SUNDAY ASSEMBLY TIMELINE
2013 (January 6) The first Sunday Assembly service was held in Islington, North London.
2013 (June 30) The first international meeting was held in New York City.
2013 (July) Jones and Evans announced plans for expansion.
2013 (October 22) The 40 Dates and 40 Nights tour began.
The Sunday Assembly is not the first godless church in the Western world. Nick Spencer, research director of Theos, a United
Kingdom-based think tank for religious and social issues, has likened the church to the “ethical unions” formed in the late nineteenth century to accommodate the growing popularity of atheism. Likewise, the Sunday Assembly has been compared to Auguste Comte's “Religion of Humanity” and the associated churches built throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Addley 2013; Wheeler 2013). While similar Humanist and Unitarian churches still exist throughout the West, Sanderson Jones notes the “dour” quality of their meetings and often left asking himself “ ‘Why on earth aren't people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down…?” (Donaldson James 2013). Further, as more people have begun to identify themselves as having “no religion,” a number which has increased in England and Wales by six million in the past decade, Jones and Evans attribute much of the interest in and exponential growth of the church to a need for a godless congregation in an increasingly godless Western world (Addley 2013).
Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, stand-up comedians and founders of the Sunday Assembly Church, met in 2011 after both
were booked for a comedy show in Somerset in South West England. The two shared a three-hour car ride over the course of which they discussed their non-religious beliefs and the events which steered them from their Christian backgrounds (Hines 2013). When Jones was ten years old, his mother, a forty-two year old Sunday school teacher with five children, died of cancer. He has reflected upon her death, stating that he could not fathom why his Christian God would allow his mother to die.
He began to question his faith, completely abandoning it after a time, which reportedly left him temporarily further from coping with his loss: “Losing faith meant that she had to die twice…Once when she went to heaven and then when I realized heaven didn't exist.” This experience forced him to reconstruct his understanding of mortality, eventually shifting his feelings of anger toward one of gratitude that he “had ever been loved by her at all” (Donaldson James 2013). Jones never recovered his childhood faith and subsequently proclaimed himself an atheist. However, he retained from this early experience an appreciation for life, the most central teaching of the Sunday Assembly.
While less has been recorded of Evans' split from faith, she has commented upon her religious past. She was raised in the Christian tradition and remained a Christian for some time. After, as Evans has remarked, she “decided there probably wasn't a God,” she began to feel a sense of loss, not for her childhood religion but for the sense of community provided by her former church (Hines 2013). It was this shared sentiment between Evans and Jones that led to the birth of the Sunday Assembly, an atheist church.
The first meeting of the Sunday Assembly was held on January 6, 2013 in a former church in Islington, North London, attracting
about 240 atheists. This first service, which featured a lecture by children's book author Andy Stanton, attracted considerable media attention and led to several offshoot groups across London. These included the “No-Bible Bible Group,” an atheist-oriented book club, and “Life Anonymous,” a discussion group centered upon the sharing of everyday dilemmas (Hines 2013). By June, 2013, congregants at the monthly services grew to over 600. This rapid growth allowed the Sunday Assembly, which had relocated to Benthal Green's York Hall in London, to accommodate new members. Sunday Assembly held its first international service on June 30, 2013 at Tobacco Road, a bar located in Manhattan, New York. Between 100 and 200 nonbelievers were in attendance (Lee 2013; Cheadle 2013). The following month, Jones and Evans announced their plans to further expand their church throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia in their “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour that began on October 22, 2013. The two announced plans for a second tour in December and the establishment of Sunday Assembly churches across the globe (“40 Dates and 40 Nights” 2013; Hallowell 2013).
The most fundamental belief which defines the Sunday Assembly church is atheism. However, while this lays the groundwork for the church and its message and sets it apart considerably from other organized religious assemblies, disbelief in a God or gods alone is not the central theme of church teachings. Rather, as Jones has stated, because “atheism is boring” and people should not organize their lives around disbelief, a separate philosophy has grown out of the implications of a godless universe (Cheadle 2013). The church teaches, essentially, that this current life is all that is available to all sentient beings and attitudes toward this notion should be shifted from ones of negativity and hopelessness to those which can elevate the human experience. Jones and Evans maintain that life should be celebrated as a gift. Other basic beliefs listed on the group's official Website (“About” 2013) are that Sunday Assembly:
Is 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let's enjoy it together.
Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
Has no deity. We don't do supernatural but we also won't tell you you're wrong if you do.
Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.
Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.
Has a community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you!), we will be a force for good.
Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services
Is here to stay. With your involvement, The Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place
We won't tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can
And remember point 1… The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have.
