It’s been a few years since I went to church, so one Sunday I did – sort of.
Words: Koel Mukherjee
The monthly Sunday Assembly at the Trinity Centre, like most churches, offers singing and readings, inspiring sermons and quiet reflection. The Trinity Centre is a former church and still has its stained glass windows. God, however, has long since left the building.
Comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans started the Sunday Assembly in 2013. They both wanted church without the need for belief, and 200 people in London agreed. Three years later, Bristol’s lively congregation is one of more than 70 across the world, with the motto “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”.
The Assemblies don’t reject God so much as create a secular version of church built around familiar themes of community, inspiration and doing good, along with a hefty helping of fun.
This means a theme for each service exploring different aspects of the human experience (this month it’s ‘the human cost to nature’), talks from scientists, philosophers, activists, artists and thinkers from different fields, and the singing of songs suggested by members of the congregation. If Britney and Elton weren’t to everyone’s taste there were opportunities to suggest some Cannibal Corpse for next time. It’s less Christ, more cake, though organisers say he would be welcomed in if he turned up at the door.
Who were September’s parishioners?
First-timers Peter and Ria had brought their curious young children along on an educational family outing to explore new ideas.
Agnostic Ria told me, “I’ve been taking the kids for a while to various things, on a quest for something spiritual, such as Quakers… Peter won’t come if it’s got any religious overtones, so this as a family is something we could all go to.”
Twenty-seven-year-old engineer James had come from Wiltshire to socialise, while sixty-somethings Paul and Den were looking to find community beyond their religious backgrounds.
“I had a very strict Presbyterian upbringing,” said Den. “It has stood me in good stead for lots of things, like socialism and charity work, but I’m quite opposed to organised religion.
“I think people need to feel they do belong somewhere. For me church wouldn’t do that because of all the dogma… but this meets those needs, building little communities.”
Almost everyone I spoke to had been raised Christian, but was now agnostic, atheist or exploring alternative ideas of spirituality. I didn’t meet anyone strongly religious, though the organisers say a few practising Christians join them from time to time.
With little diversity beyond age, it did feel like another of the mostly white middle-class, quirky events one often finds in Bristol.
That said, it was hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere of warmth, community and tongue-in-cheek fun. I must admit, dear reader, my heart could not help but be warmed watching a lively crèche of children caught up in colouring books while their parents sang Elton John together in an exercise of sweet, communal silliness.
The silent moment of reflection also took me by surprise. I had to attend chapel every morning at school, and, even as a bolshie teenage non-believer I valued the experience of sitting quietly in a beautiful building surrounded by my peers, giving my brain a moment to breathe and reflect. The interior of the Trinity Centre isn’t anything to write home about, but I’d say the experience of safe silence in a supportive crowd of fellow humans is.
For earlier generations of British communities, it would have often been religious gatherings and institutions that fulfilled the need to socialise, learn and bind communities together. With today’s broader church (!) of cultures, traditions and beliefs, it’s not surprising that secular groups are now sharing this mantle.
I guess there’s peace and community to be found wherever people choose to come together, whether it’s a church, a mosque, or the Trinity Centre.