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Church without God
Far from a one-off gimmick, the atheist Sunday Assembly has taken off in a way no one could have predicted. Ruth Garner went to learn its secret.
Sunday morning in central London. A mixture of people, young and old, gather outside a hall, enjoying the sunshine and chatting animatedly. As we file inside, squeezing into rows of chairs, there is a buzz in the air. The friendly, beardy leader offers a warm welcome, and then we sing a song that gets everyone clapping along. A couple of talks follow, with wise words shared, followed by a moment of quiet contemplation. The congregation join in wholeheartedly, laughing, playing along and singing with gusto. It’s a familiar picture in churches up and down the country, right down to the tea and cake at the end. But these people are not your average churchgoers. And this is not church as you know it. There is no mention of God, no prayers, no Bible readings. Welcome to The Sunday Assembly; the godless get-together.
In a place of Godlessness there was a genuine community spirit and a desire to effect change
Billed on its website as ‘part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church’, it is proving so popular that getting there early is necessary to secure a seat. So what’s the attraction? And how can the Church respond to this new face of atheism?
It’s easy to see how those who don’t believe in God might find such a group appealing. Going to a ‘church’ led by two comics, where you sing along to Cyndi Lauper and Fleetwood Mac, listen to engaging talks on themes such as ‘wonder’ and ‘play’ and chat over a cup of tea afterwards is a nice alternative to doing your weekly food shop at Sainsbury’s. The brainchild of comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the gathering is not about being anti-religion, but to encourage the non-religious to live a good life. ‘Our mission is to help everyone find and fulfil their potential,’ says Jones. The motto of The Sunday Assembly is ‘live better, help often, wonder more’. Everything that features during the meeting feeds into this.
Since its first London meeting in January, the growth of this movement has been extraordinary. There are now two services held on the first Sunday of every month, with the intention of meeting fortnightly from September. Launching a gathering in Exeter is next on the list in June, and there are other pilot assemblies planned this year in Brighton, Bristol and Southend. The interest is not confined to the UK, either; in April, Evans went to Australia to oversee the launch of the Sunday Assembly Melbourne. With expansion comes the inevitable need to consider governance and structure ‐ much like a church planting movement. ‘We’re trying to find ways to minimise the risks,’ says Jones. ‘People come to The Sunday Assembly in London because it is fun, and it’s a good thing. If they walk into the Exeter gathering and go “Huh?” or if someone stands up and starts spouting anti-religious stuff, we don’t want that either. It’s about finding how to give people the room to do their own stuff, with a minimum set ofrequirements.’
What’s surprising about The Sunday Assembly is not just that they break the stereotype of the angry atheist, but the number of Christians and ex-Christians who are involved. The Sunday Assembly will be featuring at Greenbelt this year (albeit under ‘comedy’ and not ‘worship’) and Jones has enlisted the help of Rev Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St Luke’s Church in Holloway, northLondon, to help him understand his role.
‘We got on very well, and he said he thought his approach to atheism was similar to my approach to Christianity,’ says Tomlinson, who was invited to speak at the assembly at Easter where he preached on ‘Easter for Atheists’. ‘I felt what I had to do was to walk a line in not compromising who I am and what I’m about, but at the same time relating to them,’ he says. ‘I didn’t go with any intention of making converts, that’s not really my approach anyway, but I hope that the outcome is that some of those people will have a more positive attitude towards the Church and would hope they encountered something of what I feel is God’s love through me.’
Live better, help often, wonder more
So what is the attraction for those who go? I attended a meeting of Sunday Assembly volunteers with some trepidation, half-expecting to be lynched when they discovered I was a Christian. But what I found was a group of passionate individuals coming together to plan ways to celebrate life, serve the community and grow The Sunday Assembly. Many spoke of the community that had previously been lacking in their lives, and how this group met that need, connecting them with other like-minded individuals. There was a collective commitment to social action and the importance of sharing ideas to create something great. Talk around my table focused on community action. These people wanted to make a difference, and they wanted to do it together. In a place of godlessness there was genuine community spirit and a desire to effect change.
