Pippa Evans & Sanderson Jones interview: How great thou aren’t
Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, founders of the Sunday Assembly, talk to Stephen Tomkins about godless church
In the March issue of Reform, we had a review of the first meeting of the Sunday Assembly – a surprising idea from the comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones: a church for people who don’t believe in God.
Since then, they have spread their branches as far as New York and Melbourne, and by the end of their first year expect to have 35 congregations. They have received 1,600 requests from people who want a local branch near them. The London meeting sees between 200 and 600 people on a Sunday. They are currently on a crowdfunded tour of three continents, “40 Dates and 40 Nights”.*
A success story like this may or may not mean they have divine anointing. What it certainly means is that godless church is a movement worth paying attention to. What exactly is it, why is it, and what does it reveal about the changing shape of faith in our world? Reform met the pair in, of all places, a club for retired variety performers in Covent Garden, for some interfaith dialogue.
For a lot of western Christians today, the faith may be great, but they draw the line at going to church. You do it the other way round – yes to church, no to faith. Why?
Pippa Evans: Is that true of most Christians? I know a lot of people who go to church – Christian church – not because they believe in God but because they want the community. To me the strength of the church is the community. The reason we do it is to offer the option that doesn’t involve the praying and the godliness.
Sanderson Jones: You get some mild hand-wringing about: “What can we learn from the success of the Sunday Assembly?” “Obviously we’re not clearly communicating the message well enough,” or: “We just haven’t got the whole Jesus thing over to people.” But I think that however much you get that over, if there’s a load of people who don’t believe in God, then that’s a stumbling block. There are a lot of people who still want to have the community and all the great things that churches do.
Is there something that churches can learn from the success of the Sunday Assembly?
PE: I don’t know. We’ve taken so much from the church! Our background is performance, so we know how to put on a show. I think that’s why we’ve been successful in putting together Sunday Assembly. But it’s amazing how many people get in touch saying: “I had this idea but I didn’t know how to go about it,” or “I never got round to it.” So I think the secret of the Sunday Assembly is a lot of people have had this idea, it’s just that we were the people to put it together.
SJ: A lot of humanist organisations and atheists have been battling for so long with an idea, but have no idea how to turn it into a community. So I reckon they’ve probably got more to learn from us than church. It’s not like this is our skill set. Apparently some vicars go to schools to learn how to do it!
PE: But we do have bits of the skills. I think comedy’s been a great training ground.
SJ: If you want to teach people how to lead services, they should go to a stand-up comedy session and hit the open mike circuit and learn how to engage people who don’t feel they have to be there.
Is the Sunday Assembly modelled upon anything?
SJ: We got inspiration from many places.
PE: But the basic format is a church service/school assembly.
SJ: And TED talks. And just trying to make it an emotional experience, you know. It’s entertaining but it’s not entertainment. There is a serious moral purpose to it. Except we don’t really like saying the words “serious moral purpose”. But underneath it all, this is life, we get a tiny little blip of consciousness – at least that’s what I think – and imagine how thrilling it would be if we could look back and say we helped people make the most of it. That would be amazing.
Did you have experience of Christian church in your younger days?
PE: I went to church till I was 17. What I call “classic church” when I was a kid – with a proper old-school vicar with a white dress. Then I had a friend at school who went to a happy-clappy church, so I started going to the youth group, and from the age of 11 to 17 I was proper into church, got baptised, preached on Haven Green, ran the Sunday school. Then I started questioning, and I just stopped believing in God. And when I left I realised it wasn’t God that I missed or Jesus, it was church. I really missed church.
So you’re trying to recapture that community?
PE: It’s just basically nostalgia! I still love going to church with my parents. I feel really awkward during prayers and communion, but I love the fact that I know everyone there.
Sanderson, you haven’t had the same background.
SJ: Well, I went to chapel five times a week at school, but in that slightly reluctant: “I’m going to sing any word which could possibly be taken rudely a little bit louder and slightly resent it,” way. My mother was very religious so I went to church a lot up until the age of 10. But I’d already started to have doubts; then when my mum died I stopped going to church at all. That meant that for me, not believing in God was not an academic issue – it was all bundled up into: “What is life? Where’s my mum?” It became a very emotional issue and that’s why I connect to being alive so strongly.
What made you feel that you wanted this community/event?
SJ: About six years ago I left a Christmas carol concert, and thought: “I like so many of the bits of it, it’s such a shame that at the centre there is something I don’t believe in.” But I love the singing, I love the community, I love the stories, I love the wanting to improve yourself and help other people. And I thought how cool would it be if at the middle was a celebration of being alive. Because that for me is as transcendental as any religious experience. Give me half a minute and nothing much to worry about, and I think I can have a personal relationship with being alive. Which would look very similar to someone having a mystical relationship with God.
