofas, standard lamp, coffee table, bean bags, yards of fabulous bunting, games…  We hung a simple picture frame with the words “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) There was a prayer corner and the Soularium – a set of cards you can use to facilitate a spiritual conversation.  A giant Jenga was a huge success and we had some great musicians who drew a crowd. One of team is an artist, he brought pastels and an easel and a gallery developed.

A few days before the festival someone asked me “What does God think of Somersault?” – I thought for a bit and replied that

He thinks it’s great. He gave us this world and entrusted it to us and he wants us to enjoy it to the full and all the creative gifts he has given us.

But there will be some things which will make him sad – abuses of his world, of ourselves and one another which fracture our relationship with God, with one another and with his world.

But because of that Jesus came – and lived and died that we might have hope. Hope of eternal life – and also life now. Life in all its fullness. And when Jesus came he mixed with all sorts of people the religious people thought he shouldn’t mix with….

And Jesus is coming to Somersault.  He will be there, and just like when he walked the earth he will be mixing with all sorts of people. He will be here, he will be with us – and we just need to look out for what he is doing and join in…

It was vital we embraced the festival, just as the local community had. Someone was overheard saying “Have you seen the vicar? She’s really enjoying it!” We printed ‘Festival Pastor’ t-shirts for our team and in addition to that Andy & I found clerical collars just opened up conversations. It was important to be identifiable (and frankly at a festival there is no such thing as normal clothes!) On the first morning a guy standing on a water tank called down to me to me,

“Are you real?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m the vicar!”

“Would you do a blessing?” he asked.

“Do you mean it?” I replied.


“Then jump down here and I’ll pray for you…”

Such spiritual openness characterised our five days there. There is a natural spirituality to a festival – and people there have time away from the distractions and business of life. Having pitched our tent and prayed people came to us and we went to them…  We were constantly amazed and at how God was at work in wonderful and surprising ways. We prayed for God’s blessing and protection on all who came to us, and on the whole festival , the estate and wider community. The tent set me thinking about the God who tabernacles with us. The God who does not live in houses but who is on the move.  As a vicar with six ancient listed buildings I experienced the kind of liberation I do on a camping trip – returning home to my house and wondering why I need all this stuff?

Who came? Many local folk were there, a large proportion were from the West Country, some from farther afield and the press office told me there were people from 16 different nations. Jerusalem, Judea and to all the ends of the earth – without leaving the parish! Folk came to us who were Christians, who were delighted to see us at a festival. One said “You being here makes us feel safe.” There were many who had a faith but didn’t do church, others who were unsure of faith – and some left assured. Others asked questions, some just hung out, one fell asleep on the archdeacon’s sofa! Some experienced God wonderfully at work and left changed.

We became a Eucharistic community within the transient festival community.  Surprisingly to some of us, it seemed important to celebrate communion daily. Some days it was almost spontaneous:

“Shall we have communion?”

“Yes… How about in half an hour? We’ll chalk it up on our board and see who comes…”

As we set up there were just three of us. On the Sunday there were almost seventy including Lord and Lady Arran and others of our regular congregation, joined by many festival goers.  It was a simple paperless service at the little folly Hermitage on the estate, a congregation with a ‘fuzzy edge’, in the sunshine by the river. Bethan played her guitar and sang, we prayed, we heard bible readings, I offered my earlier “What does God think of Somersault” thoughts, we broke bread and shared wine. Jesus had indeed come to Somersault.

Jane Willis

Vicar of Filleigh, and on Twitter: @RevJaneWIllis



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