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  • Writer's pictureStephen Paul

Sunday Assembly, Stephen's Story

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

"You may find yourself the lead of Sunday Assembly Reading.

And you may ask yourself,

Well, how did I get here?" Early Incomprehension As a child, once in a while, a form would be placed in front of me that asked "What is your religion?". My comprehension of that question felt very similar to my wife asking me now "What colour should we paint the walls of the lounge?" - I suspected there was a good answer to this question but for the life of me I didn't know how even to approach its solution. For those tricky religious question I sought an appropriate response from my mum. "C of E" she would say. At some point, curiosity got the better of me, and I even asked what "C of E" was. Thank the Lord for TB

My grandmother was a miserable Christian. Outside of school Mum was only allowed to mix with friends at Sunday School. She wasn't allow to play in the streets and no-one was allowed to come into play. Luckily, she caught tuberculous and at last found playmates in the open wards of the local hospital. And what's more, an antibiotic for TB had just be discovered. Her stay in hospital was long but joyful. Later she joined the Salvation Army in order to meet men but alas the repetition of "When the Saints come marching in" failed to excite the passions of the young soldiers of Christ and Mum eventually found Dad lurking around a park bench. He was a Teddy Boy, although, he could only afford a Vespa. Granny did not like him one little bit.

Later Incomprehension

Stephen, as a boy, said nightly prayers, got very bored with all the religious content on TV, made up rude versions of the hymns he was forced to sing at school and never understood what the Lord's Prayer meant even though he said it everyday.

By the time of my late teens I had found an interest in religion. The first topic in A-level History was the Enlightenment and as I was new to the 6th form, the new boy in a new town, and feeling isolated from my new peers, I spent more time in the school library than I otherwise would have done. I read the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Spinoza and Locke, and then on to Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus and Kafka. I now had an healthy interest in religion that granny would had been truly horrified by. I have one regret. There was a nice girl in the 6th form I used to chat to. We got into a religious debate and although she was happy with her faith she hadn't really studied it. I, on the other hand was fresh with the greatest minds of the Enlightenment and beyond. And through weight of argument I splintered her beliefs. I can still recall the look of confusion and sadness on her face as her intellect got the better of her faith. This was the first time I understood that for some, religion wasn't just an intellectual game but held an real emotional value. This sincerity is hard for a lot of atheists to truly understand, as it is for many religious people to comprehend how mystified atheists are with any form of mysticism. Thank the Lord for Allergies Years go by and we are preparing for our first child. Our NCT teacher is also a vegan so we ask her what to expect from school as vegan parents. She said not to worry about that, you'll get more hassle for being atheists. This surprised me as being an atheist as an adult was a non-event where as being vegan was constantly niggly, well, at least it was 2 decades ago.

But she was right. Schools are super cautious about diets, to ensure no one dies of allergies real or imagined and no one's faith is compromised. Considerations of vegans get carried by these two other considerations.

Primary school and our daughter is asked to copy down 10 things about how cool God is. She writes the list, because she is a good pupil, but also adds "I don't believe any of this stuff" at the end. I proudly go into school to defend her right to say this and remind the school that they are in the business of education not indoctrination. It's a state school.

I'm called in to school again because a boy tells our daughter that he believes in God, she replies that she doesn't and the boy reports her to the teacher who then instructs her not to say it again. Back to school and the teacher when faced with an adult to argue against, rather than a child, backs down on their pronouncements. It's a state school.

Horrible stories about priests and children were filling the newspapers. Thank the Lord for Parents' Evenings

Secondary school is a battleground between myself and the RS teacher, who is a reverend. We clash on the lies she tells the kids about what is in the bible, we clash on the exclusion of other religions, we clash on the "atheist go to hell" comments, we clash on the simplistic views she paints of her all loving God and her disregard of the nasty, and interesting, stuff in the Old Testament, we clash over the religious propaganda videos the kids are shown, we clash on her speaking in tongues to the kids, and she asking them to make this their little secret. Bad things happen when adults start asking kids to keep secrets, and her days are numbered. The reverend resigns half way through the term, a few days after our very public dispute at parents' evening.