The need for community was at the heart of Matt Pocock’s decision to join The Sunday Assembly, and now he is in the process of setting up its Exeter branch: ‘I’d been thinking about starting something like this myself. I’d been to church before and had seen how engaging it could be ‐ it could lift people up, encourage them to live better lives ‐ and I thought most of that was down to being part of a community. I wanted to make something like that for people who didn’t have faith. I didn’t think it was possible, but I saw the London assembly and thought it was incredible.’
How to respond?
Apart from an innate desire to connect, gatherings of this sort hint at a change that is underway in atheism towards a more positive outlook. ‘There is a sense of a development within atheism,’ says Graham Tomlin, dean at St Mellitus College. ‘Phase one included Richard Dawkins, a very negative approach to religion in general and lots of books outlining the case for atheism. But books can only take you so far. This new phase includes a second generation of people who are probably a bit less angry and who are recognising that things can be learnt from others.’
Renowned apologist and theologian Alister McGrath agrees. ‘It is interesting that many atheists are realising that the standard dry, dull atheism is so boring they have to do something else to make it interesting. And that’s a step forward from Richard Dawkins.’ This fresh face of atheism highlights the wide spectrum that exists, says Tomlinson: ‘It’s important for Christians using the word “atheism” that we do the word justice. Just like Christianity, it represents a huge range of positions and views.’
As Christians can learn from The Sunday Assembly, so too have they openly discussed borrowing certain elements from the Church. ‘If you’re doing something new, which is the godless thing, and then there were also loads of other innovations, it might be too much new stuff,’ says Jones. ‘So we’re going to be total magpies and take whatever looks good from wherever looks good.’
"For Christians it is the narrative of creation, sin, redemption and a future hope that is very distinctive. We try to live in that story. In the Sunday assembly they live in a very different story"
The fact that Church and atheist assemblies have plenty in common is quite provoking in itself. ‘I think it is a very interesting phenomenon, not least because there are lots of similarities to Church,’ says Tomlin. ‘It drives you to ask, “What is distinctive about us?” and “What do we offer that isn’t just celebrating life and doing community work?”
Standing out from the crowd is not a problem for The Sunday Assembly. It’s lively, thought-provoking and funny. Even technical hitches, such as the mic not working, served to give Jones and the congregation something to laugh about and make light of. This too can be a learning point for churches, says Tomlin: ‘There is something there, a lightness of touch that I quite like. They are trying not to take themselves too seriously, and perhaps as Christians that is something that we tend to do.’
Has the Church failed?
What does the Assembly teach us? Does it provide an opportunity to learn more about the human desire for meaning andcommunity? ‘The felt need for the existence of The Sunday Assembly gives a fascinating insight into the deeper longings of humankind,’ says Tanya Walker, apologist for RZIM Europe. ‘Even if you try and take God out of the picture, the human heart has this strong desire for transcendence, for something to wonder at and, I would argue, ultimately someone to address that wonder to.’
The fact that we are made in God’s image is part of this inherent desire, says Tomlin: ‘We are made in the image of God who is Trinitarian community, not just a single lonely individual…As we are made in his image it is not surprising that we seek out friendship and fellowship. There is a sociological point about atheists needing to create community, wanting to express atheism and unbelief together, but there is also perhaps a theological point they would not recognise ‐ [that they are drawn to these gatherings] may be because they are made in the image of God.’
So why aren’t people finding this in church? Many of the people I met at The Sunday Assembly had experienced church in one way or another, and had subsequently moved on. So rather than simply being a gathering of the ‘un-churched’, it really appealed to the ‘post-churched’ who miss elements of gathering together but don’t believe in God. Each of these individuals went on their own journey of searching and for various reasons did not find lasting meaning in the Christian faith. This raises a challenge to the Church to think about how we communicate.
