Going to atheist church

A new kind of church opened its doors early in January. The Sunday Assembly met at a deconsecrated church in north London and rather than offer its flock hymns and prayers, instead got them to sing pop songs such as Build Me Up, Buttercup, and to spend time thinking of how they might live better lives in the year ahead.

However, tea and biscuits, that other staple of church life, remained very much on the menu. As did the sermon, which was provided by a children’s book author.

The biggest departure from traditional church, though, is that the Sunday Assembly has no God. Describing itself as ‘part atheist church and part foot-stomping show’, the church is the brainchild of two stand-up comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, who recognise the value provided by local church communities, even though they have no religious faith themselves.

Sanderson Jones recently took part in a radio discussion about the Sunday Assembly on Unbelievable? the Saturday afternoon show on Premier Radio. He was joined by Scottish church minister David Robertson, who writes for the Solas website.

Jones confessed that he went to church as a child when he lived on the borders of Scotland, and said there is something wonderful and powerful about people coming together.

‘The one problem for me is that I don’t believe. But just because I don’t believe doesn’t mean I can’t have access to transcendental feelings, or have somewhere to go where I can concentrate on improving my life. If you’re someone who is weak – as I am! – you need all the help you can get, and that help can come from a community.’

The creative spark for The Sunday Assembly, which meets every month, happened when Jones and Evans were on a car journey together and discovered they were both drawn to the idea of church without religion.

‘We were so bored of the teenage atheists,’ said Jones. ‘In our comedy circuit, no one believes in God. So whenever you hear someone who thinks they’re making a real stand against religion – well, you know what, you’re not being rebellious at all!’

David Robertson pointed out that this is not the first time atheist church has been attempted. ‘In the 19th century, there were socialist Sunday schools and socialist churches in most of Britain’s big cities.’ But those groupings were held together by the ideals of socialism, he said.

‘So what unifies you?’ he asked Jones. ‘What’s the common purpose that brings you together?’

‘We’re here to live better, help often and wonder more,’ said Jones. ‘When many people hear about atheism, they think it sounds cold and intellectual. But my relationship with no God is very different. You’re here for a very brief time and when it ends you’re going to be pitched into the most inky blackness, of no senses, no love, no feeling, none of the higher things that humans are capable of. So if you start to think of it in those terms, every single moment of your life now becomes suffused with wonder and the smallest thing can be almost transcendental.’

Jones concluded: ‘However, it’s hard to connect with that, so part of what we are doing is to encourage people to realise it.’

For the full conversation, listen to Unbelievable? with Sanderson Jones and David Robertson, hosted by Justin Brierley.

Also read a first-hand account of the Sunday Assembly’s first service by Simon Jenkins.

Photo: The organisers of The Sunday Assembly meet with CERN particle physicist Harry Cliff, speaker at the February 2013 meeting of the church. Left to right: Harry Cliff, Pippa Evans, Sanderson Jones and Jo Hunter. Photo by Simon Jenkins