God keeps popping up, even where he’s banned…
The newly-formed Sunday Assembly – often dubbed, ‘The Atheist Church’ – has enjoyed a year of dramatic growth. Beginning in an old church building and adopting many elements of the Christian service format, it tends to provoke a range of reactions from churchgoers. Some treat it like an enemy gang that is moving in on the Church’s turf, but the new one in Brighton is being set up by a Christian.
Christian influence runs surprisingly deep inside the heart of the Assembly, as I discovered when I met the founders, comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.
The two are highly complementary: Jones is as loud and unmissable as his huge beard, while Evans is quieter and more subtle in her presentation. Jones has been strongly atheist since his mother died, when he was only ten years old, but Evans comes from a Christian family and used to attend events like Soul Survivor and New Wine.
Early in our conversation, when Jones begins to talk about his interest in atheism and philosophy, Evans interrupts him: “Sanderson can talk quite happily for hours about atheism and I really don’t have much interest in that at all. I feel like a lot of people feel, that I don’t like to have a label of that kind.
“When I introduce myself, I say, ‘I’m Pippa and I’m a comedian’ or ‘ I don’t believe in God, but sometimes I wonder,’ or whatever. It’s not how I define myself; my point is the community and bringing things together.”
Jones backs her up. “On my computer there’s this document, which is called ‘Godless Church: Beliefs (first draft)’,” a title that draws a guffaw from the pair. “It says we’re a rationalist, secular, humanist, atheist church.
“Then Pippa comes along and says, ‘I don’t like any of those words,’ which was really good, because then we set it up as a celebration of life: ‘Live better, help often, wonder more.’ We are here to help people fulfil their full potential.”
“Most of my Christian friends think it’s great and can really see what it is, “says Evans, as she describes how the mixed reaction of churchgoeres to the Sunday Assembly is echoed among her own family and friends. She struggles a little to describe the faith of her family, but settles on, “My parents are Church of England; let’s put it that way!
“My brother’s very religious. We talk about it a bit. My sister-in-law finds it sad that people would come to a church and not develop a relationship with God.”
She speaks warmly of the community that she grew up in. “I love going back to St. Matthew’s Church in Ealing. I know everybody there and it feels like a family. I love it, absolutely love it. “
By contrast, railing against God was almost a formative experience for Jones: “The question of whether there was or wasn’t a God wasn’t merely an academic one of this proof or that proof; it was totally linked in to my mother’s death, and that’s the major psychological event of my life.
“In many ways, the love which I lost there found a new home in loving life. I accidentally found the more I pour into it, the more I get back. Not believing in God is not the thing that makes me think, ‘Yes, this is great!’; it’s the fact that we are born and then we die.”
Despite such different backgrounds, the two found themselves on common ground one day, when sharing a car journey to a gig. (As she relates the story, Evans is quick to point out that she was headlining, while Jones only had the middle billing.)
“I don’t know how it came up, but we were talking about religion and then one of us said, ‘I’ve always wondered whether it would be possible to do church without God’ and the other said, ‘I’ve also thought whether you could do that!’”
Having the idea was much simpler than putting it into action. Jones was already fairly full-time in trying to develop a career in stand up. He did not have the time for another major project.
“Then I started doing a show, where I sold all the tickets by hand. That tried to have a community aspect. Through that show I could see how to do it,” he explains, adding, “The plan was to tour Australia doing this household show and then go round the UK and then the US and afterwards, having done all these little household things, go, ‘Surprise guys, you’re all churches!’” He gives a belly laugh.
On his return from Australia, Jones’ entreprenuerial spirit gave Evans confidence and the Sunday Assembly was born.
Growth in the movement has been swift. The first event took place in January. With the help of national press coverage, they were turning people away in February; they went to two services in March and by June they had 600 adherents and were setting up the first event in a different location.
From October, they have been looking to plant 30 assemblies as they take their “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour around the UK and beyond.
Like many aspects of the Sunday Assembly, it is another phrase hand-picked to parody faith. They learned from Hillsong where to best place songs in their service; they have started to use small groups (or ‘smoups’ as Evans calls them), they have held a harvest event and they are familiar with Rick Warren’s purpose-driven concept.
While Jones does not have Christian beliefs, he recognises their benefits and has been so impressed by what goes into a church service, that he’s copied it. “If you look at all the component parts, they’re amazing!” he enthuses. “They’re singing fantastic songs, listening to interesting talks, trying to improve yourself and help other people, and developing wonderful relationships. As a package, it’s killer! It’s all there on the shelf, we’ve just got to pick what we like!”
He even tells American supporters, “Apparently people who go to church are healthier, live longer and are happier. “
Despite having all these features, the Church is still divided and has spent 2,000 years honing the practice of getting faith wrong. Atheism has experienced smaller splits, with many on the atheistic spectrum embarrassed by more strident activists. The Sunday Assembly seems to strike a chord with the more centrist non-believers, but how will it hold together the inevitable factions that will arise if the movement grows?
The pair see this as a constructive dilemma, with Evans taking a pragmatic approach, “Would that be a bad thing? Look at the people who come. Some people love singing John Bon Jovi. Other people don’t know those songs and want somewhere a bit quieter.”
Jones takes a more philosophical line. “One reason why the differences between certain religious groups are so serious is because of the revealed nature and the cataclysmic importance of, ‘If someon’e going to die and burn in hell, it’s really important to do some of the things that happened in the name of religion.’
“Whereas for us, you could see it more like science, where there will be different groups who believe different things, but are able to get on. So, instead of seeing those branching out as schisms, they should be welcomed as product innovation.”
Halfway through my question about where the pair think the Assembly will be in five years time, Jones asserts, “It’s going to be a thousand. It’s conceivable. Each one will help other ones to grow; there’s the internet. There’s never been a better time for a good idea to spread.
“Gangnam Style is dumb, and yet everyone in the world knows it. Imagine how quickly a fantastic idea can catch the attention of the world.”
“Imagine if you were designing the Church from scratch: no received notions, the entire science at your beck and call, all concentrated on the idea of making people as happy as possible and trying to live their lives as fully as possible. Five years down the line with that notion, it’s the best thing that could have possibly ever happened to me.
When I ask how they will judge at that time whether or not the project has been worthwhile, Jones immediately rubs his thumbs against his forefingers, as if to say, “Money!” This sits a little uneasily with reported comments he has made about not taking any money from the Assembly.
“We’re going to raise some money from October to December this year, then hopefully, we’ll be able to pay ourselves salaries.” Jones explains. “Terry Pratchett said that making money from the success of his books was an ‘unavoidable consequence’ because in this line of work, it’s not bad to do good things.”
The end of that period throws up another dilemma for the movement. Evans says, “We’re having our first Christmas service and it will be interesting to see what happens there. Some people have said they don’t want to sing Christmas carols, whereas for me, you cannot have Christmas without Ding Dong Merrily on High.”