Former stand-up comedian Sanderson Jones is on a mission to take church to the godless—but will it catch on? Nick Cunard reports from inside the Sunday Assembly.
Familiarity without faith
Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones speaking at the 'secular church' in London's Conway Hall
Proceedings commence much like a regular church service: a familiar hymn with an uplifting chorus to stir the congregation from their Sunday-morning slumber. But these aren’t the lyrics of John Wesley being projected karaoke-style onto the stage screen. Instead, the assembled band are strumming along to the Beatles classic We Can Work It Out.
The priest then appears, bounding onto the stage—long-limbed, bearded and slightly manic, he cuts a hipster Jesus-meets-John-Cleese figure.
“I hope you’re ready for an hour and a bit of just celebrating that we’re alive!” he booms out to the 300 or so cheery souls assembled in London’s Conway Hall on this crisp morning.
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The austere art-deco building in central London has hosted many alternative organisations over the past 90 years or so, but none so unashamedly fun-loving and life-affirming as the Sunday Assembly.
Before he hands over to cognitive holistic therapist Gianna de Salvo for a sermon on the theme of How to Rewire Your Brain for Joy, Sanderson Jones—the preacher man and former comedian—elaborates on his and co-founder Pippa Evans’ vision.
Co-founder Sanderson Jones
“It’s like the best bits of church, but without the God part,” he says. “Sunday Assembly is a place where you can be a part of something bigger than yourself. Our motto is ‘Live better, help often and wonder more’. Ours is the creed of ‘lifefulness’. ”
True to their mission statement, the service is stirring of head, heart and soul. As well as the singing and sermon, Sunday Assembly (SA) member and teacher Kat Gibbard reflects on Aristotle’s take on joy as a pleasure that should be indulged in “guiltlessly and often”. It’s a statement that sounds vaguely sacrilegious in this context.
A couple of minutes of silent contemplation is followed by a collection to cover costs such as venue hire. Contributions are recommended on a sliding scale of £10, £5 or nothing depending on how well-paid you are, or whatever you can afford if you fall into the student or unemployed camp.
The session wraps up an hour or so later with the very appropriate Pharrell Williams hit Happy. The godless congregation are on their feet, happily worked up, while a breakaway group of six or so parishioners form a conga around the edges.
Finally, it's time for a well-earned cuppa and a slice of cake. According to Ian Joliet, who co-ordinates the Facebook group “Sunday Assembly Social”, this is the moment the real work of the SA commences. Members mingle and hatch plans to make good on SA’s imperatives to build durable and moral communities.
A global movement
A mass karaoke is often a feature of the assemblies
Scenes similar to this are being echoed in 70 chapters in over ten countries, registering total monthly congregations of around 4,000. This is no mean achievement, especially when you consider that Sanderson and Pippa only came up with the idea three years ago while en route to a gig in Edinburgh.
For all its quirky originality, the SA is not without historical precedent. Nick Spencer, research director at religion and society think tank Theos, takes the long view. He cites the example of the Ethical movement of the 1800s that broke away from the Anglican church, encouraging people to exchange a belief in God for one in the good life based around helping others.
More recently, The School of Life in London founded by TV philosopher Alain de Botton has devised the Sunday Sermons, where the educative, self-improvement element is key.
But this might be the first time anyone has attempted such a venture on a global scale—and in such a rollicking spirit. So how to explain SA’s rapid ascent to, dare one say it, cult status?
The internet is crucial, of course. Understandably, the concept of a godless church run by a couple of comedians got picked up by the press and quickly went viral. Sanderson drew on his experience working at a tech start-up to capitalise on the coverage, building an online following. But the magic ingredient that Sanderson believes explains the avalanche of inquiries is “this latent desire for community and a massive desire to help”.
“Sunday Assembly is a place where you can be a part of something bigger than yourself"
It’s a desire that fits with the zeitgeist. “If you look at open-source software and Wikipedia, people are giving so much of their time for free,” he continues. “There’s all these people participating in [group] things, giving them meaning in their lives.”
The 34-year-old is certainly leading by example. Although in his words, a “slightly misbranded” crowd-funding campaign at the start of last year failed to raise anywhere near the £500,000 target, it did provide enough funds for him to ditch the day job— a burgeoning career as a stand-up—and “go at the SA full throttle”.
Ironically, the SA has proved the perfect vehicle for his comedic sensibility. Formative experiences, such as the death of his mother when he was ten, have clearly informed his concept of the SA.
Watch Sanderson and Pippa explain the Sunday Assembly:
“Initially, it was a matter of processing deeply painful emotions and coming to terms with this vast loss,” he says. “This was replaced by a sense of feeling privileged to have known her for ten whole years—coming to this realisation made me appreciate how you have to celebrate and appreciate what’s miraculous about life.”
The bi-monthly assemblies are one of the primary mechanisms through which the SA communities are created and this credo expressed. Their activities run the whole gamut. Some are leisure-oriented (a theatre group has been a big hit) while others such as the weekly “Resolve” groups aim to offer practical help—utilising SA members’ expertise in particular areas. Sanderson availed himself of an accountant who was attached to one in order to complete his tax return.
Further afield in Portland, US, there’s a team dedicated to helping people move home. The LA chapter puts care packages together for the homeless. Closer to home, there have been link-ups with prominent charities such the Trussell Trust and its food-bank schemes.
Morals not commandments
The SA congregation bond over coffee
Although they encompass a range of activities, Sanderson regards them as “godless congregations”, or moral communities that share a core set of values and goals. Nick Spencer comments, “With the SA there’s no baggage. To many people, the church still appears stuck in the 1880s. People still have these negative associations that are incredibly hard to shake off.”
For example, there are many who find the belief element off-putting and stifling. One of the attendees to Sunday Assembly is 23-year-old Dominic Smithson, a translator from Guildford.
“I liked a lot of things about church,” he says. “The way it was multi-generational—all these people who you’d never normally meet coming together and thinking seriously about the world’s problems. But I also felt a sense of responsibility to believe. I don’t have that with the SA, which gives me more opportunity to grow as a person.”
Nevertheless, Nick Spencer isn’t convinced that the SA will be more than a passing fad. Godless congregations may ape the church in their ecclesiastical processes and practices, but Spencer doubts that “sharing a non-belief in something as your central belief” will be enough to sustain them.
But Sanderson doesn’t regard the lack of belief in God as a weakness—quite the opposite, in fact.
“We don’t talk about religion or atheism. We don’t ask anyone what they believe in. That’s not interesting to us. It’s more about what we can achieve regardless of what we believe. Our commitment to celebrating life is as transcendental as anyone’s god.”