It might not be strictly held at night, but essentially, as something to do in London, this is as fun as a night out. And it's attracting people by the hundreds every month, on that downtime for London, Sunday morning. First there was clubbing on Sunday, now there is the Sunday Assembly, a 'church' for atheists, where they encourage you to "Live better, help often and wonder more."
You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a happy-clappy version of Christian evangelism, or a new type of cult. And there are many similarities: a church (albeit deconsecrated), a Jesus look-a-like leader and an acoustic band with guitars and a slightly dodgy PA system. But the congregation, gathered here today, is not asking for divine intervention, but just a bit of fun. Because they are the new 'disciples' - if you can call them that - of an atheist church, or assembly.
Modern 'Jesus-a-like' Sanderson Jones — Photo courtesy of Maik Kschischo
The Beatles ("Help"), Bonnie Tyler ("Holding Out for a Hero") and Bill Whithers ("Lean on Me") provide the 'hymns.' And Jesus, ahem, Sanderson Jones - a stand-up comic who looks like a “shipwrecked Bee Jee” (his description) - leads the way, with his incredibly able and equally funny (if not funnier) Mary Magdalene in the form of Pippa Evans on guitar and comedy skits. Both are clad in “dodgy,” as Sanderson puts it, knitwear and hipster attire.
As the slightly dilapidated old church fills up, and people squeeze onto wooden pews, stalls, benches and children’s seats that look like they come from the 1940s, Sanderson strides around directing proceedings and greeting people warmly whilst they chatter among themselves.
The Assembly likes to invite a speaker along each month to inspire people to get involved in whatever cause fits with their theme at the time.
But, Sanderson and Pippa don’t let us get too goody-two-shoes. Pippa’s slot brilliantly satirizes the reasons that many people like to help and volunteer.
She tells the story of how she drives a dour elderly Scottish man to tea parties, hoping before she meets him that he will be a cute twinkly grandma who will be devoted to her and to the fact that she has helped, perhaps leaving her a treasured possession in her will, or squeezing her hand gratefully whilst looking adoringly at her and telling all her grandchildren what an amazing person Pippa is.
Instead, she gets the seemingly ungrateful non-talkative man who doesn’t really want to be dragged to tea and forced to make small talk, and would have much preferred a prettier woman volunteer. For the first few weeks, she recounts, he is also suspicious of her driving since he believes women can’t drive. Pippa can also be heard on satirical news shows like The Now Show on BBC Radio 4.
Divine light at the godless church — Photo courtesy of Maik Kschischo
You leave feeling uplifted and happy, although perhaps that was just the chance to sing and not be discovered out of tune. And it's not just people in London who have found this to be an uplifting experience and an alternative to partying all weekend.
The Sunday Assembly grew in 2013 from one monthly performance in London to gatherings mushrooming all over the UK and the world, particularly in the U.S., Canada and Australia. They are now going on the road and doing a tour of 40 dates in 40 nights to launch the Assembly in 40 new towns.
It's a great alternative to a night out, and there's the bonus of tea and cake at the end.