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Church growth for atheists

31 January 2014

While Christians seem to be abandoning the Church, atheists are starting their own, with some success. Simon Jenkins reports


THIS time last year, I went one cold Sunday to an empty shell of a church in an area of Hackney, London, called De Beauvoir Town. The church, a Victorian behemoth long deconsecrated, was a beautiful wreck, with scaffolding outside and crumbling plaster inside.

It looked like church as you might imagine it after the Apocalypse: the faithful gone, the organ falling to bits, the stone reredos missing chunks of masonry, the glory departed. The old place had been cannibalised by a school, the side aisles and upstairs balcony crudely screened off with plasterboard.

Actually, forget the Apocalypse. This could just be the present reality of the Church in lingering decline.

But, on this Sunday, the building had found a new congregation. As I turned in at the church gate, a couple of bright young things greeted me with smiles and leaflets and directed me towards the building. There was a crowd at the door, and I experienced a surreal moment of queuing to get into church. Had I slipped into a parallel universe?

I could easily have been witnessing a church-plant, with a couple of hundred keen Evangelicals from Holy Trinity, Brompton, bused in; but, instead, this was the launch event of the Sunday Assembly (the new "godless" congregation or "atheist church") (News, 11 January 2013). The service came complete with a secular sermon, plus hymns - not by Mrs Cecil Alexander, or even by Graham Kendrick, but by Freddie Mercury and Stevie Wonder.

I found the dissonance between failed church building and vibrant atheist gathering both striking and challenging. Crowds of atheists happily chatting over post-service cups of tea, and enthusiastically taking over where Christians had faded away did not exactly fit the script that Jesus laid out at the great commission.

The Sunday Assembly is perhaps the most churchlike of several recent ventures where atheism has got itself up in the borrowed clothes of religion. This has mostly been done in an ironic way, but the Sunday Assembly is a departure, because - although it markets itself with a great deal of comedy - it has embraced the for-mat of church sincerely, often to the point of scandalising fellow atheists.

ONE of them, the pop philosopher Alain de Botton, complains that the Sunday Assembly has merely copied what he set up across town at the School of Life. The School has run "Sunday sermons" for several years, and getting the audience to sing pop songs, just as congregations sing hymns, was probably invented there.

Other atheists have hosted events that sound like church - such as the comedian Robin Ince's annual Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, a stage show that brings together comics and scientists - but there is not much of a nod to religion beyond the eye-catching title.

The part played by comedians in the visible rise of New Atheism seems to be significant in all this. It looksas if a number of stand-up com-edians have taken on the part of the preacher, or even the evangelist, as they pour hilarious invective on the real and perceived contradictions of faith. Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle have been especially effective in turning the scorn of Richard Dawkins into comedy.

I do not think that it would be a stretch to argue that a whole generation of young people are laughing their way into atheism, agnosticism, or plain indifference towards God.

The comedian Frank Skinner, in a public conversation with then Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2011, talked about how, in almost every stand-up routine he heard, the comedian would make time to ridicule God and religion. Skinner, a Roman Catholic, believed that this was alarming, because it widely discredited faith, and he teasingly asked the Archbishop - as if he still had the power of his medieval predecessors - "What are you going to do about it?"

ATHEIST church was born when comedy gig segued seamlessly into godless service. The founding parents of the Sunday Assembly, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, both seasoned stand-ups, came up with the idea on a drive home after performing. But, although the Assembly's services are run with huge energy and lashings of comedy, the underlying aim of the project, to '"live better, help often, wonder more", is heartfelt and serious.

The services are a warm and barnstorming celebration of life rather than a chance to have a go at religion. "How atheist should our Assembly be?" Jones asks. "The short answer to that is: not very."

This positive approach, coupled with regular services where people can sing, listen to a talk, reflect on their lives, be entertained, and meet others - all without the outrageous claims of religious belief - appeals to a segment of the 48 per cent of young adults who wrote "No religion" on their UK census forms in 2011.

It offers all the good and human things about church, but without the requirement to sign up to a creed - and that is very appealing in our culture right now.

The Sunday Assembly, a New Year blog post on its website states, now has 28 active congregations around the world - including several in the UK - which attract numbers that would be the envy of many parish churches. The movement is only one year old, and it is hard to predict whether the founders' ambitious plans for growth will work out, but the movement does not look as if it's about to disappear.

The Assembly in New York City even had its own church split, when some members were being more determinedly atheist than others. That schism surely proves that atheist church is just like real church, and is here to stay.

Simon Jenkins is editor of shipoffools.com, and tweets as @simonjenks.

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