The Sunday Assembly: Musings on A ‘Godless Congregation’

I had been looking forward to experiencing London’s Sunday Assembly – or, as the media will have it, the ‘Atheist Church’. So many questions… what actually motivates people with no belief in God to meet together on a Sunday morning? What do they do? And – biggest question of all – what can UK churches that are losing members learn from a non-church movement that is escalating at a rate of knots, both in the UK and worldwide?

We rolled up at the door and did a double-take… everything was weirdly familiar: the welcome as we walked in, the buzz of bubbly conversation as people debated where to sit, the projector screen at the front emblazoned with the name of the non-church… right through to the very happy hosts Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans (stand-up comedians both) who bounded to the front to welcome the packed congregation, run through the morning’s agenda and encourage everyone to be friendly and introduce themselves to their neighbours.

But as I variously leapt to my feet to join in the lively Oasis (or Tori Amos or The Beatles) community singing, listen to a talk on forgiveness, and sit in silence for a few minutes of ‘personal reflection’, I was aware of something else, too.

I felt completely relaxed, yet knew this had little to do with the familiar culture, and more with the unexpected inclusiveness modeled from the front. Richard Dawkins-type angry atheists would likely have been irritated by the distinct lack of jibes about church, God, Jesus – anything in fact that may have offended Christians or those of any other faith who chose to attend.

The bouncy ‘good egg’ hosts came across as wholly authentic – yet not bitter, cynical, or superior. It turned out there was a good reason for the lively charismatic church model – both hosts have church backgrounds. While I didn’t discover why Pippa had moved on from her Christian faith, Sanderson did let on that childhood tragedy and trauma eventually demanded too great a stretch of faith for him to continue to believe in God.

Yet those of all faiths are welcome, and in fact, Christians, such as Dave Tomlinson from St Luke’s, Holloway, are regularly invited to speak. The only caveat is that speakers don’t use the platform to proselytize.

The guest speaker that morning based her talk on an inspiring ‘Forgiveness’ project she had initiated. It was short and low-key, although, as one of our friends who was also there pointed out later, it didn’t actually offer any tools to people who may have been hoping for help in this area.

But I had been struck by something quite simple… the speaker’s nuanced and respectful approach by which she balanced insights on forgiveness with assurances that no-one should feel pressured to forgive. I reflected on church settings in which I had felt coerced to make a particular response to a pointed message. And had probably put others under pressure, too. While The Sunday Assembly culture may have scored low on the equipping stakes, to someone more familiar with an authoritarian approach, the ‘adult-to-adult’ culture was a breath of fresh air. As I discovered later from their website, it was also an affirmation of The Sunday Assembly’s stance: ‘…We’re not here to tell you how to live your life, we just want to help you do whatever you want to do as well as you can.’

In fact, the one thing that jarred in this very inclusive style of ‘service’ was a slogan projected onto the screen at the front: ‘A Godless Congregation that Celebrates Life.’ Having discovered a number of Christians – and those of other faiths in the congregation, too – the description wasn’t a great fit.

The meeting drew to a close with the Notices… the usual things, including an appeal for help for someone leaving hospital, and details of mid-week home groups. Then it was time for coffee and cupcakes. Bar a few vaguely risqué bits in the poetry, familiar church stuff to the end.

And yet, perhaps not so familiar. As I pondered the success of the Sunday Assembly and what churches might take from it, the two qualities that came immediately to mind were Inclusiveness and Equality.

While The Assembly has been dubbed the ‘Atheist Church’, spreading non-belief in God is clearly not the raison d’etre here – whatever their slogan. Rather, their website shows a resolve that non-belief in God shouldn’t be a bar to people celebrating together and living meaningful lives, in line with their motto: ‘Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More.’ Anyone in sympathy with these positive aims is welcome, whatever their background.

With many Christians transitioning in their faith just now, I wonder what could happen were the church to be more inclusive, more intent on providing a safe and supportive haven for their members’ spiritual journeying, than on keeping everyone firmly on message with a particular take on scripture?

Which really links to the issue of equality. The leaders at The Assembly are great hosts, entrepreneurs, comedians, and much else besides. They just don’t lay claim to any special insights or status. And the invited speakers are interesting and sometimes inspiring contributors rather than authority figures. Which produces a culture in which people can learn to trust their intuition, keep their self-esteem, relate as adults, and generally grow and develop in a healthy way. I found myself wondering whether this could be one reason for the numbers of Christians counting themselves among the Assembly’s members. A plaintive post on their website made me think it just might:

‘…I find church such a heavy place and suffocating and full of rules that are broken as soon as you leave church. Sunday Assembly was uplifting, free, as in free thought, the people that were there were from all walks of life. I am not an atheist, I just want a community-based, honest place to go with like-minded people..’