I’ve been interested to follow the progress of the ‘Sunday Assemblies’ over the last few months. For those who’ve missed it, it’s an atheist gathering which was started by two comedians, and meets monthly, with a service featuring uplifting music, a talk on something moral or otherwise worthy, and an encouragement to community involvement.
In other words, it’s what a lot of us know as ‘church’ – but without the central character. It’s the congregation without the main player. It’s the morals, without the message.
I think this is a great thing, in a lot of ways. There’s often a bit of a clash between the secular and religious communities on issues such as community work – churches (that’s where my experience lies) have a long history of alms, and outreach, and aid, helped by ample finances and deep pockets on a Sunday morning – but are often met with suspicion by others, sometimes exacerbated (as always) by a difficult few people (West Borough Baptist, I’m looking at you), outspoken and in main sight.
Christians are generally a do-gooding bunch – and for a variety of reasons. I’ve said before that unlike many twenty-something church goers, I’m no arms-waving evangelist, and indeed, evangelism is something I struggle with, as for me, faith is such a personal thing that I don’t think anyone has a right to muscle in where their input is unwanted. I don’t think faith happens after someone with a sandwhich board shouts at you. I think it happens after deep thought and conversation. I believe strongly in being open and honest and accountable to my beliefs, and am always ready to explain them – but I’m not into pushing them on others, and find those who do extremely uncomfortable. For this reason, I dislike community work (and workers) where the main push is conversion and bringing of faith. On the other hand, I love community work where someone has seen a gap and tried to fill it. I love the fact that my church is so socially active, and every night of the week there are groups of people getting stuck in, helping run soup kitchens, youth groups, visiting the elderly (as I do), making space for the learning disabled, befriending those in debt. It’s a vast, long, deep mesh of yearning to improve the society we live in. For most, I think it’s driven equally by the whole ‘the Bible (and vicar) says I should do this sort of stuff’ and pure, decent, passionate ‘this situation needs to change’ motives. The church is big on social justice – which is often glossed over by the scandals and less savoury aspects.
When you join a church, it’s not long before you’re sucked into helping with something – and I think that’s a positive thing. When I look at my close friends, more of the ‘religious’ are involved in regular voluntary activities than the secular, though all are equally lovely. Part of that has to be down to having so many opportunities waved at you on a regular basis, an attitude that says that all hands are needed, and being surrounded by people doing similar things and saying ‘come along with me, and give it a go’.
Although this new Assembly is (I assume) going to be lacking in the assets that the church has had so long to build up – I think it is a great thing. After all, there are many lessons I get from sermons that aren’t directly ‘jesus’ related – wisdom on being a good friend, a wise head, a firm shoulder. I hear examples of how to live the sort of life I want to live – full of giving, love, peace, and kindness, and without the consumerism and disconnect that often surrounds us. A lot of this will be just as well (if not better) delivered by a secular group. A content life, I think, is about connection. A difficult one is surrounded by the opposite.
I really hope that this group gets stuck in and keeps moulding themselves on the church model – I hope that with time, there’s another group of folk who gather round when someone’s in hospital, or help at their community centre, or cooks a meal for a new mother struggling to manage. I’m glad that the organisers have recognised something special about church, and its community, and I hope local churches open their doors and show them how they organise things en masse, so regularly. I’m glad people are yearning for the sense of connection that being part of a congregation brings. I think both groups could learn from each other. We need a few more do-gooders. There’s more than enough work to go round. There’s more than enough isolation to remedy. I’m looking forward to keeping an eye (and a prayer) on it and seeing how it goes.