I get some knowing, and happy nods, and comments from some teachers over the next few days and a few dark looks from others, but things greatly improve in the school's approach to religious studies as they now have the freedom to combine it with philosophy. Religion is now taught as an academic subject rather than a series of dogmas to be memorized. My eldest even takes Religion and Philosophy at A-level.

But the worse clash is yet to come. One of my children asks to be excused from the all morning Ascension Service, so she can do something useful instead with the time. I write a short message to the school asking for her to be excused. This should be a trivial request but it leads to a day of increasingly hostile exchanges between myself and the headteacher, who on each reply, CC a few more people in. What really upset me during the exchange was that the Muslim kids were excused from the services by default but the atheist had to attend. It was that my beliefs were held in such low esteem. I got my way, but it really soured my relationship with the school, and I really don't feel I could be part of the school's community anymore, although everyone is super-super nice. I feel a little like a petting pig - everyone appears to love you, until they eat you.

Thank the Lord for the warring tribes

At this time I am reading a lot of Christopher Hitchen, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. I'd join Humanist UK, partly because of the campaigning they did about religious privilege in schools. The internet also gave access to the worse aspects of the religious and conversations with American Evangelists online helps one conclude that religious people are mad and everywhere.

I knew such confrontations were not good for me. They didn't make me feel good about other people or myself. I read a piece by Alain de Botton where he argued that awe inspiring architecture should not be the preserve of the religious - non believers should build grand places where we celebrate are humanity too. I appreciated the idea but failed to see how this would come about.

Then I read about the first Sunday Assembly in London. I chatted with atheist friends about the concept. Some thought it sounded fun and others were repulsed by the idea. I surprised myself my thinking it sounded fun.

I went along to the first Sunday Assembly Reading in October 2014 with my two daughters. It was weird and somewhat naff but it had the potential to be something special. I plucked up the courage and ask the solitary guitarist if I could join him for the music. Within a couple of months Tom and I had built a full size band. He surprised me with his admission he was a Christian, although that inclusivity is at the heart of Sunday Assembly. As the months ticked by my input to all aspects of the Assembly made me the de facto lead. In April 2016 Sunday Assembly became the first non-city in the world to be have an Accredited Assembly and only the 4th in the UK to gain it (there were over 70 assemblies worldwide at the time). The steady growth in numbers pushed us through 4 venues.

Sunday Assembly for me is often lots of messaging, spreadsheets, organising the band and worrying about things not working out. And then an enormous rush once a month on a Sunday morning.

What is Sunday Assembly?

Oh yes, what is Sunday Assembly? That surely is a difficult question and I know we are struggling finding the write words, ones that don't make us sound pious or sacrilegious, cheesy or sententious, trivial or worthy. We call it a celebration of life. That it is but what does that really mean? Perhaps an analogy is called for. I didn't like olives till I tried them.

This is what Sunday Assembly is to me. It's playing with a cracking live band. But not being completely happy unless Tom is playing too.

It's meeting up with Rachel to chat over a coffee and share a few ideas, it's Ben with his arms wide open to invite a hug, its Lynda sharing the sadness of some of her life story with me on a train and how I think she's just so goddamn good at everything, it's spending a day choosing wall hangings with Sam, and her frankness, it's Dave always pretending to be Eeyore when we all know he is really Pooh, its Matt taking control of the room as the Games Master, it's watching Zuki's being unsure if she super cool by being in the band or thinking she too cool to be in the band, it's Sophie giving Mike his monthly hug, its Ed being happy, in control and appearing confused all at the same time, its Wendy saying how much she looks forward to the Assembly now her children have moved on and her husband has died, its the increasingly cohesive community being built by Natalie beyond the monthly Assemblies, it's creating a space where people can feel comfortable being themselves, and it's watching an empty hall transform into somewhere special by a bunch of people whose tribe is bound by nothing more than a desire to celebrate life.

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