Sunday, 8 December 2013

Sunday Assembly

I first heard of the SundayAssembly earlier this year when Alom Shaha wrote in New Humanist about his experiences of going to a Godless Congregation. My initial response wasn’t particularly positive but as outlined in my blog at the time…it did make me think. It also made me promise that if I were ever in London on a Sunday I would attend an Assembly.

However the Assembly got popular, went international with branches across the world - including Nottingham. The first Nottingham meeting took place last Thursday night, it was only 10 mins walk from where I live, so considering this and my promise to go.. and despite my continuing reservations…I kind of had to go…    

My reservations were based on what I remember of church and my fears of a godless version keeping the tedium while adding a toe-curling “fun” element. I had the distinct feeling that it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t possess either the yearning for community or the twee earnestness that seems to have washed over the Guardian reading end of hipster-dom.

A couple of days after attending the service and I could easily reflect where my reservations were correct. Ironic Retro Glasses with headband? Check. Ukulele Band? Check. Grinning Enthusiasm of a Butlins Yellow coat? Check! That Elbow song that everyone mysteriously loses their shit over? Check! 

I could even mention that there is nothing funnier than a middle aged Dutch Maths Lecturer sarcastically begging for the “fun” to stop during an interactive clapping game.(Yes, I said interactive clapping game). Please adopt a comedy Sean Connery/Martin Jol accent while you imagine this. “Schtopp itsch too mutch funsz Pleezch! Schtopp!”.

But to do only that would be unfair. It would only describe how my negative expectations were met, which would be dull. The best aspects of the assembly were those that were most relaxed, natural and about the people there. I’d never considered reading AC Grayling’s Secular Bible but the reading from its version of Genesis was simple and beautiful.

1. In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit.    2. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world.    3. From it he learns how the tree grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life;   4. And from maturity to age and sleep, whence it returns to the elements of things.

In less than 70 words it manages to be both a beautiful myth, explanation of the way of things and description of the scientific method. The whole of the KJV can only manage one of those and the reading was less manic than the rest of the show, it slowed things down. Made them thoughtful.

The highlight of the evening and part that finally made me realise what the assembly was actually for, came while informally speaking to people after the service. Free from the “me talk you listen” formality of a service, people could actually say hi and get to know one another.

A perfect example was the family who had travelled from Leicester to attend. Gush, his wife and their (at least 4) children in tow. The eldest had just graduated from University and the younger children were experiencing the joys of sullen face down into a phone teendom. What made meeting this formally Sikh family such a lovely experience was why they were there. Following the death of Gush's father the family had decided that now was the time to admit what they had kept secret for so long – that they were Atheist. While not a controversial decision for me , this family had lost a great number of family and friends through the faithful being disgusted and those that shared Gush's views being kept away by the social pressure of a close knit community. 

They were left with few people to meet and talk to. Through making what was a simple decision for me, they had lost their friends and so had come to the assembly to meet new ones.

The sermon given during the service used decline as its theme and stated that Western Society is crumbling and that we're all lonely these days.  I couldn't dis-agree with those statements more strongly - which is why I don't think the Assembly is ultimately for me. As a confident, outgoing middle class white man; socialising, meeting new people and having a generally positive experience in life is pretty easy.  Meeting in the slightly contrived circumstances of a (bit too happy-clappy if I’m honest) service was always going to get in the way of how I already enjoy meeting new people.  However, many people are a little introverted or have moved to a new town and don’t know where to start or have made a monumental decision to leave an entire culture and certainty behind them.  And I think it is for these people that the assembly can be really positive and useful and dare I say it…Fun.


  1. If you're interested in learning more about the issues that face people like Gush's family please look at the Apostasy Project.

  2. Hi Regan. Thanks for your comments.

    With Sanderson Jones leading the inaugural Nottingham event, the service was always going to be a little bit bonkers – over the top and thoroughly tongue in cheek. I doubt that any of the rest of us will attempt to mimic Sanderson’s performance for future services. I for one am notorious for not even being able to catch a ball properly, let alone leading a clapping game!

    I’m looking forward to seeing how the Sunday Assembly concept develops over the coming year. The important thing for me is to strike the right balance between serious, life affirming content and more light hearted elements. We gave it our best shot last Thursday and certainly have plenty of room to learn and to grow, but it is also true that the Sunday Assembly idea isn’t going to be for everyone.

    Of course, a sermon and songs does not a church make. A ‘church community’ stands or falls according to how well it helps its members celebrate the passage and experience of life – with all its joys and sorrows – and how well it’s worldview stands up when the stuff hits the fan. In other words, the community experience has to remain relevant to the people it tries to reach out to. It is too early to say how well the SA will address these needs, but it will have to evolve beyond the mere holding of services if it is going to take root.
    Alain De Botton’s book ‘Religion for Atheists’ gives an interesting view of what such developments could look like.

    I’m guessing that at the moment the SA’s ready-made audience are people who enjoy a ‘Vineyard’ style church experience but don’t want to swallow the Jesus pills in order to do so. As the concept matures over the coming months I would like to see the boundaries expanding so we can engage more people, perhaps with radically different needs and expectations from a ‘church’. We need to take on feedback, be attentive to opportunities and engage in creative dialogue with both supporters and critics in order to do this.

    In the long term, a ‘broad church’ approach will be more successful in creating and sustaining a meaningful community than will restricting ourselves to one particular style of service. This isn’t to say that light hearted, fun services don’t have their place. There are plenty of people who take great enjoyment in this kind of lark and I count myself among them.

    The great thing about the Sunday Assembly concept is that there is room for this organic growth to take place. After all, Humanism is not a closed book philosophy; and there is no shortage of people looking for the type of life affirming fellowship that the Sunday Assembly has the potential to provide. If we can fill the gap for even a handful of people and families then I will consider our time well spent. Here’s to the journey!

  3. Thanks for the Comment Dave. I guess if you consider how wide-ranging religious congregations have had to become to meet the different tastes of people - there's no reason to suppose non religious one's would agree either. I'll wish you Good Luck from my secular hermitage!