In London, losing one’s religion does not mean giving up church.
The Sunday Assembly, a congregation for atheists and nonbelievers started in January, is drawing overflowing crowds to its monthly services at the Nave, a deconsecrated church in the northern part of the city.
“We’ve been quite surprised — amazed really — that so many people have turned up,” co-founder and stand-up comedian Pippa Evans told the Daily News.
While 200 people turned out for the first service, that number swelled to 300 for the second, forcing the church to send more than two dozen people to a bar around the corner to catch a live computer feed of the proceedings.
“We thought we’d have about 20 people.” Evans said. “The idea is about keeping a center of community for those who are losing their religious faith.”
Sunday Assembly with Sanderson Jones
Co-founder and stand-up comedian Sanderson Jones says that The Sunday Assembly will soon set up a YouTube channel to share its message.
The gatherings themselves are not unlike something you might find at regular church, albeit a bit more rollicking in temperament. A live band greets guests, and congregants are encouraged to sing along to secular classics like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
At the first two meetings, guest speakers have included a children’s author, and physicist Harry Cliff, who, along with other researchers at Switzerland’s CERN Large Hadron Collider, helped in the discovery of Higgs boson, the so-called “God Particle.”
Evans and fellow stand-up comic Sanderson Jones came up with the idea of The Sunday Assembly while driving to a comedy show together.
“We both talked about wanting to do something in a church, just without the God bit,” Evans said.
While the congregation is made up primarily of non-believers, Evans says the focus of the services is in no way to demean people of faith.
With speakers ranging from children’s authors to particle physicists, The Sunday Assembly’s motto is “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
“The point isn’t to put down other religions, it’s to say, we don’t have faith, but what do we have?” Evans said.
Next month’s sermon is titled “Lend a Hand,” and will focus on the need to volunteer to better the world. That civic-mindedness may be one reason that the Sunday Assembly has received such a warm welcome in the community.
“We’ve had a pretty positive response from people of faith. Hardly anyone seems to be saying anything negative.” Evans said. “Atheists, in fact, seem to be the ones most upset with us because some say we’re creating a religion.”
As for the future, Jones says he and Evans will add a second service each month, and he is working on setting up a YouTube channel so that the atheist services can be viewed around the world. The Sunday Assembly’s website also features a page for those who would like to start up congregations in their own home towns.
“At the moment we’re concentrating on honing the service itself and building the organization but, when that is all in place, we will do everything in our power to make your Assembly a success,” Jones and Evans say on the site.
Judging from the response so far, The Sunday Assembly seems all but certain to continue growing. Evans and Jones welcome that possibility, even if it means missing a few more comedy gigs.