It is surely the only church in Britain where use of the F-word is positively encouraged, the reverend jokes about using the collections for a personal holiday and the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is swapped for a rendition of “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.
Yet at its first ‘service’ this morning, the Sunday Assembly – self-styled as ‘the UK’s first atheist church’ – secured a congregation that many decidedly more traditional operations would kill (metaphorically, being Christians) for.
The 200 worshippers crammed into The Nave, a performance venue housed in a beautiful north London church building, had dressed in their Sunday best to hear what would turn out to be a mixture of good comedy and dreadful motivational claptrap.
So who attends an atheist church? For many, this was not just about the laughs. Prior to the service, one man raised as a Jew and a woman raised as a Catholic spoke of their dislike of organised religion.
It was unclear by the end of the hour whether that had indeed been the case. Comedian Sanderson Jones, who acted the compere and professed to coming up with the idea for the Assembly in a car on the way to Brighton one day, gave a bravura performance at the altar. He told of how American evangelist pastors had a lot in common with police officers patrolling Hackney’s De Beauvoir estate (“Can I get a witness?” they yell. “Will somebody testify?”). He assured the congregation that despite the fact his substantial beard suggested he “has multiple wives”, they had not in fact joined a cult. He insisted there would be no crystal healing, and no “auras massaged”.
But there was a dangerously spiritual part in which people were asked to close their eyes “and think”, and a speech about not fearing failure that would have had a rapturous response at a corporate function or pep rally. The theme of the service was “beginnings”, and one individual spoke out to say her New Year’s resolution was to “disseminate knowledge for the greater good”. There were chants of “life is good, life is great”.
Such passages were leavened by nice bits of observational comedy. Pippa Evans told a story about a policeman in Moscow checking to see if a drunk man had a pulse – then tasering him for good measure.
Not everyone left the Sunday Assembly a true believer, but with monthly services planned and more comedians including Josie Long scheduled to appear, they might soon need a bigger venue.