Jones has stated that an earnest appreciation for life and effective celebration of its gift is “as transcendent as any one god” (Donaldson James 2013).
Jones and Evans founded the Sunday Assembly on the belief in the inherent good of church and the fact that atheism, like religion, is a belief system regarding the supernatural and overarching forces of the universe, albeit a godless one. Thus, like their religious counterparts, atheists should have a means through which they can assemble and practice their beliefs (Hines 2013). Sunday Assembly services therefore resemble those of traditional, religious church services in many ways. A typical gathering begins with a brief introduction by the founders and an announcing of the theme or focus of the service, which includes topics such as “wonder,” “gratitude,” and that of the first meeting in January, “beginnings.” This is followed by a live band performance of several songs, during which the congregation joins in with singing, clapping, and stomping of feet. Accounts by attendees have reported the music ranging from songs by The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Oasis, Queen, and Nina Simone. Congregants then turn their attention to a guest lecturer. Lecturers range from scientists and economists to comedians, authors, and poets. They have included individuals such as physicist Dr. Harry Smith, Chris Stedman of the Humanist Community of Harvard, Michael De Dora of the Center for Inquiry, and children's book author Andy Stanton, who spoke at the New York service. Each service features at least one, but often multiple speakers. After the last speaker has concluded, congregants are asked to participate in a moment of reflection on the theme of the service. A collection plate is often passed as churchgoers engage in conversation, marking the close of the service (Knowles 2013; Lee 2013; Mosbergen 2013; Wheeler 2013; Hines 2013)
While church services are typically held on the first Sunday of every month, the Assembly also hosts events throughout the month, such as food drives and auxiliary gatherings. These include a Harvest Festival, which was held on September 15, 2013, and a celebration to mark the onset of the 40 Dates and 40 Nights Roadshow, termed the “Global Mega Party” (“Blog” 2013). Having been modeled after a Christian church, eventually, the founders have reported, they would like the church to perform marriage, birth, and death rituals (Donaldson James 2013). The Sunday Assembly's website offers a detailed description of the group's motto of “Live better, help often, wonder more” and how their weekly services, as well as church activities, allow them to fulfill that mission (“About” 2013):
Live Better . We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be
Help Often . Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other
Wonder More . Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.
The Sunday Assembly was modeled after a traditional Christian church, and Jones and Evans maintain the notion that, quite
contrary to the commonly-held atheist disbelief in organized religion, “‘organization is one of the best things about religion'” (Hines 2013). The founders' vision for the Sunday Assembly is to have “ a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one” (“About” 2013). Sunday Assembly churches have already been established in New York and Melbourne, and Jones and Evans' hope to assist in founding churches at each of their stops on the “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour, which includes cities such as Edinburgh, Cambridge, Dublin, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Sydney. As these new churches gain footing in their respective cities, Jones has noted the absence of a nucleus of control within the Assemblies. He and Evans maintain that churches will be organized independently of one another while still under the unifying title, principles, and relative service format of the Sunday Assembly. Further, while they encourage diversity and suggestions for the overall betterment of the organization, the founders maintain the capacity to recall an individual church's ability to title itself a Sunday Assembly church should it stray too far from the mission and guiding principles of the group (“Sunday Assembly Accreditation Process” 2013; Hines 2013). Jones and Evans have predicted an increase of one thousand Assemblies within the decade. In addition, Jones has announced plans to eventually found a public school funded by the Sunday Assembly.
Jones and Evans credit the ability of the internet to communicate large amounts of information in a short period of time as a significant factor in the church's fast and growing popularity. The group's website includes a blog where the founders inform followers of upcoming church events and ways in which they can become involved in activities. Jones and Evans also livestream Assembly services from their London congregation and launched an online fundraising campaign on October 20, 2013 that allows congregants to donate money to finance the “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour while minimizing collection costs (“What Are We Raising Money For?” 2013). The website also includes a link titled “Start Your Own,” which includes information concerning how interested parties can “create their own Assembly, while staying true to the spirit and values of The Sunday Assembly ” (“Guidelines” 2013).
The Sunday Assembly, as well as its founders, has faced steady opposition throughout the group's short history. Jones and Evanshave reported receiving hate mail, including requests to change the location of group events from a deconsecrated church to a more neutral location. These pleas came to an end when the Assembly begun gathering at Benthal Green's York Hall in London. The group was also met with but a single protestor at the location of their New York service.
