A new church is undergoing a remarkable growth spurt.
Remarkable because of its global reach, with affiliated branches opening in 22 cities around the world, including in the UK, US and Australia. And remarkable because it is a church without a God – an “atheist church”.
The Sunday Assembly was launched just eight months ago in East London by a pair of stand-up comedians as “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”.
Their motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More.”
Daisy Dumas in the Sydney Morning Herald (a Sydney chapter is imminent) explains the approach:
Nostalgically tapping into the co-founders’ pasts, Assembly has unashamedly cherry-picked from the Church of England for much of its structure, laying on a ”service” that has the tested rituals of ”hymns”, ”sermons” and ”readings”. But it has also pilfered from Hillsong’s soaring style and is planning to include themes from Judaism at a forthcoming New York gathering …
Its success has blossomed, thanks, partly, to the internet – but there’s a certain irony in a need for togetherness that is fed by the isolating nature of technology. As traditional churches lose appeal, many of us are craving old-fashioned community and a form of connection.
The assembly quickly proved popular, and now “structured godlessness is ready for export”, writes Katie Engelhardt at the US site Salon.
Organisers boast that “the 3,000% growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world”. The partly crowded-funded expansion, says Engelhardt, “reads as part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch”.
The movement has its critics, including religious people who see their structures being coerced, and atheists who deplore the use of a religious template. Some original parishoners – if that’s the right word –meanwhile complain at the recent shift to downplay the atheist element to avoid being tarred by its perceived negativity.
The seeds of schism?
“Will London become secularism’s answer to Vatican City?” wonders Engelhardt. “Might the Atheist Church subdivide into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of godlessness?”
For the time being, they’re enjoying the chance to gather without worrying about divine intervention.
“The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years,” one of the founders of the new Los Angeles chapter tells Salon. “What we’re trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus.”