You have a “community mission”. What form does that take?
PE: We’ve got a really great team of people working for us to find projects to join in on. The idea was to get people to help make Sunday Assembly work, and then go and help existing projects in the local community and then start our own projects. We had our harvest festival: we collected tins and gave them to the foodbank. Then in October we don’t have a Sunday service in London, we’re going to clean up an area. We’re working on it, Steve.
Has there been a high point?
PE: The first one not being a complete flop was amazing. And the “Wonder & Joy” shows – what we call the Pentecostal Sunday Assembly.
SJ: Pentecostal humanism! We invented it. Everyone was screaming and shaking their arms around.
PE: The idea was to get to secular mass hysteria by the end of it. We got there, almost. There was one time they wouldn’t stop screaming which was really exciting. Everyone got this wonderful buzz and then left.
Is the hysteria ironic or genuine?
SJ: I genuinely feel that. I genuinely feel that excited.
Have you had much flak?
PE: We’ve had a lot of people recently saying we’re going to go to hell. So tell your readers: “We already know!”
SJ: A lot of atheists have given us a lot of abuse on Twitter, because apparently the way we don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God.
Do you get why some atheists are upset?
PE: I suppose, because we’re not campaigning for atheism, it probably feels closer to church than to atheism as we know it. When we did the first Sunday service a couple of very militant atheists came along who were quite angry that it wasn’t like a rally. We tried to explain that Sunday Assembly is about celebrating being alive. Sunday Assembly is about what we can all do together regardless of whether you believe in God or not. What we all have in common is life. Our aim was that anybody should be able to come to a Sunday Assembly and not feel ostracised by what they believe in.
SJ: On the other side, there’s a lot of people who might have had very bad experiences with religion. It’s one thing for me – who last went to church in earnest aged 10 and had quite a few years to go through different levels of relationship with religion – to finally get to a place of seeing good things about it; but if you’ve been abused by a priest, if you’ve been brought up in a Mormon family and not had connections with the outside world, I can imagine you might go: “Oh yeah? I think I’ll reserve my judgment on anything which smells like church!”
PE: There’s a big debate we’re having at the moment about Christmas. We both love Christmas.
SJ: Really want to sing hymns.
PE: I will sing any Christmas carol and I won’t mind about the lyrics. To me they’re just words, in the same way as – an example that Sanderson often uses – you wouldn’t not look at a painting of Jesus, just because you don’t believe in Jesus.
SJ: And also people sing these pop songs, like: “I need a hero.” Do you? Do you need a hero right now till the morning is light?
So you haven’t been around quite long enough to have your first church splits yet, but you can see where they come from.
PE: We have. We don’t want to be in charge of everyone, but if someone goes to Sunday Assembly here and someone goes to Sunday Assembly in Newcastle, we want them to have a similar experience. So we wrote some guidelines, but Birmingham felt like they were too controlling so they split. What are they called now?
SJ: The Birmingham Secular Fellowship.
PE: It is very much like that scene in Life of Brian
SJ: I think it’s really healthy. The great thing about there not being a heaven and hell is that it never takes on existential threats.
Are you an event or a movement?
PE: That’s an interesting question. I think we’re a movement. We didn’t know we were going to be a movement. It’s happened very quickly. We seem to be running a movement. How did that happen? I’m not sure our agents are very happy.
SJ: I never did earn much money for my agent anyway.
I feel it really ought to be possible to discuss atheism without mentioning You Know Who. What do you think of the public profile of atheism today?
SJ: It’s in a very interesting place at the moment. Atheism’s so big. There are certain strands within it which are more accepting of things like community and the power of the irrational and the emotional. There are even people who are looking at religion as not necessarily just, as Richard Dawkins put it, a parasite. For me it’s a shame that I even have to use the word “atheism”.
PE: Yep. I find it dull, really dull, as a topic. It’s not a badge I particularly want to wear. I’m not fighting for atheism, I’m trying to get a community together. I find talking about atheism dull.
Does it matter to you at all as a positive thing then? Is it a good thing if someone puts religious belief behind them and embraces “the infinite emptiness”?
SJ: I would say: “The infinite richness of this one life lived more than is possible to anyone who thinks they’ve got anything happening afterwards”. Like when you’re in a restaurant and you’re having something which is just sensational, and the closer you get to the end of it the better it tastes, and you’re savouring every single thing because it’s all you’ve got.
So it does matter.
SJ: For me, I find that I get so much from thinking of the luck that we have in being alive. I think there are just as many nice and happy people who are religious. But life lived without religion can be utterly fantastic
This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Reform.