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Atheist 'Church' Reaches Manchester

David Blake speaks with the folks behind this globally reaching godless gathering

Written by . Published on October 30th 2013.

Atheist 'Church' Reaches Manchester

THE Sunday Assembly Public Charter: Live better, help often, wonder more. Seems fair.

If you’d have told me that you’d catch a bunch of atheists (and let’s not kid ourselves, the vast majority of us have tendencies that way) going to church, why, I’d have cried 'My giddy aunt' and slapped the knobbly right out of my knee.

We're not so much an atheist church, more a celebration of this one life we know we have. We're born from nothing, go to nothing, and we get life for a few short years. That is something that needs to be celebrated.

The Sunday Assembly idea was conceived by comedians Sanderson Jones (the beardy one from the Gumtree adverts) and Pippa Evans in the car on the way to a gig in Bath. We're talking a ‘godless gathering’ that has snowballed since its inception in January of this year.

The gathering is, what Sanderson has previously called ‘all the best bits of church’, but without the religion bit: the coming together, the singing, the dancing, debate, discussion, reflection, charity, tea, cake and establishing a mutually beneficial sense of community.

It’s a ‘church’ for people that like to congregate, but don’t believe in a god. It’s positively anti-dogmatic.

Pippa and SandersonPippa and Sanderson

Starting out within a deconsecrated and crumbling church in Islington, north London, the Sunday Assembly now boasts over 30 congregations in overly-subscribed gatherings across the globe, from Glasgow to New York, Dublin to Sydney. There’s even a Sunday Assembly in Milton Keynes. A truly godless place.

In fact, response to this joyous secular movement has been so great that Jones and Evans have recently embarked on a ’40 dates and 40 nights’ tour, hitting the road to greet newly established satellite congregations, taking in the UK and Ireland, the US and Canada, then on to Australia. It has been estimated that within a decade, there could be as many as 1,000 worldwide assemblies.

This, somewhat ironically, would make it the fastest growing 'church' across the globe. The growth in congregations since January alone has been 3000%, albeit from a low base.

Manchester’s initiation comes to the Cross Street Chapel on Wednesday 30 October from 7pm to 8pm (all tickets were quickly snapped up but people are being welcomed to come along anyway. There’ll be another gathering on Sunday 8 December at Victoria Baths on Hathersage Road. Keep an eye out here).

Secret Garden Party AssemblySecret Garden Party Sunday Assembly

We spoke with Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones and Manchester organiser Michelle Barratt:

So Sanderson, a Church for Atheism… what’s that all about?

S: Well, we're not so much an atheist church, more a celebration of this one life we know we have. We're born from nothing, go to nothing, and we get life for a few short years. That is something that needs to be celebrated.

What’s your message, your mission? 

S: Our mission is to help everyone love this one life as fully as possible. We are there to try to help in any way we can. It starts with a monthly service but we make it easy to give time, and make changes in your life with our community programmes.

Have you been surprised by the uptake? 

S: Have we ever. There’s just so many people who not only want it, but really seem to need it.

You have a ‘radically inclusive’ policy. Does that include the religious?

S: Well, it certainly includes making religious people feel welcome, and not bashing religion, but there'll be no religious viewpoints expressed at the Sunday Assembly. There are already places like the Unitarians that do stuff like that; we just focus on this life.

Is atheism now at danger of becoming a religion? Can you even become a religion without a deity?

S: There's no danger of it becoming a religion as it is an evidence based position. If Jesus rocked up, atheists would change their minds and say 'Oops, we were wrong about that'. 

What now Sanderson? 

S: Well, while we're on tour we'll also be raising money for our crowdfunding campaign, as we try to raise £500k to build a truly top of the line website that will allow millions of people to have godless congregations of their own. It's a bit like Airbnb, but instead of turning spare rooms into BnBs, we're unlocking the millions of spare communities we think people can create with their spare time (promo below).

Michelle, what can we expect from the Manchester Assembly?

M: Lots of fun. We've got a local choir singing, a pianist, poetry from local poet Tony Walsh. On a more serious note we’ll also have guest speaker Colin Parry, whose son Tim was killed in the Warrington bomb, talking about what happened to Tim and why he started his charity Foundation for Peace. There’ll also be tea and cake afterwards - what’s not to love?

What propelled you to get involved in the assemblies? 

Michelle BarrattOrganiser Michelle BarrattM: What I like is the sense of community we're trying to create, but without all the religion that comes with a regular church. When I stumbled into the Sunday Assembly at the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year I just thought it was so random and fun that I wanted to get involved in setting one up in Manchester.

How has Manchester responded?

M: We've offered tickets through an Eventbrite page and had so much interest that we've had to cap the numbers for our first assembly. We were initially struggling for a venue and the Cross Street Chapel kindly offered us their room. We didn't originally want anything with religious connotations but it’s cheap, centrally based and holds around 120 people.

We’ve had plenty more enquiries than this so we’re still encouraging people to turn up on the night (Wednesday 30 October) as we know that with free events lots of people say they'll come but then can't make it. We just hope we can fit everyone in on the night.

The first Manchester assembly is at Cross Street Chapel The first Manchester Assembly is at Cross Street Chapel

Is this a suck-it-and-see assembly or are you hoping for something more permanent?

M: We've already got a date for our next one. It's on Sunday 8 December and we've managed to secure Victoria Baths. It's a much bigger venue so we're really pleased that we won't have to turn people away. We'ree hoping that Victoria Baths will be our new home on the second Sunday of every month.

How can people from Manchester get involved?

M: Like I say if people want to come along Wednesday we’ll try and squeeze them in. If anyone wants to be part of the organising team then they can contact us via Facebook or Twitter, or email sundayassemblymanchester@gmail.com 

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Poster BoyNovember 5th 2013.

Happy clappy...

T Eddie MillerDecember 8th 2013.

I was really interested in this but walked out of the 'church' after just a few minutes. It was when the organiser told the 'congregation' to stand up and sing a song about Christmas (Christ Mass) that I suffered an unpleasant memory of being told to stand up and sing a hymns in school assembly! It was bad enough having just endured a women's choir singing a song about 'Christmas Island'. Christmas Island? The one in the Indian Ocean? Reading the article above I see that it is crowd-funded... crowd-controlled is more like it. Watch out when they start to pass the collection plate around. I can feel a schism coming on in the atheist church already!

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