It all started in the dark distant past of 2012. Two comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones were driving on their way to a gig. They got talking about the idea of churches, Pippa had formerly been a Christian and although she didn’t miss God, she did miss church (community, volunteering, music) and Sanderson had noticed the joy that Christmas brings carols and the like. From there was the genesis of an idea. In January 2013, at a deconsecrated church in Islington, London they held the very first Sunday Assembly. Over 200 people attended, and from there the concept of a church without the supernatural took off.
Now there are over 150 Sunday Assembly’s across the globe, in locations as varied as Dublin, Sao Paolo and even our very own Brighton. But what is Sunday Assembly? ‘Atheist church’ was an easy shorthand phrase that gave Sunday Assembly press attention in the early days, Brighton congregant Gareth Dee tells me there’s a little bit more to it than that. “There’s a definite bend towards being scientific, and most people are – at least to some extent – atheist. But that’s not to say people who do believe aren’t welcome. One of the things I love about Sunday Assembly is how inclusive it is. It’s for things. Not against things. The three fundamental tenets are ‘Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.’” With messages as agreeable and uncontroversial as this, it’s easy to see why Sunday Assembly has proven popular, and easy to see why an open-minded and welcoming city like Brighton would embrace an open-minded and welcoming movement like Sunday Assembly.
The general structure of an Assembly is fairly similar to a regular church service. “It usually features speeches from a variety of speakers, either members of the congregation or from outside.” Previously, speakers from TEDx and the European Court have spoken to the Brighton congregation. Which isn’t all that dissimilar to a sermon, equally they also sing songs. Although rather than a hymn book, these songs come from sources as varied as Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ and The Jungle Book. “There’s something really nice about 150 people singing the Bare Necessities.”
As you can see, Sunday Assembly are looking to provide something a little different. This extends to the kinds of places that you find them. Gareth first ran into them at a festival last year. “It was raining really hard, so I ran for a tent because it was the only dry place. They had Sunday Assembly, who were just starting out, at this tent. Due to the rain it had sent a load of people inside of the tent. And the result of this is that it ended up with some 2500 people singing along to theme tune of Flash Dance. It gave an amazing sense of camaraderie. Then the guy came out to explain what Sunday Assembly is, what Sunday Assembly is for. It was fantastic, there was a real sense of humour about it, a sense of trying to do something different. It was brilliant…. And I guess I was filled by the spirit of not-God. It was a really lovely moment.”
Conventional church numbers have declined over the years, due to the rise of secularism. But with that it can mean that there’s a loss of community. Research shows that community and social relationships are hugely important, and a lack of them can prove damaging to your health and wellbeing. Sunday Assembly provides that sense of community, without the religiousity of a traditional church. This is something echoed by what Gareth tells me “I’ve met a lot of interesting people from all walks of life. It’s quite rare to have a situation where there’s people from young children all through to 80 year olds all in one place in modern society… I really like it – that aspect of community that I probably haven’t really had.”
If you’re interested in Sunday Assembly, in seeing what they offer, or just looking for a good excuse to hear some interesting speakers and sing to some songs, they hold a monthly service on every fourth Sunday of the month at St Andrews Church, Waterloo Street – a deconsecrated church in Hove. They also have monthly meet-ups every third Thursday of the month at the Earth and Stars pub – a location choice that shows the fun and relaxed outlook of Sunday Assembly. In addition to these monthly meetings, Sunday Assembly also run wellbeing classes and smaller meetings, and increasingly, are taking a role in helping the wider Brighton community. “We’ve collected money for the Harvest Festival this year, and we’ve got food together to help out the food banks in Brighton. And going into next year we’re looking to have a more dedicated charity area.”
The Sunday Assembly’s message of acceptance, love and community may not be new ones, although stripping of them of deism makes them more palatable to many. But as their ongoing popularity shows, they are still messages that are important in the modern age. “It’s a friendly structure that gives you something to belong to.”