Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Sunday Assembly

New Empire Bingo Club, Edinburgh
Tuesday 22 October 2013, 7pm
Led by: Sanderson Jones & Pippa Evans

Soul Searcher can be a bit tetchy at times. What can I say? There’s a lot to be tetchy about in this world. Until tonight, though, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a no-holds-barred misanthrope, but nothing makes you see the worst in humanity quite like an hour and a half of enforced jollity and really bad music. That and people photographing you without asking permission, which is something I’ve commented on before. You snap me with your camera, I’ll snap right back at you in my blog. Honestly, it would be a courtesy to warn folk on the way in.

I’ve heard some truly awful singing this year at the various churches I’ve attended, but the Sunday Assembly band trumps them all. Deafeningly loud and flat, flat, flat. Ouch! I mean, really, an offence to the eardrums, and no amount of clapping along could disguise it. The songs were 500 miles (I wanna be), Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, The life of Riley and Walking on sunshine. Exuberant, yes, but in the way that pub karaoke singers are exuberant despite their patent lack of tone and talent. There was a bar but I didn’t buy any alcohol – perhaps the numbing effect would have left me more kindly disposed to the discordant caterwauling. As it was, I felt like the designated driver in a crowd of bar-room philosophers.

And no, Sanderson, I don’t think that a second cello would have succeeded in classing up the act. The absent cellist had gone to his mother’s funeral and had sent a message which was read out by Sanderson Jones, but this was the only genuinely affecting and thought provoking content of the meeting. The rest, as I shall reveal, was … oh dear, where do I begin?

Let’s begin with the other offences to the senses, because the New Empire Bingo Club offends the eye with its pink formica and the nose with its awful stench of hoover bags and stale smoke – doesn’t the smoking ban apply to bingo halls? Someone’s been having the odd crafty fag or twenty in that building. Not a great environment in which to nurture community spirit, but maybe it was the best venue they could get with their limited budget.

They want a bigger budget, of course – £500,000 bigger. Yes, that’s right, they’re crowdsourcing the funds they’ll need to take over the world. Apparently there was also a collection plate going round tonight, but it didn’t come my way, though I’d have bunged them a couple of quid if it had, so they could do with organising that aspect of their fundraising a little better.

Sanderson describes the basic outlook thus: if you had an excellent pair of shoes but there was a stone in one of them, you wouldn’t throw out the shoes, you’d throw out the stone. Richard Holloway’s reaction, apparently, was to tell him, “Well done, you’ve just made your first parable.”

So they’ve thrown out religion and kept all the good bits of church (singing and cake). Their mantra is Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More. What I’m wondering is, do you need to be part of a Sunday Assembly to do that? Do you need to read out Walt Whitman poems and talk about wave-particle duality in terms of dots and wibbly wobbly things and debunk time as a meaningless construct and say “atoms are weird” and ask people if they’ve ever drunk so much absinthe and listened to so much Enya that they feel themselves to be at the centre of the universe? The chap who did this also had the good grace to say, “This talk will be better if you lower your expectations.”

Pippa Evans, who is apparently the 26th most influential atheist in the UK, talked about how it’s okay to fail as a comedian if you’re about to become leader of a worldwide movement that will awaken non-religious community spirit. I didn’t find myself warming to her.

Sanderson Jones talked about finding things to be grateful for. His technique for celebrating life is to think about death. He dreams of dying peacefully in his sleep, but next to someone he dislikes … who hates surprises. This was the only thing that made me laugh. Clearly I haven’t developed the “attitude for gratitude”.

Will the Sunday Assembly succeed in expanding and enlightening and uplifting and all the other affirming and upbeat things they want to do? Other secular movements have come and gone, and none of them has really had the staying power that churches have. But Sanderson and Pippa are hopeful, and good for them. They managed to get fifty folk to come out on a nasty October night, so it could be the start of something wonderful … for those who like that sort of thing.

Frankly, I’d rather go to church.


  1. This seems a pointless exercise, because, as Richard Holloway's comment points out, all they are doing is creating another religion. I will be content to stay spiritual, possibly Christian (in its simplest sense), but not involved in organised religion (other than during my working day).

    It was interesting, having been in Norfolk for the past week or so, how central to village life the local churches are. They get sizable congregations, yet there is detailed liturgy and no modern choruses. There seems to be no market for alternatives either. People just like religious ceremonies.

    1. Why is it another religion? So if a group of people get together it's a religion? Singing makes it a religion? Being nice to one another makes it a religion? I really don't understand this constant need for people to lump any secular grouping together as a religion, it is possible to live without it.

    2. If religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence then this is a religion.

  2. Pointless and also disappointing, but I'm not really sure what I was expecting. A convention of some learned society it certainly isn't. A big publicity boost and lots of free column inches for two extrovert comedians on the other hand ...

    1. My understanding is that from now on all the Sunday Assemblies will be run by locals, the two comedians were just for the launch, so your snark misses the mark.

    2. I don't think it does. They will still be credited with kicking it all off if it turns out to be a widespread success. They say they're not trying to be cult leaders or Messiah figures, and I take them at their word, but I stand my my view that the publicity can't harm their careers. I'd never heard of either of them before; now they're all over the media.

  3. Not many alternatives in the Rosneath peninsula either, and Craigrownie was well attended. Maybe we're just spoilt for choice, and creating more options for the sake of it, in the big city.