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Saturday, November 29, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 11/9/2013

COMMENTARY

Sunday Assembly takes its celebration of life on the road

BY TK BARGER
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

There's a “church” making some news because of an unusual, but not unheard of, perspective. The Sunday Assembly, begun in London by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, is a congregation that doesn't include any god, but celebrates life. Though some call it an atheist church, that's misleading because many atheists are perceived as being actively “anti-God,” and the assembly doesn't push the anti. In its charter, the assembly says its mission is “to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential” and its motto is “live better, help often, wonder more.” “We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do,” it says on its Web site.

The Sunday Assembly is in the midst of “40 Days and 40 Nights: The Roadshow,” taking the concept on a tour of Great Britain, Ireland, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Though 40 locations were initially announced, as tour plans developed, the roadshow now covers a 55-day span with services in 29 cities, including nine stops in the U.S. from Nov. 4 through Wednesday. The Sunday Assembly was scheduled to be in Chicago yesterday, meeting in a 100-person capacity room at a liquor store (more than 200 had requested to attend), in San Diego today, and in Los Angeles on Sunday.

The assembly's first U.S. service, on Wednesday, was in New York City. It met at the Society for Ethical Culture, itself a godless church that was founded in 1876. In Internet discussions about the Sunday Assembly, people point out that there are already religions that include people who don't believe in God, chiefly Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture, and don't limit their theology and philosophy to atheists only. So why start a new Sunday Assembly, some ask.

The difference, it seems, is in approach. At a Sunday Assembly, there's some familiar church structure—songs, inspirational readings, a talk, even a collection—but the songs probably aren't hymns or praise songs. In Boston, the opening songs were Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger” and the Foundations' “Build Me Up Buttercup.” And, based on the Assembly founders being comedians, don't look for “sermons” bordering on boredom and bombast. You might look at it as a class on doing good, helping one another, and having fun while being together.

In that approach, the congregation probably has more young adults, more people coming into the culture of non-belief rather than veterans of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's time. But reports from Boston and New York are that Unitarian Universalist and Ethical Culture leaders attended, so maybe they'll carry ideas about innovation to the more established assemblies that have met on Sundays for decades and centuries.

The Sunday Assembly tour raises many questions, such as why start a church when God isn't the focus—and what, essentially, makes a congregation religious. Those don't get answered in this column today.

There's another question that does get attention, though: why give Religion page attention to this gathering that doesn't include God? The Religion page is more than church news, and the evolving Sunday Assemblies could become another of the many humanist-oriented movements that have much of the structure of formal religion. Readers interested in religion should be made aware of new ways to do church, even the ones that aren't godly.

The Religion page is a place for articles and columns on many faiths and on no faith when there's a connection to religion. The phenomenon of people gathering to help one another while experiencing the awe of life is a central element of religion. For many people, religion is expressed by actions, not beliefs; by deed, not creed. Like most religions, it's people putting the golden rule into action. 

Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.



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