Sunday Assembly Brighton, a space for community and connection, turns 10 this Sept

It’s a Tuesday evening when I call the founder of Sunday Assembly Brighton, Joanna McQueen. She works in a hospital and has just finished a day of work, yet she has an invincible passion and energy in her voice when she begins her story. Jo tells me all about community, feeling inspired, being brave, learning, and celebrating being human; everything which Sunday Assembly represents. 

Sunday Assembly began a decade ago when two comedians – Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – decided that they wanted to create a space dedicated to the feelings of connection and belonging that Church offered, without the religious content.

It was February 2013 when McQueen found herself listening to Jones speak about this ambition. As someone who liked going to Church for the sense of communal gathering, but was not necessarily a believer of the faith, she resonated immediately. Jones was asking people nationwide to set up a Sunday Assembly group as a pilot scheme and Brighton seemed like the perfect place, thought McQueen. 

After hearing this on the radio, McQueen considered putting her name forward to help out, not initially intending to lead the group. It was only when she discovered she was the only one to come forward that McQueen stepped out of her comfort zone and agreed to meet Jones to discuss the first meeting. The Brighton group became two of Jones’ friends – Stuart and Anita – plus one of McQueen’s friends, and it was May/June time when they began to establish how to format the meetings. 

SAB at Spiegeltent 2017

The premise of Sunday Assembly is to bring people together for a shared activity, by hearing insightful talks, and by supporting local charities to overall improve wellbeing.

It is about connection and community, and how reducing social isolation and loneliness improves health and life-expectancy. The London groups would have a guest speaker lead a talk, sing two or three uplifting pop songs, and finish with tea, cake and general chat. Brighton followed suit. 

Then, in September 2013, Sunday Assembly Brighton had their first ever service with Mark Stevenson as the guest speaker. Stevenson is an advisor, an entrepreneur, a writer and a futurenaut. He is interested in questions about the future and “ways to make the world more equitable, sustainable and just.”

The theme for the introductory week was apt – beginnings. They were located at St Andrews Church in Hove (which was no longer being used as a Church) and pre-empted that a few people would turn up feeling curious. They did not know what sort of audience they would attract, and exactly what to expect, but what they certainly hadn’t imagined was over 200 people gathering. Imagine the surge of reassurance that washed over McQueen when she realised  that this was something the community and individuals evidently needed.

Now, Sunday Assembly Brighton meets on the second Sunday each month at 11am, at Middle Street School.

It is a place to meet people and relate to the sense of being human without division. Belief does not matter and financial position is not a barrier because attendance is free. It is purely an opportunity to be connected to others without judgement and no skills required. 

One of the main aims of Sunday Assembly is to reduce social isolation, so the services understandably became more important than ever during the global pandemic. They therefore continued to run online, still learning, inspiring and comforting each other. Since the pandemic, sharing experiences and ideas remains important as people continue to work from home or choose to remain isolated. McQueen uses the analogy that children are forced to step outside of their comfort zones because they have to attend school even if they are anxious about going. Children are often encouraged to go to extra-curricular activities by their parents; to do new things and socialise. In comparison, adults have the choice, and often, it is easier for us to opt out of situations that are unfamiliar to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

There can be benefits from persevering, being brave and ‘rumbling with vulnerability, as Brene Brown calls it.

However, the benefits of choosing discomfort is ultimately enlightening. Topics of discussion at the services include loss, mental health, journeys, differences, solidarity, conflict, money, and a whole decade of other themes. They are all themes centred around acknowledging that one is not alone, and sharing the positive experiences relating to these topics. Services are about accepting that it is okay to have fears, worries, and insecurities. The very discomfort you feel about stepping into the unknown and turning up is the thing that unites attendees, like a first day at work or first time in the gym. 

Generally, the theme for each month is chosen by hearing somebody speak at a local event, and then building the theme around that individual. It is asked that speakers are never critical or divisive, but passionate and positive.

The speaker’s purpose is to be relatable and make people feel welcome, accepted, or included. 

Then, during our phone call, the word ritual pops up. How much can ritual be applied to the ideas and service of Sunday Assembly? At first thought, McQueen considers that there is no lighting of a candle or strict regime – ritual in this sense. Instead, she pulls up a quote from wonderful member of the Sunday Assembly team and Humanist Celebrant, Charlotte Williams, 

“Although the majority of us have moved away from religion as scaffolding for our lives and societies, the need for togetherness and ritual is paramount, and the lack of it, if you ask me, is why we are in an epidemic of loneliness. In my work, and at Sunday Assembly I am to create spaces where we create our own rituals that work for us.” 

The rituals Sunday Assembly create consist of “singing together, breathing together and repeating activities” to develop “feelings of safety and help with emotional regulation.” Williams says that ritual is essential for humans to survive. Sunday Assembly uses the same structure: “we create a space where people know who we are, know each other and can gather and do what we have done for millennia but in a modern way that feels right for us as a community.” Repetition, therefore, is something to be considered a familiarity and comfort, rather than something mundane or even obligatory. 

Sunday Assembly Brighton is run by a group of volunteers, like Williams, who have turned up to offer whatever skills they can, mostly just armed with a sense of willingness to help.

McQueen says, “we are always looking for people to get involved, whether that is to say hello to new people when they arrive, to bring a cake to share, to find speakers for an interesting talk, to help set out chairs, or to play in the band….please let us know at one of our events if you would like to know more.” While attendance is free, there is always a chance to pop any change into the collection. Raised money goes towards equipment (like a projector for the group) and, in recent years, has been donated to a charity based on the monthly theme. 

For the perfect way to find out more about Sunday Assembly Brighton, attend yourself on Sun 10 September and celebrate their ten year birthday.

Starting at 11am, the party will not be held at their usual venue, but rather, at Platf9rm in Hove Town Hall. The team at PLATF9RM are very excited to support the ethos of connection and community, and to host this special anniversary edition. Guests can expect an inspiring talk, lively songs with the house band, science, quiet reflection, and tea and cake. The highlight of the day will be the return of their first guest speaker, Mark Stevenson. As a taster, you can listen to him with Jon Richardson and Ed Gillespie on their podcast: ‘Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts: how to survive the future’. 

Get free tickets to their birthday celebration at www.SAB10.eventbrite.co.uk

There are now eight Sunday Assembly Groups in the UK, twelve in the US, and two in Australasia with locations including Sydney, San Diego, Los Angeles, Nashville. To see a map, and a complete list of groups that have existed over the decade, go to www.sundayassembly.org/map

Why Connection and Community is Important to Human Wellbeing

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