Interview: comedian Sanderson Jones spreads the good word about The Sunday Assembly
The pair's 'atheist churches' aim to reconcile the good parts of atheism and religion
While there are arguably more than 57 varieties of British comedians, there’s one thing that the vast majority have in common: they despise and pity those who call themselves Christians. There are some high-profile exceptions to the atheist stand-up hegemony such as Tim Vine, Milton Jones and Frank Skinner, but if you didn’t already know they were God’s comics, you certainly wouldn’t guess it from witnessing their act.
Being anti-religious is now virtually a given in the world of British comedy, whether it’s in the form of digs by Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais equating faith to mental illness, or in subtler science-based ribbing from the likes of Robin Ince, whose annual Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People event draws appearances by everyone from Richard Herring to Richard Dawkins.
The Sunday Assembly is a different beast altogether. Co-founded by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, it begins from the standpoint that not everything about faith-based movements is awful (religious gatherings often take place in rather impressive buildings and at their best have a strong sense of community), aiming to take the positive elements from it while leaving the God bit well alone.
‘It all started on a car journey with Pippa to a gig in Bath,’ recalls Jones of The Sunday Assembly’s genesis. ‘We were discussing how cheap, anti-religious jokes are ten a penny and a bit boring now: “Well done, you don’t believe in God.” And they’re normally done in a room full of people who also don’t believe in God, so: “Well done you for smashing preconceptions.” We both had the idea of having a church without religion.’
While Jones and Evans are core to the development of these atheist churches, they encourage interested parties in the towns and cities they’re visiting during the 40 Days and 40 Nights roadshow to be proactive in setting up The Sunday Assembly and finding an appropriate venue. Once in there, you can expect an array of hallelujah-inducing entertainment. ‘We have pretty much ripped off church in the order of service, so there are fun songs you just want to belt out, like “Eye of the Tiger”, “Reach Out”, “Superstition”, “Livin’ on a Prayer”. Each night has a theme and we get a guest speaker to talk on that theme. We’ll have a poet, there’ll be a reading, the congregation gets involved as well, there’s a moment of silence, with tea and cake at the end.’
Although Jones and Evans might have a relatively simple ride in the atheistic United Kingdom, when they first took The Sunday Assembly Stateside, some resistance was met. ‘We had our first protester there and that was hilarious. Over there it is a little different as religion has more of an impact on people’s lives than here. Atheists there talk the same language of the gay rights movement such as having to come out to their parents.’
Still, some positive interest from the US remains strong, and Jones has recently received an invitation to spread the word about The Sunday Assembly on CNN. ‘There’s also some guy over there who writes for an evangelical Christian website and he likes what we do,’ notes Jones. ‘We have email conversations because in some interview I said we really like churches and that religion was great. It’s a good way of starting a conversation with a religious person because they’re more used to people just saying, “All you do is shit.”’
The Sunday Assembly, New Empire Bingo Club, Edinburgh, Tue 22 Oct; Community Central Hall, Glasgow, Wed 23 Oct.