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Photo of the service at the Sunday Assembly
Church for atheists

Posted on 08 January 2013, 2:40

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you took the religion out of a Sunday church service.

For stratospherically religious services, the kind which run on gallons of incense, with bells ringing, deacons bowing, jewelled crosses being marched from A to B and priests scuttling behind screens, there wouldn’t be much left without the religion, of course, aside from the after-service gin.

But for a low church service, with vicars in cardigans, lots of chat from the front, jokes in the sermons and a spot or two of worsh-u-tainment from the band, religion could quietly slip out of a side door without anyone really noticing it had buggered off.

I got the chance to test out a religionless church yesterday when I went to the opening service of The Sunday Assembly, London’s new atheist church. The church was dreamed up by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans who discovered on a car journey they were both interested in starting a local community for ‘anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more’.

Sunday’s service was in a big, old deconsecrated church in Canonbury, north London. The choice of building was quite brilliant. It had blistered plasterwork, crumbling gothic arches, gloriously shabby walls and basically looked like a set for a film called Wreck of Christianity II.

It’s not often that I’ve ever had to queue up to get into church, but amazingly 250 other curious souls had turned up for the service and there was a bottleneck at the door. Once inside I found a seat, but at least half the congregation sat on the floor, stood at the back or perched up in the precarious-looking balcony.

A small band – just like in real church! – was warming up at the front, led by Pippa Evans who launched into singing the service’s theme song in a voice which reminded me of Millicent Martin opening satire show That Was The Week That Was back in the 60s.

Sanderson Jones, sporting red trousers and a bright tie, took to the stage and led the service with energy verging on the Pentecostal and comedy which was genuinely funny. He is several inches over six feet tall and has the kind of long, fundamentalist beard which makes his claim, ‘I’m not trying to start a cult,’ flat-out unbelievable.

I only say that because he pointed it out himself, to a lot of laughter from the congregation. And then he added, ‘But that’s exactly the sort of thing I’d say if I was starting a cult.’

We stood to sing our first hymn. I was hoping it would be that rousing old Victorian standard, ‘At the name of Dawkins, Every knee shall bow…’ but instead we had Sam Cooke’s ‘Don’t know much about history, Don’t know much biology…’

It struck me as an ironic choice, since atheism stakes its claim on knowing a heap of stuff about history, biology, science book, etc. But then The London Assembly turned out to be refreshingly unpushy about its atheism.

As a believer myself I felt perfectly OK listening to the reading (an extract from Teddy Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech), singing the other two hymns (‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’) and putting something in the collection.

The collection was notable, actually. I’ve never heard anyone actually thank a congregation for what they’ve just given. Jones was overwhelmed by the response and thanked us all very warmly. It was one of several rewarding moments when the Sunday Assembly shone and which revealed the tiredness of church as I know it.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the service has been launched by two comedians. I’ve thought for a while that standups have displaced preachers in popular culture. They spend a lot of time reflecting on the way humans behave, and in observational comedy it’s the jokes that are true to life which connect with people and move them to laugh.

Jones and Evans are most at home running a show with an audience, rather than a service with a congregation, so most of The Sunday Assembly ran as a sort of thoughtful comedy show. But in the service’s most fascinating moment, Jones bravely stepped out of his comedy persona and invited us to close our eyes and imagine how we might change over the coming year.

He paused for silence and I thought to myself, he won’t be able to leave us in silence for very long, as a quiet audience to a standup is like green kryptonite to Superman. And sure enough, 15 seconds later he said, ‘Well, I don’t know how long you want to think about that for…’

He needn’t have worried, though. As far as I could see, most people were ready for some quiet thought. As far as I could see, actually, there was quite a lot in the service which you could take as religion, even if it was presented under a different name.

After some post-service tea and helping to stack the chairs, I came away liking the Sunday Assembly and I hope it does well. I missed the familiar, faith-based aspects of meeting with others, but also realised that a good percentage of church – any church – is made up of friendship, listening, singing, laughter, giving, receiving and cups of tea.

It’s good to sit with atheists in their space and feel welcome. It’s challenging to think about living better, helping often and wondering more. I think this is a place where Christians should be.

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Hang on, you were there Simon, and Madeleine Davies was also there, reviewing it for the Church Times.

