A TALL man in red
trousers with a beard worthy of Robinson Crusoe is trying to
generate what he calls "whizziness" from the front. As the band
provides some suitably animated accompaniment, he asks the packed
congregation to join him in a cheer, and, game at 11 o'clock on a
wintry Sunday morning in north London, they respond readily.
For a churchgoer, it is
all oddly familiar. We are sitting on small, hard wooden chairs, in
an "arts and performance space", the Nave, which shares what was
once St Paul's, Hackney, with a Steiner school. There are welcomers
at the gate, tea in the foyer, and a projector at the front.
"There are still a few
seats left, and there's always upstairs!" a slightly flustered
vicar-type cries. The gathering has all the appearance of a church
likely to be branded "vibrant" by the diocese, and held up as a
model for attracting young urbanites. The congregation is largely
under 35, and looks as if it might have spent the previous evening
at a synth night in Shoreditch.
But this is not church,
in the strictest sense of the word. It is the first meeting of the
Sunday Assembly, listed in Time Out (under "Comedy") as a
place where a "congregation of Godless people meet to celebrate the
wonders of life". Devised by the comedians Sanderson Jones (of the
red trousers) and Pippa Evans, it is open to "anyone who wants to
live better, help often and wonder more".
In a spirit of wonder, we
kick off with a song: "What a wonderful world" by Louis Armstrong.
Tip one from years of churchgoing: get the projector screen higher
("I know very little about picking font sizes!" quips the
ever-likeable Mr Jones, as people struggle to recall exactly what
Satchmo said about roses). Now, for an inspirational reading: "The
Man in the Arena" by Theodore Roosevelt ("his place shall never be
with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor
Today's theme is
beginnings. "Starting things is so hard," states the promotional
material ("latecomers go straight to HELL!"). "There's the dread of
work, the bogeyman of failures past, and future, and all manner of
mental booby traps that prevent you from getting going."
It is a great topic, and
tackling it is a guest speaker, Andy Staton, a children's author
who wrote his first book after "almost a decade of dropping out and
dead-end jobs". He is self-effacing, rambling, and seems a bit
embarrassed about having a point. Perhaps that comes with the
territory: it's hard to know what is expected of anyone in week
one. But, against a backdrop of stand-up comedy and irreverence,
there is perhaps a pressure to be flippant and to shy away from
suggesting that you, in any way, hold any answers.
Time for the second song:
"Don't look back in anger" by Oasis, with a cracking oboe solo.
Next up is Ms Evans, who
is not only leading on guitar and vocals, but talking about her
recent trip to Moscow. It's a funny, clever reflection on a city
where people aren't "nice", and where the police Taser you if you
fall asleep on the Metro.
Finally, it falls to Mr
Jones to wrap things up. If he was a clergyman, this is the part
where he would ram home his three points, possibly all starting
with the same letter. He gets his laughs. The cries of preachers in
the United States have an echo of the police patrolling a Hackney
estate, he says: "Can I get a witness?"
The Christmas story is
told in the Church of Scotland (where he grew up) with all the joy
of breaking the news of a tumour, he suggests. He is confessional,
too. He realised recently that the megaphone voice in his head
reminding him of past failures was, in fact, that of his father,
who days earlier had accused him of leaving today's address "to the
last minute, as usual".
Today, he wants to
encourage people to believe in the possibility of achieving their
goals. We are asked to close our eyes and visualise achieving
something, and then how we might feel at that moment. A sneaky peek
suggests that perhaps earlier speakers needn't have worried so much
about embarrassing people with sincerity: all eyes are dutifully
But it is a matter of
seconds before it is all brought to an abrupt close ("I don't know
how long these things are supposed to go on for!") and back to
gags, whizziness, and some enthusiastic cheering.
If the collection is
anything to go by (we throw money into an empty projector box,
plates being in short supply) the godless congregation gets what
they came for. It will more than cover the £200 venue hire and cost
of tea. Mr Jones seems genuinely surprised and delighted to have a
packed venue, and it is his exuberance that carries the day.
Still, it is an odd blend
of stand-up comedy and motivational speak, and low on wonder
(although, to be fair, that's next month's topic). To hear that
"There's nothing before and nothing after," may sound thrilling to
a fairly content 30-year-old living off Upper Street, but perhaps
less so if you're in crisis.
Call me biased, but the theory that "If you believe it, really,
anything is possible!" is arguably much easier to disprove than the
existence of God. Still, the jokes are excellent, and red trousers
are almost mandatory in South Ken. Someone get this man on Alpha .