It may seem an oxymoron but people who don’t believe in a god are the world’s third largest ‘faith’ group. Now the Sunday Assembly movement aims to give Britain’s nine million atheists their own church.
Sue Millichap is one of the nine-strong volunteer team behind the Manchester branch of this new movement (which started in London and is spreading rapidly across the globe). So what can people expect if they join a godless congregation?
“It’s best described as the best bits of church, but without the god stuff, so it’s communal singing, inspiring talks, getting to meet people plus tea and cake obviously,” laughs Millichap. “It’s a chance to get together and be part of a community. I know for me, I moved to Manchester as a student in 2000 and I still don’t feel like I belong here, so Sunday Assembly is for me to get a sense of belonging, especially if you live in the city centre.
“We are mirroring the London versions as the idea is we are all part of a movement so I guess it follows a formal church structure. There will be singing, a welcome and readings which could be anything and we are hoping to get a poet for our first one. There will be a speaker to talk about the theme, more songs, and a silent reflection before the cakes.”
The London Sunday Assembly was started by two London-based comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who came up with the idea on the spur of the moment.
“They had a conversation in the car on the way to a gig about a godless church and one of them said I’ve always thought about doing that and the other said ‘me too’ and it was born from there,” explains Millichap. “They had their first assembly in January this year and I heard about it on the radio. I was in the shower and I thought that’s the kind of thing I wanted to be involved with. I expressed an interest on their website, followed it on Twiitter, and I’ve watched it grow in in London, New York, LA, Melbourne and Sydney so it is all over the show.
“The assembly motto is live better, help often, wonder more and some people have said it’s an atheist church so are you getting together to talk about how much you hate god? But the tagline says it all. It’s about how we can get together to celebrate life so it’s not about not liking god. The term atheist church has been used to grab headlines but that’s just an oxymoron and people say there can be no such thing, but it is about living up to the motto.
“This is why it’s not an anti-religious thing as it is taking on and embodying the good bits of church – the charity side, thinking about others and a sense of belonging. In Manchester, and other cities around the world, as this spreads there is a sense of wanting to give something back and we saw that with the riots. The day after there were young people getting together to clean the streets so people do want to help and change things but they have not always had the right channels to do it. This is a positive act saying ‘those of us who aren’t religious, can we get together and do things’, and the answer is yes.”
The founders have launched a world tour to spread their message and the Forty Dates and Forty Nights lands in Manchester on Wednesday October 30.
“Our first assembly is part of that world tour which is brilliant as it means Sanderson will lead it for us which means we can break ourselves us in gently so he can really show us how it is done,” says Millichap. “The first one is on a Wednesday because of the tour but after that we will be on Sundays. It feels like Manchester is a city that does things differently so we want do it in our own way and we are to have local speakers. As well as the anti-establishment stuff, for me it is deeper than that as there is clearly a need for that as we have 160 people signed up without any marketing at all.”
Cynics might say this is only religion-lite, and religious groups could argue that, without a unifying dogma to bind them together, the Manchester Assembly will quickly disintegrate.
“A lot of people would say, what is the purpose of a church without god? But I think actually if a lot of people who do go to church were honest with themselves, they go to church for the community side of it, have a sing and get out of the house,” argues Millichap. “I have had people say that to me that [that is] the reason they go because they know people who are neighbours and friends, which is ok. That’s what we are doing so how can that be pointless? Especially if groups come out of it like the philosophy, knitting and craft groups they have in London which is brilliant.
“We’ve had a couple of comments on Twitter saying what’s the point as the only thing you’ve got in common is you don’t believe in god but they’re missing the point. I know the atheist church idea has been used to grab headlines but the point is to bring people together who don’t necessarily believe in god, whatever god that is, and still do the wonderful things that churches and places of worship can do.”
The assemblies are designed to be fun including some lusty singing of ‘80s power ballads as part of their alternative liturgy.
“They can be part of the service as obviously in church it’s hymns that get sung, but for us we need songs that aren’t about god so pop songs are fantastic as everyone knows them. Power ballads especially have that sense of ‘come on, let’s sing together.’”
By Paul Clarke
What: Manchester Sunday Assembly
Where: Cross Street Chapel, Cross Street, Manchester
When: Wednesday October 30, 2013 – 7pm to 8pm
More info: http://sundayassembly.com/forums/topic/sunday-assembly-manchester/