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27th Jan 2013 1:56pm | By Alasdair Morton
A packed congregation gathers at London’s first atheist ‘church’, where worship comes second to community and soul searching
People usually adhere to one of a handful of rituals on a Sunday morning – singing hymns in church for the religious-minded, hitting the pitch for five-a-side, or diving for the paracetamol to combat the previous night’s hangover.
Now you can add London’s first atheist church, The Sunday Assembly, to that list, which has started holding monthly ‘services’ for the ungodly.
The brainchild of comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, The Sunday Assembly is a meeting that sets out to help us “live better, help often and wonder more”.
Reflecting on our own lives and how we relate to others, and what we could do to improve both, it takes the best things about religious services, but scythes out the man upstairs, whatever form he, she or it may take.
And while there is undoubtedly a deep irony in a godless congregation being led by a man who couldn’t look more like Jesus even if he turned Thames Water’s stocks into glorious Cabernet, it is a noble, ambitious, soul-invigorating, and surprisingly successful proposition.
Held at deconsecrated church The Nave in north London, it captured Londoners’ hearts and minds when it launched this month, clearly meeting a spiritual desire and longing for community that was previously present but not served.
The enormous popularity from the outset surprised everyone involved, not least Jones himself.
“The response has been overwhelming,” he tells us, the excitement in his voice bubbling to the surface.
“I have done so many events in London over the last five years that I thought were interesting, but most of the time you’re farting into the wind.
We had the first Sunday Assembly and hoped for 30 people, maybe.
I was emailing people that had come to [Jones’s stand-up project] Comedy Sale in the hope they’d come along, but there were so many people there, a lot of whom we had no idea who they were.”
Jones’s and Evans’s earnest ambitions were met with a 200-strong congregation.
The idea for an atheist church had been circulating in Jones’s mind for some time, but it was only during a car journey with Evans, as the two discussed religion and their similar but not always matching opinions on it, that they decided to launch the Assembly.
Comedy Sale had been built around a community, as Jones hand-sold tickets for his stand-up shows and encouraged meet-ups for those who attended.
“Then I thought: ‘If they are meeting for a party, wouldn’t it be good if we found some projects to work on, too?’”
Convinced to stop procrastinating, he set about getting the Assembly going, and modifying as he saw fit once his baby was alive.
“I could have done all these ludicrous things – and then there will be the ceremony of the touching of the shoe which symbolises ... whatever! – but it was easier to start with something and learn as you go about what works and what doesn’t.”
Strangely, what Jones found worked was what he had been most worried about including.
The format of the service is fairly akin to a religious one, with readings, music and singing (Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger was performed by the house band earlier this month), plus talks and moments of reflection based around a theme.
The first service’s focus was ‘Beginnings’, while February’s is ‘Wonder’, with CERN particle-physicist Harry Cliff talking about discovering the Higgs Boson – or ‘God’ particle – and the Hadron Collider, in which tiny particles are flung towards each other at the speed of light.
“If you look at your life a lot of the memories you really hold on to are the ones characterised by wonder – the time you went for a walk and then suddenly this view turned up – [and] it’s about getting more of that in our lives,” Jones says.
“The interesting thing is that people have asked for more of the things that I was slightly wary of [including]. It’s never going to be a serious affair, but it’s not a comedy club either, and I was worried about the moment of reflection. “