Sunday Assembly: move over, Jehova
Has London spawned a church for athiests? Time Out investigates the unholy rise of the Sunday Assembly
Mon Sep 23 2013
© Rob Greig
Readers of Time Out will be fully aware that all the best and most important things that have ever happened, happened in London. But there is one thing our fair city hasn’t yet given the world: a truly global religion (sorry, Church of England, you’re just a splinter group). But that could all be changing. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and venerable old blokes in dresses: take note of the rise and rise of the Sunday Assembly.
Founded by jobbing comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, this ‘godless congregation’ meets up on Sundays to give non-believers something fun to do. Since it was first held at a deconsecrated church/Steiner school in Islington at the start of this year, it has grown exponentially. But you won’t find Richard Dawkins types dissing God-botherers from the pulpit. Sunday Assembly is more about light-hearted inclusiveness – and singing along to ‘I Need a Hero’.
‘Religious people totally understand us,' says Jones, a tall, cheery, bearded man who looks like Jesus’s harder brother. ‘The people who have a problem are the militant, intolerant fundamentalist atheists. They say the way we don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God.’
'They lead the congregation like fired-up 'Blue Peter' presenters'
If there’s one thing organised religion has taught us, it’s that there’s nothing devout types dislike more than people who hold similar, but slightly different beliefs to their own. ‘Someone emailed in,’ laughs Jones, ‘saying: “We are atheists, we are rational people, we don’t need all these emotions – and what’s with the silly singing?”’
Having attended one of SA’s services, I can see why a militant atheist would be freaked out. Heck, I’m a bit freaked out. There are no crucifixes or communion, no Father, Son or Holy Ghost. But there are those uplifting songs (words displayed via that ultra village-churchy device, an overhead projector), plus readings, a choir, joyous clapping, makeshift pews and a pulpit, with Jones and Evans leading the congregation like fired-up ‘Blue Peter’ presenters. The jokes are better and the congregation is hipper, but it’s all conspicuously similar to happy, clappy evangelical Christianity.
So similar, in fact, that you wonder if it’s a piss-take. It’s being run by a pair of comedians, after all. But no: Jones and Evans are clear they have no interest in mocking believers. Their aim is simply to offer the community experience of religion for those who don’t believe in a higher power. Astonishingly, believers can – and do – attend.
‘I used to go to church and then I left church and then the only thing I missed about church was… church,’ explains Evans, a drier foil to the puppyish Jones. ‘And then I thought, was it possible to have church without God?’
© Rob Greig
‘I went to a carol service about six years ago,’ adds Jones, ‘and thought: How cool would it be if at the centre of this there was something I did believe in and not something I didn’t?’
A chance encounter on the comedy circuit led the pair to realise they’d both hit upon the same idea, so they decided to act on it. After a leisurely 18-month gestation – largely involving batting ideas over email while they got on with their comedy careers – the first Sunday Assembly took place in January 2013 at the Nave in Islington, a 200-seat former church. They weren’t expecting miracles.
‘On the day I was like, “Well, if we get 100 people that’d be good,”’ says Evans.
‘I was like, “Let’s lay out 30 chairs,”’ grins Jones. ‘And then…’
‘Over 300 people turned up!’
‘Nah, it was more like 200.’
‘SEVEN THOUSAND PEOPLE TURNED UP! It was more than could fit in the seats, anyway: people were sitting in the aisles.’
Their easy banter – and lack of pomposity – makes the boho Assembly crowd warm to them. Even if you’re sceptical, it’s obvious that: a) they mean well, and b) they’re not trying to brainwash anybody. The only mystery is the scale and speed of Sunday Assembly’s success. Why did 300 people turn up to the inaugural service of a fledgling ‘religion’? Why has it grown and grown, with spinoff Sunday Assemblies everywhere from Exeter to Melbourne? How come – just nine months later – Jones and Evans are about to embark on a globetrotting pilgrimage-cum-road trip entitled ‘40 Dates in 40 Nights’, to help set up 40 Sunday Assemblies in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia? And are they really going to crowdsource £500,000 to fund all this?
'We're there for people who want to live better, help often, and wonder more'
The truth is, atheism is having a moment right now. Since 2008, Harry Styles’s favourite philosopher Alain de Botton has been posting ‘secular sermons’ on Theschooloflife.com. When I contact him for his thoughts on the not-exactly-dissimilar Sunday Assembly, it turns out he’s not a fan. ‘Sunday Assembly is a blatant rip-off of what we do,’ he asserts, ‘and we’re sad to see its so-called “creators” attempt to take the credit.’ He’s got a point. But aren’t he and SA nicking ideas from religion anyway? Plus, the Church of England is also perking up, with baptisms increasing, and Christmas church attendance rising between 2010 and 2011 by 14 percent.
Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St Luke’s church in Holloway, is a distinctly alternative clergyman who has written extensively about wanting to ‘re-enchant’ Christianity for the modern age. He’s also been a major supporter of Sunday Assembly. He reckons its rise and ‘slightly better trends in C of E churchgoing’ are linked.
© Rob Greig
‘In an age of increasing individualism there is a hunger for community,’ he argues. ‘The SA is catering for this hunger.’
Coming from nowhere to an international tour in just eight months, it’s easily London’s fastest-growing spiritual movement. In fact, it’s doing better than Christianity was this time two millennia ago: according to the New Testament there were only 120 Christians kicking around after the death of Jesus. Admittedly, the full might of the Roman empire was probably more challenging than the odd testy email from Alain de Botton. And there are many reasons why SA’s laidback worldwide support might fizzle out or be superseded by the next big thing.
But for now, Sunday Assembly offers a fun, entertaining alternative service run by two funny, thoughtful people who’ll make you feel a bit better about life in general by repurposing all the nice bits of religion – community, emotional support, a jolly good singsong – in an agreeable secular package.
Personally, it’s not for me – as a Pole I think I’d need a substitute religion with more Catholic-style grinding fatalism. But it could be for you.
‘We’re there for people who want to live better, help often, wonder more,’ says Jones. Putting cynicism and Catholic guilt aside, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a good thing.
Check out Sunday Assembly on Oct 20 at Conway Hall.
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