In the entrance lobby of the Conway Hall, a temple of atheism in central London, there's a plaque on the wall listing the "appointed lecturers" of the place, among them some of the greatest bores of the 20th century – hectoring monomaniacs whose audience of elderly earnest white men in cardigans was almost as off-putting as they were. The Sunday Assembly on the other hand, a church without God with a congregation of two or three hundred, which meets in the hall every Sunday, is not in the least off-putting.
There is singing and dancing and a great deal of laughter. No one cares much what you think – what matters is to share an enthusiasm for life. Sanderson Jones, one of the founders, calls it "Pentecostalism for the godless". In fact the outward forms are like any modern evangelical church: the choir, the music group and the lyrics to the songs projected on the back of the stage are all familiar. The performance is unobtrusively professional and everyone has lots of fun.
I don't know whether star evangelical preachers back-project their Twitter names while they are preaching so the audience can follow them, but the godless ones certainly do. Why not? They're not getting paid, so they might as well merchandise.
The talks all follow the Thought for the Day model, where the moral is approached circuitously but predictably, although these are longer and with a lot more jokes. Feasting is really about love, we learned; evolution gave us a co-operative nature, so that "deep down inside we're all programmed to care". This doesn't work for me terribly well, because – well, it's Christmas, and Christmas always makes me miserable. But I am not the target market.
The people who come here are very like a successful Anglican congregation. Unlike Christians in London, they are overwhelmingly white. They are also predominantly young or in early middle age and there is a sprinkling of children. In front of the congregation are piled cans and packets collected for the homeless. It is all enormously familiar, except that the average age of Anglican congregations now is about 62, and here it's maybe 30 years younger.
Many of these people used to be Christians. Pippa Evans, the co-founder of the church, was actually part of the congregation at HTB, the most influential evangelical church in Britain, until she lost God. A quick vox pop (I am making a Radio 4 programme) produced four ex-Christians out of six people and one semi-detached Christian who came here because his wife had been refused communion in her parish church as not being a real believer.
The Sunday Assembly doesn't care. From the beginning it has taken the view that what matters are shared values, rather than dogma. In fact there has already been a schism in the New York assembly on just this point, where one faction insisted on strict unbelief. This may not make sense if you don't come from a Church of England background, but the movement is certainly spreading. There are now assemblies in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Dublin, Silicon Valley and Melbourne, with many more planned. It is a great move of the unholy spirit, as a Pentecostalist would say.
Yet it's not quite as simple as a revolt against God. It is – more profoundly – a revolt against dogma of every kind. We are all now tired of "appointed lecturers", whoever appointed them and whatever they are eager to lecture us about. Read more...
A Happy Clappy Church for non believers.