If the youth of today are at Glastonbury this weekend, the Church needs to be there too

Yes, Glastonbury has begun. After weeks of hype about headliners, worries about the weather and the usual tense narratives about whether or not Britain’s biggest music festival has lost its way, some 200,000 revellers are now safely encamped at Worthy Farm for three days of self-indulgence and escapism.

Given the depressing reality of the world outside, you can hardly blame young people for digging deep into their pockets to get away for just a few days from the uncertainties of regular life and having to listen to the depressing drone of lacklustre politicians and their tired General Election campaigns.

Frankly, after last night’s terrifying and disturbingly tetchy confrontation across the pond between the two dysfunctional elderly men slugging out to be the world’s most powerful ruler, even I was thinking of packing my own rucksack and heading down Somerset way.

Whatever anyone thinks about the economic morality and social relevance of Glastonbury Festival – and today it’s certainly a very different beast from the event I used to attend – the one thing that has changed little since organiser Michael Eavis (nowadays Sir Michael Eavis CBE) put on his first festival in 1970 is the sense of community and solidarity that unites attendees.

These days Glastonbury may still be the biggest and most influential of the summer music festivals, but there are now more 1,200 similar but much smaller, specialised events taking place across the UK every year. In many respects this is a reflection of the way that music, entertainment consumption and personal identity has evolved over the past half century, with increasing fragmentation and specialisation driving the young towards ever narrower genres and identity groups.

In its early days Glastonbury dealt with this fairly straightforwardly by creating themed or genre-specific areas within the festival site but over time the increasing complexity of consumer habits has made this ever more difficult, which is one of the main reasons that the festival has been forced to expand constantly – with all the consequences this has had for logistics, and for the price of the tickets.

Over in the political world our legislators have also been befuddled and confused by the shifting and constantly redefining of the youth sector, as the old certainties about young people and their habits and aspirations have vanished beneath an ocean of random identities.

Such continual shifts may have made it increasingly difficult for the corporate organisers of many music festivals to resonate with young people, but they’re not alone – it’s a problem that also lies at the heart of the struggle within faith communities to engage meaningfully with the young of today.

At the Glastonbury Festivals I attended back in the late 1980s and early 90s, it was commonplace to see various Christian groups, including our own Catholic Church, represented quite openly and we were welcomed as evidence of the spiritual inclusivity of the event – even if we did have to share tent spaces with pagans, flat-earthers and the occasional passing druid!

Given Michael Eavis’ own strong Methodist faith it’s unlikely that he was ever anything less than welcoming to his fellow Christians but somehow over the years the presence of Church at Worthy Farm has declined. This is a great shame, as in many ways the Christian message is more relevant – and more in sympathy with the outlook of the young – now than it has ever been.

There have been some brave attempts in the past to engage Catholic youth through the medium of contemporary music and mass events. In the late 1980s the New Romantic pop star Sal Solo – founder of the pop group Classix Nouveaux – became very active in Catholic youth ministry and created a unique and powerful bridge between the faith and youth culture.

He was supported enthusiastically by the late Cardinal Basil Hume, even if His Eminence was noticeably bemused by the incredibly well-attended ‘Rave’ Masses that Sal organised in London’s Soho. Sal released three highly praised albums of Christian pop music off the back of these events but by the late 90s he had become disillusioned and exhausted with efforts to generate support for his ideas from within a Catholic Church that to him seemed to be regressing at exactly the moment it needed to look outwards and embrace youth culture.

Sal and his music decamped to Chicago in 1999 – today he no longer gives concerts but is busy mentoring, producing and managing young Christian artists, and lectures regularly at large events, conferences and retreats.

Of course there have been attempts to engage Christian youth directly through music festivals, the most notable being the annual Greenbelt Christian Music Festival, which has been around in various forms since 1974. A predominantly evangelical event that has moved around a few UK locations over the years, it had some success in bridging the mainstream/faith crossover, attracting artists such as U2, The Alarm, Ed Sheeran, Amy Grant, the Proclaimers and Billy Bragg. Attendance peaked in 2010 with 20,000 youngsters turning up, but across its history it has struggled to engage with, or inspire the interest of, the Catholic Church.

The reasons for this have been complex and are a useful indicator of the challenges that our Catholic Church faces in engaging the young in large numbers. Primarily there is a profound difference in the way that evangelical Christianity and Catholicism are expressed – with Catholicism being far more of an internal than external experience. Also, for Catholics our faith is not so much what we express as our identity, but rather that which conditions the mundane and everyday things that we do. It is more of a profound subscript than a public declaration.

It is this which also inhibits the evangelical trend within Catholicism, which frankly is no bad thing. At the same time that Sal Solo was trying to create a charismatic youth movement within the Catholic Church in London’s Soho, a few miles up the road in South Kensington, the Alpha evangelising movement was exploding out of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Brompton. Vigorous efforts were made to create a Catholic version of Alpha, but it quickly became apparent that the faith of young Catholics ran far deeper than the rapid evangelisation and Salvationism of Alpha.

This is something that anyone who aspires to address the spirituality of young Catholics should heed. It is a fair assumption of evangelical Christians that they would benefit from a greater understanding of, and engagement, with their faith. Many of the recent initiatives to engage young Catholics begin from a mistaken assumption that there is some deficit in Catholic belief and sincerity that needs to be addressed, when in fact a far better starting point would be to acknowledge the great bravery in most young Catholics in adhering to the faith at all in a world that is set so largely against them.

Looking at the many Catholic youth movements that have come and gone over the past half century or so, a common denominator has been the reliance on those young people who already possess a particular sense of Catholic identity. The difficulty has been in reaching out further into the wider sea of those who live in the real world but for whom their Catholic faith is the fundamental – but often unspoken – subscript to the way they lead their daily, conventional lives.

It is in this space that the majority of young Catholics live and operate today and, if we are to engage meaningfully with them, this is the place where we need to be.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian