Yesterday I went to Sunday Assembly, a secular Sunday Service held in cities all around the country. I went the closest one in London where it first began. I wanted to understand the structure of a secular service, it seems a very literal secular translation of a faith based activity and so what is the cultural need for this and what does that say about society?
The event was held in Conway Hall, which interestingly has had a history in the humanist movement having held regular events since its construction that intend to strive for radical thinking in pursuit of a better world. As such for starters it makes an interesting direct comparison with holy buildings architecturally. There was less verticality and more of a feel of a theatre or dance hall. People there were largely in their mid twenties to 40s, there were a small number of families and a few older people. It had a bit of a hippy vibe with lots of colour hair and eccentric dressing.
The structure of the service was a very, very literal in its translation from the Christian based service, more so than I imagined. It was orientated around the idea of a service that celebrates life and ran as follows:
- 2 introductory songs (blink 182) lead by a choir and band on stage and sung by the congregation.
- Introduction to the service by preacher.
- Poet reads/plays on guitar comic poem about the tooth fairy.
- Guest speaker discussing her PhD research in digital imagery of the brain.
- Sunday Assembly co-founder promotes ‘secular Christmas’ event/fundraiser- ‘Yule Rock’.
- Song- build me up buttercup
- Community talk about a mans personal experience of mental illness. His mother suffered with schizophrenia and took an overdose of her medication. He discussed stigmatisation of mental illness and dealing with hard experiences.
- Notices- privilege and anti-racist workshop this week, craft afternoon.
- Quite reflection on the past week.
- Choir sings.
- Donations and talk to those sat around you.
- Sermon- preacher talked about trying to look out at the world from a more positive standpoint. ‘Celebrating life’ sunglasses.
- Song- Ain’t no mountain high enough.
- Tea afterwards
During the donations and whilst having tea after the service I had the opportunity to discuss the service with other members of the congregation. All people I talked to felt that the decline of mono-faith society and rise in non-religious people had left a social void in society. Several people said that they liked attending to meet new people and be part of a community which they didn’t feel they had elsewhere. They felt it was hard to meet people in a city like London and congregation helped that. The service offers support for the hardships in life which I think people also found comforting. I also spoke to volunteers who helped run the services about the stance Sunday Assembly has on faith, they said originally it had been called an atheist congregation but had found that that was too aggressive and so it is now called a faith neutral secular congregation. He felt people attended these services rather than faith services because they were not completely comfortable with associating themselves with a specific faith and didn’t want to limit the congregation in that sense. I asked if he knew of people attending Sunday Assembly as well as any faith based services and he thought that there were a minority of people that do. On the whole I would say the congregation seemed largely quite educated people of the middle class but that is purely taken at face value.
In terms of what I would like to take from this is it confirmed my stance on faith as a unifier in society and its social provision that people appreciate. However Sunday Assembly is such a direct translation from a faith based social structure that I’m not sure it really fills the void on the large scale. It is perhaps more of a stepping stone to more resolved structure. Those people who attend seek out something to fill their Sunday Mornings where as before faith was part of everyday British Culture on the small scale. As such its congregation is limited in that sense. Unlike a local church, Sunday Assembly does not have connections with the council for those in need or are widely known by all levels of society, it is an amenity that must found.