It wasn't your average Advent Sunday service. It started with a rousing chorus of Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' and ended with Abba's 'Waterloo'. In between there was a poem dedicated to Tony Wilson, a mini rave and a Danish clapping game. This was Sunday Assembly, a "godless church" which has one aim - to celebrate life. It has all the trappings of a traditional Sunday service – a sermon, songs, readings, community notices, a collection, tea and cakes – but none of the religion. Its only creed is live better, help often, wonder more.
Presiding over the atheist congregation are two comedians – Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Jones, a lanky bearded fellow who looks rather like a 70s cult leader, is a stand-up who once set himself the challenge of selling every ticket to a 500-seater gig in person. Evans, who tends to lead the sing-songs, is a popular character comedian, also known as the deranged, drunken country singer Loretta Maine.
Two years ago, the pair were driving to a comedy gig in Bath when they got onto the topic of atheism. Evans had recently got married in a non-religious service where the guests sang ‘When I’m 64’ instead of a hymn. “We talked about how we didn’t like it when comedians made fun of religion and Christians, and the good things about churches. And we ended up wondering if you could have church without god”, says Evans. After seven years on the circuit, they both knew how to stage a show on a budget, put together an hour of entertaining material and work a crowd. All they needed were like-minded souls to come.
They did – by the hundreds. Since the first service, in a deconsecrated church in Islington, north London on 6 January, the movement has gone global. On Sunday there will be five Sunday Assemblys happening in community halls in LA, Nashville, Brisbane, Bristol and Manchester. By Christmas it will have 35 outposts across the world. The twice-monthly London gatherings, at Conway Hall in Holborn, regularly attract up to 400 people, from babies to pensioners.
It is, says Evans, “radically inclusive”. There is no atheist or political agenda. Rather it is a silly-profound celebration of life – “We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together” as the manifesto goes – half-community project, half-show. And comedy is at its heart. Not the kind of strident, god-bashing stand-up favoured by Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin and Robin Ince, but a playful, sideways look at religious gatherings. “People like it because it’s enjoyable. We say it’s entertaining rather than entertainment”, says Evans. “When we first started, I had this real paranoia that people would think we were doing Sunday Assembly because we had the answers to everything, that we were trying to set ourselves up as gurus.”
Assemblies are structured around a theme, like wonder or teamwork, and a central lecture/ sermon, delivered in bitesize chunks. Last Sunday the academic Dr Linda Woodhead talked about ritual, in November the historian Dan Snow offered thoughts on remembrance. There might be a poet, or a comedian – Rob Auton and Aisling Bea have both recently appeared - there will be songs and games and in a segment titled “X is doing his/ her best”, a member of the congregation will talk about how they are trying to live life better.
Charity work is an important offshoot and people are gently encouraged to get involved, whether bringing in a tin of beans to donate to Crisis or lending a van to a community project. It is all unusually friendly and uplifting. Like the best stand-up gigs, you leave an hour later feeling just a little bit brighter about the world.
Reunions are the new punchlines as various disbanded troupes reunite for a laugh. Hot on the heels of the Monty Python news, both The League of Gentlemen and DJs Smashie and Nicey reunited for a charity gala at the weekend. On Christmas Eve, Channel 4 is dedicating an entire evening to The IT Crowd, including a documentary featuring its main players.
Since everyone is doing it, here are my suggestions for future reunions. I'd love to see the Smack the Pony trio tackle middle age and the menopause, put Kevin Eldon, Simon Pegg and Julia Davis back on board Big Train and get The Day Today's Christopher Morris, Collaterlie Sisters, Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan and co. back in the studio to grapple with new media. That really would be a Christmas gift.
What I Watched…
Her show about feminism won the Edinburgh Comedy Award this summer and is enjoying a victory run at Soho Theatre. I've seen it three times now and it's still fresh and fiery. A must-see.
That Mitchell and Webb Sound
On Radio 4. It’s a little smug in parts but good on the duo for returning to their radio roots. Olivia Colman co-stars.
On YouTube. Kevin Eldon was nominated for two British Comedy Awards this week. A good excuse needed to revisit his surreal sketches, including Hitler as voiced by the Beatles’ producer George Martin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAqja7L3Kn0 and that infamous Sex Pistols interview, done Amish style http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NQphQZXhFM