A church service without God?
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By Nigel Herwin

There are so many different denominations of church that it’s easy to lose count. So what about atheists? There is a church for them too. It’s called the Sunday Assembly and it’s been running in Norwich for a few months now. It’s purpose is to celebrate the one life we have with the credo of "Live better, help often, wonder more.”

At one gathering, members are singing Abba. During the sermon, the speaker offers insight into eating insects. At one point, the organisers invite everyone to take a moment of silence to reflect on their lives. Afterwards, they are asked to introduce themselves to the person next to them.

It’s not a typical church service, though it does seem like one. It has been described as the “Godless” or atheist church. It came about when two London comedians came up with the idea of a gathering for non-believers.

“They had a couple of hundred people turn up and they thought Wow! This could be big! And since then it’s spread around the UK and internationally, and now there are approximately seventy Sunday Assemblies across the world”, Pete Alder said.

Alder has helped bring the Sunday Assembly to Norwich. It’s not a typical church service, although some parts of it were a bit familiar.

“And we take the certain elements of church such as the turning to the people around you and saying “Hello!”, having some songs obviously. We have pop songs rather than hymns. And we have a talk rather than a sermon. So yes, it is specifically designed to mirror what we feel are the best parts of a church service”, Alder said.

This could explain how the Sunday Assembly has expanded internationally in such a short space of time. Back here in Norwich, things are buzzing as folk turn to one another, happily chatting away. There’s a real sense of community.

“I think that’s where it comes from is that we, we recognise that, you know, although we don’t believe in the supernatural, there are lots of good things people get from going to church on a Sunday morning. The community and the fun and the singing, and the learning lessons, the thoughtful side of things, having tea and cake. And we thought, well, we’re missing out on that, so there’s no reason that we can’t do that as well – and we just don’t have the God part”, Alder said.

No God, but quite a few of the attendees at the Sunday Assembly were once regular churchgoers and believers. The Sunday now provides that same sense of community they once had. Take, for instance, Andy Douglas, co-host of the morning’s service.

“I grew up going to church and my father is actually a church warden at Wymondham Abbey, so I’m very used to a sort of church sort of scenario , it’s a bit of time out from your normal life. And that’s why I’ve kept coming. And until someone tells me to stop I’m going to carry on providing music, or someone else takes over!” Douglas said.

Andy never had any intention of hosting the Sunday Assembly. He just wanted to join a band. And then the rest of the band members disappeared and it was just him and a guitar, in front of several dozen people.

“I looked on Gumtree, saw an advert for a band for Sunday Assembly so I thought I’ll have a go. It was a little bit nerve-wracking. But I’m getting a little bit more used to it now.” Douglas said.

As Norwich’s Sunday Assembly becomes more established, it’s attracting an increasingly diverse group of people, including the disabled, the retired and young families. David Loxton, had come along with his wife Amy, and their two children, James and Sophia.

“I suppose it was my wife who found out about it. It just sounded like a good idea really. Something we could bring the kids to, something we could do as a family, so yeah, that was the attraction.” David Loxton said.

So Norwich’s Sunday Assembly is for all ages. It’s still early days, but it’s looking good. There certainly is a sense of a growing community, brought together by a desire to celebrate the one life we have. And there’s curiosity as well, because with the Sunday Assembly, you never quite know what you’re going to get. One month you could be eating insects, the next you could be taking part in a joyous mini-Gay Pride march. And there’s a real sense of mischief, too. For what could be more cheeky than spending Sunday morning at a church service which isn’t a church service and doesn’t feature God, but does offer you the chance to sing songs written by the God-like genius of Anthony Newley?

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