The Sunday Assembly: London’s First Atheist Church

Sunday mornings are usually a time for sleeping in, brunch, and in some circles, it’s also a time for going to church. There’s a new circle in the Sunday church-going midst, though. Maybe calling it a church is the wrong word, although this circle is meeting in a deconsecrated church. This new circle? Atheists in London. Comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans came up with the idea for an Atheist church during a road trip. The friends discussed religion and complementary and contrasting views which lead them to forming the Sunday Assembly.

From their website: “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more. Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-Atheist church.”

There was obviously a want/need for this type of congregation. Jones originally “hoped for 30 people, maybe. I was emailing people that had come to Comedy Sale [Jones’s stand-up project] in the hope they’d come along.” He was surprised when about 200 people showed up for their first Assembly.

The big question now: How does the service work? How much like a traditional Sunday morning mass is this service?

Jones and Evans mirrored it to be much like a religious service, with readings, music and singing. The house band even performed Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ during the January service. Each service is based around a theme, which includes talks and moments of reflection based on this theme. The first theme was ‘Beginnings’ and February’s theme will focus on ‘Wonder’. “If you look at your life, a lot of the memories you really hold on to are the ones characterised by wonder – the time you went for a walk and then suddenly this view turned up – [and] it’s about getting more of that in our lives,” Jones says.

Like anyone starting something new, especially with religious connotations for a group of Atheists, Jones was worried about how people would react. “I had a feeling people [would be] reluctant to close their eyes in a room full of strangers, and as soon as it happened, all I could think was, ‘Oh God, it’s going on forever, they’ll think I’m a hippy.’ But people said they’d have loved it to go on for longer.”

There has been some criticism – which is to be expected – for a group of Atheists to get together in a church and making Atheism a religion of sorts. “While Atheism, for some, is as much an identifying belief as Catholicism is for others, this is in no way the Assembly’s purpose. It takes some of the positive aspects of religious meetings and filters out the deity-duty. It is defined by what it is about – community and wonder – rather than what it is not about and does not believe in. Jones’s passion for it is clear and his delight at its success only matched by enthusiasm for where it could go.”

“We are doing our best to make them as good as possible, because you are only as good as your last Assembly,” he jokes, mimicking footballers’ post-match monotonies.

Jones believes that this could be a long lasting thing and one that might serve the needs of a community.

Image via Sunday Assembly