Sunday Assembly – where are the weirdos?
There have been a few articles recently about an “atheist church” starting up in Islington. The Sunday Assembly will meet monthly to “solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a bit more whizziness into the everyday”. There have been various mutterings about the general irreverence or possible pointlessness of such a gathering, but I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. I were a heathen, I’d probably go. Community, laughter, something akin to a TED talk, an off key pop song, what’s not to like? And I can see the appeal; to show that atheists aren’t all grumpy individualists, that they can be big enough to admit that there are, perhaps, some good things about religion. Even the organised kind.
But my question to the organisers and congregants is not “how dare you mock the body of Christ?” or “why bother if we’re all unravelling to space dust anyway?”. It is simply this: where are weirdos?
You seem to think that church is a group of like-minded individuals, coming together both to worship (which doesn’t interest you), to be inspired, to sing, to get to know one another and to spur each other on to good works (all of which do interest you, apparently). But these assumptions are (presumably) based on your childhood memories of church, before you became the rampant free-thinkers you are now.
In fact, church is far more of a raggle taggle affair. Each Sunday, gathered under various pointy roofs, are people with zealous faith, weak faith, begrudging faith and no faith. We have introverts and extroverts, the rich and the poor, the vigorous and the frail. We have the stable and the unhinged. We have the guy with the crazy staring eyes. We have the guy who shouts incoherent answers from the back to rhetorical questions from the front. We have the guy who wants to speak to the vicar for 45 minutes after every sermon. We have the guy who really smells, and has just unloaded the full plate of biscuits into his greasy jacket pocket, but no one says anything because he looks hard as nails.
The television series “Rev” did a fantastic job of illustrating this point; that a vicar not only has to seek God’s desire for a community, but he has to try and encourage his motley crew of wimps and hobos to catch sight of that vision too, all the while offering a listening ear, a piece of encouragement and occasionally a carefully worded, lovingly spoken reprimand. Most vicars and priests look older than they are, their faces creased into a deep but sad smile as they hold the thousands of secret hurts, frustrations and tragedies their flock has bestowed upon them, and their own besides, whilst trying to remain hopeful.
By the way, that same vicar takes his or her turn on-call each week so that anyone in the parish – be they the most loved or hated local figure – can minister to them in a time of dire crisis.
The Sunday Assembly is apparently for anyone who wants to “live better, help often and wonder more”. That’s one heck of a selection bias. I have absolutely no doubt that your local church leaders often feel like they’d love to specifically welcome the intellectual, the well-motivated, the charitable-hearted; no doubt they’d get a lot more done. But what about those who are broken, cynical and depressed? What if you’re someone who needs to receive the help, rather than give it? If you really want to be a good replica of a church but without God, you could start by letting all the local hostels, soup kitchens and wet houses know when and where you will be meeting, and that there will be free tea and biscuits.
Finally, the church does not welcome the oddballs of life out of some weary sense of duty (or at least, not just). We do so because we believe that, challenging as some people’s behaviour is, we are equal before God. We believe that the church is actually more beautiful because of them, if not to the world, than to God.
For all the church is criticised for being exclusive in one way or the other, the truth is that anyone is welcome to walk through the doors on a Sunday morning, and they do. I’m not trying to be dismissive of your venture, I’m just trying to say that you have a long, long way to go before you are anywhere near living up to the messy, awkward glory of the church.
Further reading: Matthew 25:34-40 and Ephesians 2:18-22