Atheist Church: Reviewed
The Sunday Assembly opened its doors in January, with hymns and collection, but no God. Simon Jenkins reports
I’ve often wondered what would happen if you took the religion out of a Sunday church service. What would be left? How much difference would it make and would anyone notice?
I got the chance to test out a religionless church in January when I went to the opening service of The Sunday Assembly, London’s new atheist church. The church was dreamed up by comedians Sanderson Jones, (pictured left) and Pippa Evans who discovered on a car journey they were both interested in starting a local community for “anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more”.
Sunday’s service was in a big, old deconsecrated Anglican church in Canonbury, north London. The choice of building was quite brilliant. It had blistered plasterwork, crumbling gothic arches, gloriously shabby walls and basically looked like a set for a film called Wreck of Christianity II.
It’s not often that I’ve ever had to queue up to get into church, but amazingly 250 other curious souls had turned up for the service and there was a bottleneck at the door. Once inside I found a seat, but at least half the congregation sat on the floor, stood at the back or perched up in the precarious-looking balcony.
A small band – just like in real church! – was warming up at the front, led by Pippa Evans who launched into singing the service’s theme song in a voice which reminded me of Millicent Martin, who used to open the satire show That Was The Week That Was back in the 60s.
Sanderson Jones, sporting red trousers and a bright tie, took to the stage and led the service with energy verging on the Pentecostal and comedy which was genuinely funny. He is several inches over six feet tall and has the kind of long, fundamentalist beard which makes his claim: “I’m not trying to start a cult,” flat-out unbelievable.
I only say that because he pointed it out himself, to a lot of laughter from the congregation. And then he added: “But that’s exactly the sort of thing I’d say if I was starting a cult.”
We stood to sing our first hymn. I was hoping it would be that rousing old Victorian standard: “At the name of Dawkins, Every knee shall bow…” but instead we had Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World: “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology…”
It struck me as an ironic choice, since atheism stakes its claim on knowing a heap of stuff about history, biology, science book, etc. But then, the London Assembly turned out to be refreshingly unpushy about its atheism.
As a believer myself, I felt perfectly OK listening to the reading (an extract from Teddy Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech), singing the other two hymns (Don’t Look Back in Anger, and Build Me Up Buttercup) and putting something in the collection.
The collection was notable, actually. I’ve never heard anyone actually thank a congregation for what they’ve just given. Jones was overwhelmed by the response and thanked us all very warmly. It was one of several rewarding moments when the Sunday Assembly shone and which revealed the tiredness of church as I know it.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the service has been launched by two comedians. I’ve thought for a while that stand-ups have displaced preachers in popular culture. They spend a lot of time reflecting on the way humans behave, and in observational comedy it’s the jokes that are true to life which connect with people and move them to laugh.
Jones and Evans are most at home running a show with an audience, rather than a service with a congregation, so most of the Sunday Assembly ran as a sort of thoughtful comedy show. But in the service’s most fascinating moment, Jones bravely stepped out of his comedy persona and invited us to close our eyes and imagine how we might change over the coming year.
He paused for silence and I thought to myself, he won’t be able to leave us in silence for very long, as a quiet audience to a stand-up is like green kryptonite to Superman. And sure enough, 15 seconds later he said: “Well, I don’t know how long you want to think about that for…”
He needn’t have worried, though. As far as I could see, most people were ready for some quiet thought. As far as I could see, actually, there was quite a lot in the service which you could take as religion, even if it was presented under a different name.
After some post-service tea and helping to stack the chairs, I came away liking the Sunday Assembly and I hope it does well. I missed the familiar, faith-based aspects of meeting with others, but also realised that a good percentage of church – any church – is made up of friendship, listening, singing, laughter, giving, receiving and cups of tea.
It’s good to sit with atheists in their space and feel welcome. It’s challenging to think about living better, helping often and wondering more. I think this is a place where Christians should be.
Simon Jenkins is the editor of shipoffools.com
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.