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..’

All Most Welcome or Almost Welcome…?

Over the last little while I have been out of the loop, not just of the Spiritual Journey site, but the normal things of everyday life. Everything suddenly ground to a halt when my father suffered a major stroke early in December, and several traumatic weeks later, died in hospital.

Life immediately transitioned into a swirl of hospital life, caring for my mother, and sharing in the chaotic lives and emotions of the relatives of the other stroke patients in my father’s ward. Pretty much everything else was parked on the shelf.

And then one morning, as we were with him, my father passed on quietly in his sleep. Just like that.

The enormous grief we all felt was swiftly swallowed up in another round of intense busyness, this time centred around funeral planning and all the administrative paraphernalia that claims your time and attention when a close family member dies.

Then, finally, came the day of the funeral; a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning with a very special touch that would have appealed to my meteorologist father: a beautiful double rainbow edged its way spectacularly across the blue skies over the church just as the last two people arrived. The atmosphere inside was warm and supportive, the pews packed with assorted friends and family. The service itself was a sensitive and meaningful celebration of my Dad’s life, with the music, the readings and the shared memories all piecing together something of his very essence.

Yet… in amongst all the positivity, something, somewhere had jarred. One of my daughters put her finger on it later that week, quoting from the format suddenly as we chatted: ‘…the great promise of new life – for those of us who are Believers…’ She pulled a ‘yikes!’ kind of face, instantly nailing my own source of discomfort. The church hadn’t been filled solely with professing Christians. Yet this phrase had popped up more than once, pointedly implying that the assurance may not be applicable to everyone there.

Meanwhile, another, somewhat higher-profile funeral took place around the same time… that of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. The Reverend Dave Tomlinson took Mr Biggs’ funeral – and, having also presided over the funeral of Bruce Reynolds (seen as the Robbery’s ‘mastermind’) a year earlier – found himself scathingly dubbed ‘The Villains’ Priest’ in some quarters of the press.

Personally, I loved the label. It sounded to me reassuringly like Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’.

Dave seemed fine with it, too, responding thoughtfully to his critics in an article in the Church Times. He explained how he had joined many of Ronnie’s friends and family in the pub after the service (happily handing yet more ammunition to a few journalists), describing them as representative of ‘the hordes of people who know that their lives are a bit screwed up, who make no claim to being squeaky-clean Christians, but whose hearts are open to God, in all sorts of ways.’

With humility, he pointed to the deeper complexities of the concept of a ‘sheep and goat’-type Last Judgement: ‘…The reality is that there is a sheep and a goat in all of us – certainly within me. Divine judgement has to be more sophisticated than simply telling the Biggses of this world to stand on one side, and people like me to stand on the other.’

Whether the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus shared his life all went on to step over some qualifying line or not, they evidently sensed that they were accepted rather than being judged by him. Just as the Prodigal Son was extravagantly welcomed home rather than quizzed first to ensure he had signed all the officially-repentant forms.

So I’ve been musing… isn’t it likely to be more productive, let alone more authentically spiritual – more Jesus-like – to count people in rather than to assume that unless they conform to our particular spiritual brand, or are at the same point on the journey as ourselves, that they are unlikely to make it safely through the Pearly Gates?

And how significant is it, I wonder, that shortly after Dave took Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, he was once again featured in the press alongside the Biggs family – this time welcoming Ronnie’s grand-daughter, Lilly, into the church at her baptism…?

How to be a bad Christian

Although we have moved in different circles, I have known Dave Tomlinson for more years than I like to admit, and have been intrigued to find whenever we’ve bumped into one another, that our spiritual journeys have had many parallels. Dave’s latest book, ‘How to be a Bad Christian’, is being launched at Greenbelt this year – celebrated in typical Dave-style with a special new brew of “Bad Christian’ ale. It’s too early to comment on the beer, but based on the snatches I have read and on Dave himself (another ardent Leonard Cohen fan – is there no end to this man’s credentials?), I can’t wait for a copy of his book. Here’s Dave, in his local, giving a few clues to what you can expect…

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