Sanctuary Marquee at Glastonbury Festival

First published 5th May 2016
Glastonbury Festival is one of the iconic summer gatherings known across the world.

Millions of people, since it began, have attended the festival and it has grown tremendously over the years. It is one of the most creative places, not just for the music but, also, numerous other inspiring events/venues/installations covering art, theatre, poetry, dance, different healing and faith expressions.

Further to this, myriad opportunities to discover new friendships, even if for a moment, and discussions around faith, the environment, music, New Age practices, contemporary issues and so on are very common and interesting.

I have been informed that there has been some kind of Christian presence at the festival since the late 1960s, but it only developed into something more structured and formal by the mid to late 1990s as the festival grew massively and health and safety and security became more established.

The Churches Welcome Tent was, at this point, headed up by the Diocese of Bath and Wells' youth department and, by 2000, the Tent (known as the Sanctuary Marquee from 2002) was fully recognized as a key provider of welcome and welfare at the festival. At this point, Somerset Churches Together took on the lead responsibility of Sanctuary under the guidance of an ecumenical steering group (of which I have been a part for the last couple of years). I first volunteered to be part of the team in 2005 (having gone to my first Glastonbury Festival in 1992).

So what do we do and offer at the Sanctuary Marquee, where is it based and who are we? The guiding statement is as follows: As part of the Christian Church we intend to demonstrate the love of Christ in Action by offering festival goers a warm welcome, space to reflect and a willingness to listen.' What this means in practice is that a team of volunteers (70 in total) work 24-hours-a-day in organised shifts to offer sanctuary for the festival-goers and site staff. Each year the Steering group chooses a theme (this year it is The Sea); in the past, for example, we have had Creation, Christmas at Glastonbury, Noahs Ark - and the creative team decorate the marquee according to the theme.


During the day, creative activities are on offer for the festival, such as face painting, massage, games, karaoke and acts of worship; as well as providing somewhere to shelter from the rain and mud or sun and dust.

During the night, we provide safe accommodation in our marquee for any festival-goer that find themselves lost, disorientated, washed out by the rain or needing a safe space to sleep. We also provide a warm fire for people to gather around, especially as it can be cold at night.

We offer free water, 24-hours-a-day, and last year handed out about 14,000 cups of water. This may seem a small action, but due to the need for people to rehydrate (either because of the weather or due to partying) this provides many opportunities to show love and engage in conversation with others.

Twice a day we have a creative act of worship and on the Sunday we have a Catholic Mass and a Communion service (which Michael Eavis has joined us for occasionally).

The Sanctuary Marquee is well established and integrated alongside the welfare and emergency services and every year there is good media coverage of what we do. Last year Mike Hill, the Bishop of Bristol, spoke from the Pyramid Stage, just after Lionel Richie and, so there was a reasonable crowd!

The Sanctuary Marquee is located on a hill, overlooking the Pyramid Stage and near the main Welfare site. Our team is made up of people from Somerset and the adjoining counties who want to serve God by serving the festival. The team is made up of a mixture of new people, people who may have been before and some regulars the ages are anything from 19 to 70. This year we had 89 people apply for the 70 places on the team. To find out more information please have a look at the Facebook page.

We are not the only Christian presence at the festival; there is an Iona community, until recently Elemental and The Coracle. We have a special relationship with the Coracle, which is a Celtic healing coracle in the healing fields. We come together to celebrate Communion at the Stone Circle during the festival this is a highlight for many of the team. It must be noted that there are challenges and it can be an overwhelming experience at times to be part of such a large mass of people and, believe me, the weather can play a significant part in the challenges.

Personally, it has been an honour to be part of the Sanctuary Marquee and I have experienced God in so many ways and seen others discover faith. Some of my highlights, although not all positive as our role does encounter some genuine experiences of crisis, would be taking a Wedding Blessing for a couple, supporting the hospital and family in giving the Last Rites to a person who died at the festival, sharing poetry with a group of strangers, dancing and singing along to hundreds of amazing artists, praying with people, listening and embracing those in pain and tears, learning from other people on the team as well as festival-goers and, finally, being utterly inspired by the immense creativity at the festivalit really has to be seen and experienced to be believed.

In my position as Priest-in-charge of two amazing Christian communities in the heart of the city of Bristol Holy Trinity, Hotwells and The Community of St Stephens I am energised every year by my experience as part of the Sanctuary Marquee that, in turn, gives life and vision for the mission and ministry God has called me to. Maybe, this is something for you to try for yourself?

Lee Barnes, Priest-in-charge of Holy Trinity Hotwells and The Community of St Stephen's.

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