Were there actually any atheists there, or just Christian journalists? ;-)

Tom, Mon 14 Jan, 18:45

Fascinating… most non-church folk think of ‘religion’ in Anglican or Catholic terms. As a humble non-conformist I reckon I’d also be comfortable in the kind of ‘church’ you discovered. It sounds like a regular ‘down with the kids’ evangelical Baptist gathering to me.

And it probably won’t be long before they find they need ‘deacons’ and ‘elders’ to simply facilitate the nitty-gritty of ‘worship’. It’s like Animal Farm all over again… before long you won’t be able to tell the pretenders from the real thing.

David Stuckey, Sun 13 Jan, 15:42

“...the Greek word ekklesia (‘church’ in the New Testament) means ‘assembly’”.

However, the word ‘church’ itself has a different origin. There are several pages about it in OED, but here is a brief summary from Merrriam-Webster:

church \‘chərch\  n [ME chirche, fr. OE cirice, ultim. fr. LGk kyriakon, fr. Gk, neut. of kyriakos of the lord, fr. kyrios lord, master

That clearly has a more religious connotation than a mere assembly, methinks.

Brian Barratt, Thu 10 Jan, 16:25

This could prefigure a sort of ordinariate for very liberal types. Let’s grant them observer status at General Synod. They’ll need a bishop, but that can be ‘arranged’, an archdeacon for whacking them if they dare a religious thought, suitably gendered people to run the show locally, a committee and loads of rotas. After a spot of schism, they’ll feel fully like us and we can appoint their bishop as a flying bishop… and orf we go again… ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.

Canon Peter, Thu 10 Jan, 15:15

There’s already a community gathering for those who have a more skeptical outlook on such things and wish to engage in social functions with others of a like minded mentality, and it comes without the sing-song cringeathon and imitation ritual of this assembly – it’s called Skeptics in the Pub.

SitP seems a lot more relaxed, a lot more sociable and a lot less structurally enforced than this pseudo-service that attempts to ape the worst aspects of a church service; namely the awful groupthink singing and the enforced periods of silence. Ritualised gatherings inevitably end up creating dogma and tradition, exactly the kind of things that secularism is intended to challenge.

If people are so desperate to claw back some of the social aspects they lost or feel is missing by not being part of a church, then they’re just being honest about the real reason churches exist. There’s no need to copy their structural formalities to get that feeling back.

Nathan, Thu 10 Jan, 14:50

If there was chair-stacking afterwards, it was definitely a church function. I’m not sure I’ve ever attended or created a church function that did not involve stacking chairs afterwards.

Nancy, Wed 9 Jan, 17:52

Sue, your comment baffles me. I am a vegetarian for environmental reasons, and yes, I eat ‘imitation meat’ – it allows me to easily adapt recipes initially intended for meat-eaters, it’s tasty, and it’s a lot better for the planet than cow farming. I’m allowed to disagree with certain aspects of the meat industry without automatically having to shun everything that resembles meat in any way. Just as these people are allowed to disagree with the religious aspects of church while still wanting a space for quiet reflection and a sense of community.

Anna, Wed 9 Jan, 06:06

Thanks for doing this Simon. I found your observations sensitive and insightful.

I think it’s important to stand outside our own tradition and to mix and mingle with others who are trying to gather and seek in some way. Whatever their stated belief (and truth is many of us Christians are technical atheists anyway!) these people are forming connections and it seems to me that in those human connections something else happens… is that God, well, who knows, perhaps it’s the within of everything as someone famous might have said.

Sande Ramage, Wed 9 Jan, 01:21

It can’t be called ‘church’ because that word means ‘spirit’. The Circle is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Circe, Circle, Church…

Sally Elizabeth Darley, Tue 8 Jan, 23:39

‘Atheists are still human and obviously crave the community spirit that is offered by the church.’ I wonder whether/if other secular groups provide for this need or not. Most seem to cater for a particular age group (e.g. U3A) or special interest (e.g. music), more rare to find one that is suitable for everyone to attend. Church (sacred or secular) may well have cornered the market here.

Chorister, Tue 8 Jan, 23:22

Thanks, Simon, for this stimulating review. As a former pagan/atheist turned pastor (and consummate lover of comedy), I find a gathering of atheists under the guise of ‘church’ fascinating. I do wonder, however, at what point will the ‘ministers’ at this church run out of Sunday morning material. After all, giving the same comedy bit as one travels from place to place is easy compared to coming up with a fresh message each week for the same crowd. I wonder when they will run out of material and actually crack open a Bible ‘just for the fun of it’? My prayer is that such a thing might just happen. After all, God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise…

Chris Chandler, Tue 8 Jan, 22:52

Wow, please don’t exaggerate for effect, especially when you’re putting so many traditions together in one amorphous lump. Your critique is partially valid for a good number of churches but utterly irrelevant for many others, and there are plenty of problems with high church traditions too that you seem happy to skip over. I’m a low church preacher and Jesus has never been my boyfriend – there you go, in the reading of these words it’s become part of your experience too.