While the reasoning behind their opposition differs considerably, nonbelievers and religious affiliates alike have expressed concern that by following traditional church format and organization, the Sunday Assembly is attempting to transform atheism into a religion. A London Catholic Priest, while recognizing the importance of communicating with atheists, has commented that founding “‘a church like any other religious denomination is going too far” (Mosbergen 2013). Atheist opponents have voiced concern with the organization as well as apparent derivative philosophy held by the group, maintaining that it treads dangerously close to becoming a religion that possesses its own “code of ethics and self-appointed high priests” (Wheeler 2013). Some critics have gone a step further, expressing fear that the group may come to resemble a cult and questioning Jones' level of involvement in the group, likening him to a charismatic preacher.
However, Jones has denied all of these allegations, stating in an interview that “it's really nothing to do with me, it's the idea that is great…And it's certainly not a cult, they split people off from their families and they are not transparent. Neither of which applies to us” (quoted by Hines 2013). Furthermore, Jones has expressed his intent to downsize his role in the services once the church becomes more established (Wheeler 2013).
Church attendants have also commented on the dispute, one in particular arguing that an organized gathering of atheists does not necessarily reflect an intention to turn it into a religion, stating “I don't think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church—a sense of community, a thought-provoking service, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing…without the stinging imposition of God” (Rees 2013).
A third source of criticism lies in the apparent lack of diversity among church attendants. Reports have described the congregation as being comprised predominantly of young, middle-class, Caucasians, questioning the group's ability to appeal to a wider range of nonbelievers, as well as denouncing it as elitist. Jones has acknowledged these charges, stating that while he does not consider group activity to be exclusivist in nature, he and Evans anticipate ascertaining how their godless gathering will be received internationally (Addley 2013).
“About.” 2013. SundayAssembly.com . Accessed from http://sundayassembly.com/about/ on 19 October 2013.
Addley, Esther. 2013. “Atheist Sunday Assembly Branches Out In First Wave Of Expansion.” The Guardian. Accessed from http://theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/14/atheist-sunday-assembly-branches-out on 15 October 2013.
“Blog.” 2013. SundayAssembly.com . Accessed from http://sundayassembly.com/blog/ on 19 October 2013.
Cheadle, Harry. 2013. “Can an Atheist Church Make Nonbelievers Nicer?” Vice.com. Accessed from http://www.vice.com/read/can-an-atheist-church-make-nonbelievers-nicer on 15 October 2013.
Donaldson James, Susan. 2013. “Sunday Assembly: Godless Service Coming to a ‘Church' Near You." ABCNews.com. Accessed from http://www.abcnews.go.com/US/sunday-assembly-godless-service-coming-church/story?id=20421596 on 15 October 2013.
“Guidelines.” 2013. SundayAssembly.com. Accessed from http://sundayassembly.com/sunday-assembly-everywhere/sunday-assembly-everywher-guidelines/ on 19 October 2013.
Hallowell, Billy. 2013. “Atheists Announce Global ‘Missionary' Tour to Establish Godless Church Congregations Around the World.” TheBlaze.com. Accessed from http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/09/16/atheists-set-to-go-on-global-missionary-tour-to-establish-godless-church-congregations-around-the-world/ on 16 October 2013.
Hines, Nico. 2013. “Sunday Assembly Is the Hot New Atheist Church.” The Daily Beast. Accessed from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/21/sunday-assembly-is-the-hot-new-atheist-church.html on October 15 2013.
Jones, Sanderson. 2013. “Sunday Assembly Accreditation Process.” SundayAssembly.com. Accessed from http://sundayassembly.com/accreditation-process/ on 19 October 2013.
Jones, Sanderson. 2013. “What Are We Raising Money For?” SundayAssembly.com. Accessed from http://sundayassembly.com/what-are-we-raising-money-for/ on 19 October 2013.
Knowles, David. 2013. “Exclusive: British Aatheist Group Looking To Expand Will Host Sermon At City Dive Bar.” NYDailyNews.com. Accessed from http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/british-atheist-group-host-sermon-city-dive-bar-article-1.1373821 on 15 October 2013.
Lee, Adam. 2013. “The Sunday Assembly Comes to New York.” Patheos.com. Accessed from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2013/07/the-sunday-assembly-comes-to-new-york/ on 15 October 2013.
Mosbergen, Dominique. 2013. “Atheist Church ‘Sunday Assembly' Is First Of Its Kind In Britain.” The Huffington Post. Accessed from http://huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/08/atheist-church-sunday-assembly_n_2432911.html on 15 October 2013.
Rees, Ed. 2013. “Sunday Assembly” Atheists Have Wrong Idea About Church. The Augusta Chronicle. Accessed from http://chronicle.augusta.com/life/your-faith/2013-10-04/sunday-assembly-atheists-have-wrong-idea-about-church on 15 October 2013 .
Wheeler, Brian. 2013. “What happens at an atheist church?” BBC News Magazine. Accessed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21319945 on 15 October 2013.
David G. Bromley
26 October 2013