The Sunday Assembly, ‘a godless congregation for all’, is expanding. It was founded in January by two stand-up comics, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, and sells itself as ‘all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs’. Alain de Botton has accused them of nicking the idea from him.
Now Evans and Jones are trying to raise £500,000, which seems a lot, to build a website that will let them expand internationally. (They’ve got nearly £25,000 so far, with 45 days to go.) As part of their funding drive they’re giving away ‘everyday miracles’ – pots of air, earth and water – to anyone who donates £70 (0 of 700 claimed as yet) and putting on a ‘40 Dates in 40 Nights’ tour to spread their message of ‘Pentecostal Humanism’.
The other night I went to an Assembly at a large community centre in Brighton. The Ski Sunday theme tune was playing as I went in, or maybe it was the theme from Test Match Special. On a table by the door there was lemon squash and coffee, along with flyers for Alpha Course meetings and ‘Global Light Revival Church’ services, a theological pick ‘n’ mix. I drank some lemon squash.
Sanderson Jones, a tall man with a long beard, greeted people as they entered. ‘Come and sit at the front,’ he said to me. ‘This’ll be a good one, the guys here are scary competent.’ I sat next to an Italian journalist who said she was surprised at the intellectualism of the attendees, and that she didn’t think Italians would really go for the idea.
The band started up and we stood and sang a few songs – the Happy Days theme; ‘Jitterbug’ by Wham! – and danced awkwardly. There were maybe 150 people there. Most were young, white and earnest. Jones said that there were now 35 regular Sunday Assemblies, proving that ‘loads of people out there want to live better, help often and wonder more.’ The aim of the assemblies, he said, was to remind people that they ‘only live one life’, and that they should therefore ‘live it as fully as possible.’
Next we partnered up and played a clapping game, but the Italian journalist and I didn’t really understand the rules. Science had proved that the clapping would get our endorphins going, we were told, and that smiling at each other would make us feel happy. ‘The science is awesome.’
After the clapping, a woman in a top hat with a purple veil gave a reading from Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna: ‘When you’re hunting for the good things, you sort of forget the other kind.’ There was a moment of silence; when he does the Assembly in Conway Hall, Jones said, ‘the humanists think we’re trying to trick them into praying.’ Someone gave a talk about W. Reginald Bray, an eccentric who sent onions, frying pans and himself through the post. The Italian journalist left during the lecture.
Pippa Evans gave a segment called ‘Pippa is doing her best’, in which she admitted to being a perfectionist, but said she was trying to accept that ‘if people think what I do is rubbish than that’s OK.’ We sang a song by Supergrass while a collection plate was passed around. We were urged to develop ‘an attitude of gratitude’, and then we dispersed.
Afterwards, over tea and cakes, I asked a group of students why they didn’t just go to church. ‘We don’t want to be told what to do,’ they said. ‘Church is full of rules. It’s written on tablets. It’s great to be able to meet people without all that in the background.’ I said it hadn’t seemed so different from Anglicanism to me.