Back to Church Sunday is 29th September. I’ve always felt uneasy about this particular date in the liturgical year as it may encourage people to think being a Christian is primarily about attending church services, but there is no denying that church attendance figures have been declining over the last few decades.
Help is on its way. From an unlikely source. ‘Why should atheists miss out on all the good things churches have to offer?’ asks Esther Addley in the Guardian..
The Sunday Assembly, an atheist group formed in London eight months ago – appropriately, in a disused church – announced on Sunday that they were expanding into twenty cities. The format deliberately mimics Christian churches: the ‘host’ leads the congregation through songs, moments of contemplation and a sermon-like talk. The intention is to take the borrowing further: ‘It’s naive to deny that there’s a lot of good that comes out of orgnanised religion, and I think helping in the community is another thing that Sunday Assemblies should be aspiring to unashamedly copy.’ I might add that if you translate their chosen word ‘assembly’ into New Testament Greek, you get ‘ecclesia’.
If atheists are that keen to copy churches, why is the real thing in decline? Why do we need Back to Church Sunday at all?
Of course there are reasons. As one attender at the atheist Assemblyexplained: ‘It’s got all the good things about church without the terrible dogma. I like the sense of community – and who doesn’t enjoy a singsong?’ Perhaps it helps that the Assembly is led by a couple of stand-up comedians.
It’s not the first time atheists have done this. The South Place Ethical Society in London is perhaps the best known forerunner. According to its websiteit was a dissenting chapel which by 1888 had rejected the existence of God and turned itself into the Ethical Society it still is.
However, there it stayed. It didn’t sprout additional ethical societies, and I suspect the present initiative is even less likely to flourish. At the end of the nineteenth century if you didn’t go to church you missed out on the main social occasion of the local community. Missing church then was a bit like not having a television is today. Now, most people neither attend church services nor have the slightest desire to do anything comparable. The attempt to mimic them looks like a pastiche, a sort of cultivated nostalgia.
The leaders’ intentions, as Addley describes them, seem serious enough. Churchgoing enables people to get together and think about serious things while having a good time. There is also a shared belief system: just as Christians believe in God, attenders at the Sunday Assembly believe in not-God.
This leaves me wondering. Is not-God enough of a shared belief system to produce a flourishing movement? If you just want to get together with like-minded people to talk about shared interests, sing songs and enjoy yourselves, do you really need a new institution? Aren’t there enough pubs and parties? For a new movement to succeed, it needs something positive – a vision, an agenda that gets the hormones going. Can denying God provide it?
I fear that for a great many people, for at least a while, it can. I am thinking of those who were brought up to believe in an angry, hateful God busy disapproving of people and punishing them. I have come across a good few atheists (especially since moving to Liverpool, I’m sorry to say) for whom disbelieving in God has meant liberation from a terrible burden of fear.
But then, when the relief of liberation wears off, what next? It’s like being nearly killed in a car crash: for a while you are relieved that you survived, but in time the sense of relief will wear off – after all, life has merely returned to what it was without the terrifying experience.
My own experience of churches varies widely. Some churches I have known were close parallels to the Sunday Assembly: gatherings of people who had something in common and liked to socialise with each other, but didn’t expect much more than that from the services. These were the churches with which I have been most disappointed. The ones that have meant more to me have been the ones that lift me into a different dimension of reality. At their best they make me connect with the divine in some way or other; but even if they do not do that, they pull me in that kind of direction. From Addley’s article it sounds as if this kind of thing isn’t on the agenda for the Sunday Assembly. If the shared value system is not believing in God, I’m not sure how it could.
This leaves me wondering whether the Sunday Assembly is offering the packaging without the birthday present inside. The problem is, it also leaves me still ambivalent about Back to Church Sunday. Is that too advertising the packaging at the expense of the contents? If Christianity matters, shouldn’t the churches be concentrating on publicly explaining why it matters rather than reminding people of old and neglected habits? Or is this just the way things are with modern marketing – that the company is still selling the product, but paying more attention to how it’s wrapped?