Sunday, 2 June 2019

29. HOPE@motofest2019, Coventry

Jesus, says the Bible, rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. Seated upright and allowing the beast to pick its careful, ponderous way through the dusty streets. It’s an image which has long been central to the gospel stories of the young and provided many artists with inspiration. 

Just pause for a moment and replace that tired old donkey - willful and unreliable - with something a little more prestigious, something that will make a statement, tell everyone who you are. Sitting atop a painstakingly-polished Harley Davidson with its chrome catching the brilliant sun of the holy land perhaps. Or behind the wheel of this jet black Aston Martin maybe even with the hood down and the heads-up display offering real-time Jerusalem traffic updates.

You can be excused thoughts like these surrounded by very expensive pieces of metal at a motoring festival and, given the nature and theme of this morning’s service, perhaps even justified in thinking them.

Coventry Motofest has been running for six years or so, closing the streets and filling the city with noise, and Sunday morning sees quite a few churches close their doors. Not, as you’d imagine, because they can’t compete with the noise, but rather to join together and take their work right into the heart of the city and its festival. This is not just Sunday worship, this is HOPE@motofest2019.

This morning’s service is conducted from the main entertainment arena stage sandwiched between a couple of fast food stalls and a converted London double decker bus now advertising a splendid range of aspirational gins and over-priced artisan crisps. From behind the stage come the sounds and the flashing neon lights of the Wall of Death. Make of that what you will.

The congregation are variously ranged on the grass or taking advantage of a few handily-placed deckchairs. The humid weather has brought many in shorts but the gathering clouds mean a few umbrellas are also in evidence. 

The service sheet for today features songs and talks as well as prayers and a blessing all conducted against the background of the festival. And what a full-throttle background it is. Not twenty seconds can pass without the shrieking roar of a revved-up engine flying past on the ring road racetrack. In between the engines you can hear any of a hundred stalls blaring out pulsating music, the noise of fairground rides, overexcited PA announcements and, of course, the noise of tens of thousands of people shamelessly enjoying themselves.

Confronted by that, worship has to be loud and the band and speakers give as good as they get. The songs are anthemic, stadium numbers. Once you get beyond the edge of the arena they probably sound like all the other musical mush pumping out of the festival. Thankfully at this time of the morning the gin bus is not yet picking up passengers and the fast food vans are mainly supplying the obligatory morning caffeine burst.

Festival director James Noble provides the link between the petrol-head excesses all around and this particular part of the event’s high-octane programme. In a disarmingly honest testimony on the stage he talks of his faith and the trust he places in God to protect and nurture the city. He even quotes chapter and verse on one of the inspirations behind the whole thing. There is, he says, a parallel between creation and the creativity of a city which designed and built itself right to the forefront of the motoring world and still has a part to play. 

The prayers from the stage which follow are tailored to the city and its motoring industry. That industry has a lot to be thankful for over the years, but equally finds itself in a position where prayers can genuinely be offered for its continued recovery from some catastrophically low times. 

This is very much a meeting of the secular and the church. It could come across as a rather forlorn and doomed attempt by various churches to take their quiet message of hope into a very noisy, alien environment. Or a concession given by the organisers with one eye on filling up a slack part of the line-up. In fact it is neither. It’s a full-on celebration.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the people of the city are also churchgoers and are also workers in the car industry. There’s no hard borders between the things which make Coventry what it is and that’s what’s being celebrated. The Kingdom of Heaven, announces the man on the stage, is just like a motoring festival with everyone coming together whether they be car lovers, music lovers or just the inveterately sociable.

For me the relentless combination of screaming noise, engines, crowds, fried food and diesel is no vision of heaven. Quite the opposite. So I don’t linger long before heading back to my suddenly rather unexciting car.

I keep my eye out for some of the more unusual sights though. And if I were to see Jesus roaring round the ring road on the back of a ton of gleaming chrome and leather, I would take it as a sign that Coventry, and its churches, have got the balance for this morning just about right.