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'God can be found in darkness'

The Rev Caroline Beckett tells Claire Brine why she is leading a church service for goths

We recognise that many people have a shadow side

 CUE massive cheers: it’s the August bank holiday weekend – which means that festival season has arrived. Whether music fans are rocking up to Reading, Leeds, Victorious at Portsmouth, Creamfields at Warrington or the Big Feastival in the Cotswolds, it’s time to get down to some serious partying.

At Boughton House in Kettering, the Greenbelt Festival is already in full swing and runs until Monday (27 August). Giving platforms to musicians, speakers, preachers, comedians, authors and poets, it’s a festival with a difference, exploring artistry and activism, faith and justice, while always energised by a Christian world view.

One hardcore Greenbelt fan is the Rev Caroline Beckett, who has been attending the festival since the 1990s. This year, the curate from St Margaret’s Church in Berechurch, Colchester, is running the festival’s Goth Eucharist service. It has been a fixture at Greenbelt for years.

‘A lot of Christian worship tends to be about the upward curve – about being uplifted, feeling joyful and rejoicing in God,’ says Caroline. ‘While there are elements of those things in the Goth Eucharist, we also take a very frank look at the more difficult emotions, such as anger and sorrow.

‘We recognise that many people have a shadow side, which they don’t always feel comfortable bringing to worship. In some churches, you’re encouraged to shut the darker parts of yourself away or battle against them, whereas goths prefer to poke at these things with a stick.’

Caroline explains that the Goth Eucharist at Greenbelt follows the pattern of a standard church service – with Bible readings, a sermon and prayers – but there are some differences in style to look out for.

‘I invite people to come forward for Communion just as they are,’ she says. ‘They don’t need to deny their dark or difficult side. So, a lot of people attending the Goth Eucharist will be wearing black clothes, because that’s how they express themselves, and the music will be more gothic in style. I prefer the term “alternative” to “goth”, simply because there is more than one type of goth. There are traditional goths and cyber-goths and a lot of punk goths.

‘Some people come to the service because they are exploring what goth culture is and whether they could find a place in it. Others come because they know someone who is a goth and want to understand them a bit more. We have space for about 250 people, and each year the service – which starts at 11 pm and runs until past midnight – is packed out.’

A goth since her teens, Caroline feels at home in a community of people who find comfort in darkness. But she recognises that not everyone understands goth culture and tastes.

‘If you ask 20 people what it means to be a goth, you’ll get 20 different answers,’ she says. ‘It’s a bit like asking: what is an Anglican? But there are a few things that many goths have in common. We tend to wear black, unconventional clothing as an expression that we are nonconformists on the inside. We tend not to accept the status quo or blindly follow what everyone else is following. There’s an exploratory quality to being a goth, so we tend to be much more accepting of unconventional lifestyle choices. Sometimes, for those of us who are Christians, that can be quite tricky to navigate, but we operate on the basis that we love people first. And we listen.’

Music, she says, is also a huge part of being a goth – and whether the music a goth listens to is angry, political, melancholic or introspective, it’s usually quite serious.

‘While there is more than one type of goth, I’d say there is a common understanding that we are all going to be ourselves,’ Caroline says. ‘We don’t deny our dark sides. We talk about life and death and what really matters. And, if you look at the Scriptures, that’s what you see. The Psalms are full of people going down into the depths, and from there, their praise to God rises up.

‘At the Goth Eucharist at Greenbelt, we try to make sure we embrace that downwards curve for ourselves, acknowledging that life is difficult – but we are also praising from those depths. It’s a costly praise for us, because goths are longing for a sense of belonging that they don’t quite have.

‘I suppose the emotions of the goth service reflect the Easter story in a way, because you experience the sorrow of the death of Christ but end with the wonder of the Resurrection. The Christian faith has always held those two contrasting images together, but perhaps modern worship doesn’t always do that in such a balanced way.’

While Caroline loves God and loves being a goth, not everyone she encounters in her work as a priest understands the way she lives her life. People have commented on her appearance, saying she might look prettier if she wore pink. And many others have failed to see how faith and an appreciation of darkness can be compatible. After all, didn’t Jesus say he was the light of the world.

‘It’s an interesting question,’ she says. ‘Some people say that God is light, so darkness must be “other”, but the Bible says that God created day and night, light and dark. In fact, Genesis says that darkness was there before the light, so where did that darkness come from if not from the God who was there before everything?

‘I believe that God is bright and yet mysterious, so there is a balance between the delight of knowing him and the darkness of all that remains unknown. Goths can appreciate joy and humour as much as the next person, but they live very much in that balance, whereas others might put vast energies into suppressing or hiding the dark side of themselves. Goths see the darkness as a gift.’

It’s a point which Caroline illustrates further by recalling a painful experience from her own life. Six years ago, she lost her husband to leukaemia. Embracing her acute sadness helped her as she sought to find comfort in God.

‘When my husband died, my prayer life deepened, and I had a profound experience of God’s love,’ she says. ‘My husband was also a goth and a minister, and as we journeyed through his illness together, we found we had two types of friends. We had those who talked brightly, as if God was going to heal my husband miraculously, because they couldn’t face the thought of his mortality. Then we had other friends – many of them goths – who faced the reality of our situation with us. While we were going into the unknown, they offered us some of the most profound insights, simply because talking about death wasn’t an unfamiliar, uncomfortable conversation for them.’

During his lifetime, Caroline’s husband was also a frequent attender of the Goth Eucharist at Greenbelt and helped to lead the prayers of intercession during the service.

‘There’s a lot of support in the goth Christian community,’ she says. ‘People are generous, because everyone is being vulnerable with each other. That’s what I love about it. You don’t have to worry about being judged. The Goth Eucharist aims to tell people they are good enough, worthy enough and welcomed by God.

‘During this year’s service, I’m going to be exploring the idea of waymarking. When people go for a hike and put a stone on a cairn, they are marking the path for others in the future. In poor visibility, walkers can spot that cairn and know they are still on the right path. I think the same principle can apply to being a Christian. We can put our rock on the cairn and say: “This was me. I was here struggling with the darkness of depression, child loss or a sexual identity crisis – but I’m still here on the path, walking with God.”

‘When we own up to our lived reality, we are marking the way for the people who come after us. And that’s important, because if we don’t do that, everyone is going to have that feeling of being isolated when they’re not.

‘So, while some people might think that a Goth Eucharist sounds like a depressing event, it can actually be quite comforting, because people facing difficult situations can usually find someone else who understands what they are going through. They can look around and say: “I’m not alone. I’m not broken. God can still love me.”’

After years of helping to lead the Goth Eucharist at Greenbelt, Caroline has seen how valuable it has become to the people who attend it. Some say they come because it’s the one night of the year in which they can breathe freely. Others say: ‘This is my church.’ Teenagers who are tentatively exploring goth culture find hope. They come to understand that they can still be ‘a good Christian despite not fitting the typical Christian mould’.

‘This year, as well as the Goth Eucharist, we are also holding a goth/alternative daytime service that is suitable for all ages,’ says Caroline. ‘We will be looking at what living a full life means, and how it encompasses living honestly and authentically – and not just having to show your happy and smiley side all the time.

‘The reality is, a lot of us have things going on in our lives that are not ideal, but the gospel is more than strong enough to stand on its own and interact with us, however we are feeling.’

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