Pete Brazier, Tue 8 Jan, 20:41

Pete Brazier… I can’t say whether there’s less of God in low church, but having experienced both ends of the spectrum (and a lot in between) I think there is a problem with some chap standing at the mic with his hands in his pockets and chatting about how his mate God found him a parking space, and then all of us singing some musically wretched piece which treats Jesus as though he’s our boyfriend.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but I’ve imbibed a lot of low church in my life, and for me the penny finally dropped that this approach is debased, secular and unbiblical. Your mileage may vary, of course, but that’s been my experience.

Simon, Tue 8 Jan, 19:14

As an atheist, I think this is a great idea. I don’t believe that the people in this congregation turned up to mock the church and christianity, as a few people have suggested.

A lot of people are atheist simply because they prefer to rely on the scientific method, reason and evidence to explain the world around them. Atheists are still human and obviously crave the community spirit that is offered by the church. I see nothing wrong with an ‘atheist church’ and think it’s a great concept. Helping others and being part of a community who share the same outlook on life is a natural part of being human, in my opinion.

Stu, Tue 8 Jan, 18:45

I thought your comment on the links between this ‘worship’ event and what happens in many evangelical/low church services was very insightful. It seems to me that UK style atheism has many of its roots in the non-conformist Christian tradition anyway.

Jon Goode, Tue 8 Jan, 18:16

Really interesting article – particularly intrigued by the idea of thanking people for for the collection. Slightly worried though that faith and ritual seems to have got muddled up in your use of the word ‘religion’. Are you under the impression that there is less of God in ‘low’ Church?

Pete Brazier, Tue 8 Jan, 18:10

Fascinating, and well worth taking note of. This is exciting for the church – it’s further evidence that people crave community, encouragement and challenge in their lives. These people are hungry for what church offers, they just don’t know the heart of it. I think it’s exciting that people are once again starting to connect with ideas of community and personal challenge.

The question now is to us in the church – what is it that makes our gatherings different, what does having God and his mission as our purpose for our gatherings mean? (Please note I am NOT calling for a new gimmick or activity). Community, challenge and generosity are not just extra add ons to church, they’re part of its purpose and I think they’re things God created us to crave and enjoy. I’m excited that these guys are initiating an opportunity for people to connect with that, the challenge to us in the church is how do our gatherings differ – how does worship, listening to God and submitting ourselves to his call on our lives transform our gatherings and our communities? Are we confident that if these people came to one of our gatherings they would experience a difference – a freedom, a love and a hope that was lacking from this gathering?

I think this is brilliant, an exciting insight into our culture and it’s certainly challenged me to consider the significance of and hunger for both community and faith.

Pippa, Tue 8 Jan, 18:03

Sounds interesting.

I wonder, though, whether this is religion – in the sense of repeated rituals, steps to be followed to achieve a better life etc. It just hasn’t got there yet because it has only happened once.

Is it religion they are avoiding, or God? Sounds to me like this service is the beginning of a religious gathering without God.

It also seems a bit odd to me that they want to do all the things we do but without the fundamental reason behind it all. Why not do their own thing? In some senses it feels a little bit like a mocking of Christian church.

Rach, Tue 8 Jan, 17:11

From the website:

“There is a great diversity within the Quakers on conceptions of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God which is similar to that of orthodox Christians, and would use similar language. Others are happy to use God-centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some describe themselves as agnostics, or humanists, or non-theists and describe their experiences in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely. Quaker faith is built on experience and Quakers would generally hold that it is the spiritual experience which is central to Quaker worship, and not the use of a particular form of words (whether that be “God” or anything else).”

Chorister, Tue 8 Jan, 16:43

Interesting so many turned up. Think it is about identifying with a group who have the same belief system. We all desire to connect to some degree whether we are intros/extros with people who potentially understand us. Interesting though no one objected to the title atheist ‘church’?

Rebecca, Tue 8 Jan, 16:43

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