‘The fact that The Sunday Assembly has been set up hints that the Church in some contexts has failed,’ says Walker. ‘That we have failed to be true community to people, and that we have failed to communicate the wonder of the gospel, and its power to transform lives. Maybe it shows us, in part, that we have been responsible for a misconception of what “religion” means and looks like, and have left people feeling like they need to look elsewhere for the very things that the Christian faith gives in abundance ‐ wonder, transcendence, a transformed life, and faithful, loving community.’
When engaging with atheists, Christians tend to fall into one of two traps: either beating themselves up over their failings or being hugely aggressive and adversarial. Rather than resorting to these extremes, this phenomenon offers the unique opportunity to ask questions, reflect and seek to be all that the Church is meant to be. ‘Go along and observe what’s going on and see what you can learn from it,’ says Tomlinson. ‘Don’t go with some militant idea of converting them. I think there’s plenty of room for passionate debate and proclamation, but that has to be done in a spirit of mutual respect. Every dialogue is predicated on the idea that I have something to give but I also have something to learn.’
"Each time we met, Sanderson greeted me with a massive bear hug. I'm not sure I'd get such a welcome from Richard Dawkins"
I agree with Tomlinson wholeheartedly. Sanderson Jones isn’t a ‘big, bad atheist’; he’s amiable, with a hearty laugh and an evident love for life. Each time we met he greeted me with a massive bear hug. I’m not sure I’d get such a welcome from RichardDawkins (or from many vicars for that matter). Those in the congregation I chatted to were also friendly and warm ‐ even when they found out that I ‘played for the other team’
A different story
As successful as The Sunday Assembly has been in its first year, there is far more to church than the peripheries that The Sunday Assembly has adopted. ‘To understand the Church as a meeting in which you enjoy community, sing some songs, listen to an interesting talk, meditate a little and then leave feeling a bit more positive is ultimately to misunderstand the Church entirely,’ says Walker. ‘This is part of the packaging, the outworking of faith. The substance is of a totally different order.’ The story behind the gathering is the glue that holds it together, says Tomlin: ‘It comes down to the question “What is the story that motivates the community?” For Christians it is the narrative of creation, sin, redemption and a future hope that is very distinctive. We try to live in that story. In The Sunday Assembly they live in a very different story.’
McGrath draws a clear distinction between the heart of each gathering and their future sustainability: ‘One of my favourite theologians, Augustine, said that people gather around the objects of their adoration. You can see immediately how that makes sense of Christianity. What I find so interesting about this new development is, what’s at its heart? It seems to be “let’s go and feel good”. But that’s not sustainable over time; there’s got to be something at the heart of a community which keeps it going. That’s why Christian worship is so important, because we discover there’s something bigger than us, bigger than a group of people who are gathering together; there’s something transcendent there, and that’s what excites and keeps us going.’
In the long-term
Aside from long-term sustainability, the issue of pastoral care is one The Sunday Assembly will need to address. ‘Becausethe Christian story talks about the goodness of creation but also sin and redemption,’ says Tomlin, ‘it means that the Christian can deal with the messiness of life, despair, failure and disappointment ‐ all put in the context of hope. I wonder what it would be like going to [The Sunday Assembly] with real, hard, long-term problems and whether they have the resources to manage that, effecting real personal change. You can often find people in church for whom it has made a big difference. Hardened addicts have actually found a dynamic and power to change in the Christian faith. It has shown an ability to change people from within. I’m interested to know if there is a dynamic that could change someone who is addicted to drugs, or stuck in patterns of hardened criminal behaviour.’
Walker too has questions on this point: ‘I wonder if it won’t take long to realise that the packaging of a “church” meeting and the goals of The Sunday Assembly, however positive, aren’t enough when things are really tough in life, or when difficult decisions about moral choices need to be made. Ultimately, without the actual substance of faith, the packaging very quickly disappoints.’
Questions remain for both the Sunday Assembly and the Church. For the Assembly team, reflecting on how to sustain growth, while also pinpointing what they are gathering around and how to best care for its members will be central. The Church too has questions it must seek to answer ‐ not least how it can use this opportunity to fulfil its true potential during such a spiritually hungry time.
For more information about The Sunday Assembly, log on to sundayassembly.com.