Cate, 40, moved to Reading in 2016 to work at the BBC Archives in Caversham. Before that, she studied at Leeds University and undertook archive training at Aberystwyth University.
She first encountered Sunday Assembly in Leeds, having seen the publicity when it started up in London and was hailed as the ‘atheist church’. She had also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, and felt that there were good things about religious communities that could be transferred into the secular world.
She grew up with a Church of England background and went to Sunday School, but drifted away in her teens. “I kind of went along with the whole ‘God’ thing, but my heart was never fully in it,” she tells me. “I’m an agnostic, in the sense that there’s no way of knowing all the mysteries of the universe - so I think it’s better to focus on the things that we do know.” I note that this echoes one of Sunday Assembly’s tenets - to make the most of the one life that we know we have - and she agrees. “Though it’s always interesting,” she adds, glancing upwards, “to speculate about the things that might be going on out there.”
Cate suffered from ME in her twenties, and for a long time found it hard to make friends or meet a partner. “I was always on the lookout for social groups with the same values as mine, and when I arrived at Sunday Assembly in Leeds I knew they were the right kind of people.” I ask her what she means by this. “It seems to attract people who are proactive, who want to do good and to have fun,” she says. “Also, people who like to think a lot - to philosophise. It might not be for everyone, but I felt at home very quickly. People were very welcoming, open and friendly.”
When Cate moved to Reading, she lost no time joining our own Sunday Assembly and became a regular attendee. But then disaster struck, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. “It was devastating,” she says simply. “I couldn’t cope with the treatment while living alone, so I had to go and stay with family in Liverpool.” I admit to her that it’s difficult to find the ‘right thing’ to say about such a life-changing event, and she smiles in acknowledgement. “Everyone feels like this. Some people tip-toe around it, but I’m quite happy to talk about it.”
Cate has been through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the treatment has been successful in terms of removing the malignant cells. “But you never really get a total all-clear,” she says. “I’m still on medication, and need to go back for regular checkups.”
She tells me about SHINE, a support group she attends in Oxford for people both with cancer and post cancer. “I really like the people there. There are a lot of survivors – some still living with cancer, with cells left behind, still needing treatment, but leading full lives.” The group encourages its members to come to the varied meetings and social events without bringing ‘plus-ones’. Cate explains that this helps them to be more open and honest about their cancer experiences and get more out of it for each other. “It’s also because they might feel shocked,” she adds. “Some of the black humour we use when we talk about cancer can be quite disturbing to outsiders.”
I ask her if Sunday Assembly has helped her at all. “I was counting the weeks until I could get back to my life in Reading,” she replies. “Two big things that kept me going were looking forward to getting back to my job, which I love, and to Sunday Assembly.”
She talks about how the experience has changed her. “I used to be very socially anxious and shy, but now I feel that I’m much stronger. Sunday Assembly has helped me with that too - getting me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to join in with games, and pushing me to walk up to strangers and say hello.”
Cate is gradually transitioning back into full time work, being lucky enough to have an employer that is supportive of the process. She’s looking forward to travelling more, and is currently planning a trip to Scandinavia. She’s also very interested in writing, and hopes to start on new projects soon.
I ask her what she enjoys most about Sunday Assembly. “The singing, definitely the singing,” she says with a grin. “And the band - they’re great. The pub quizzes… the book group… and also going to the pub after assembly. It’s nice to be able to have quieter chats with people there after the buzz and the whirl of the assembly itself.”
Her final word is of praise for the organisers. “I really appreciate all you do behind the scenes to make it happen. I’d like to get involved myself, maybe, when I get some more of my energy back.”
We all wish her the very best in achieving a full recovery, and look forward to seeing more of her. She clearly has a lot to contribute to the Sunday Assembly community.