General assembly in London on Saturday will set up a system of church-like management for rapidly growing group
In the beginning there was one – a gathering of several hundred atheists in a deconsecrated church in north London. Within months that solitary event had mushroomed into a cluster of get-togethers across Britain and further afield, where unbelievers met to celebrate life without God.
Now, 16 months after the first Sunday Assembly, the organization predicts it will have 100 congregations on five continents by the end of 2014, and this weekend it will hold its first “general assembly” to set up a system of church-like management, an event that the group’s organisers acknowledge will be compared to the Church of England’s General Synod.
“Sunday Assemblies have been kicking off in places we never thought possible,” said Sanderson Jones, the comedian who along with musician and actor Pippa Evans dreamed up the project in January last year.
“If I open my email box the first email is in Hungarian, discussing Sunday Assembly Budapest, after there is something from Kenya, then the Western Cape, then Richmond, Virginia, then Cincinnati, then Boston.” Congregations are also starting in São Paulo, Kuala Lumpur, Grimsby and Aberdeen.
Jones said he could not be more excited about helping non-believers around the globe set up their own communities as part of his organisation’s bold, evangelical ambition to see a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.
The general assembly will be held in London on Saturday, featuring workshops and lectures for delegates from the UK, US and Netherlands on how to set up their own non-religious congregation.
In addition, they will elect members to the organisation’s board, debate how it should be governed and, critically, agree on the limits of the new non-church’s doctrine.
“We are growing fast but we want to ensure that it is good growth,” said Jones of the move to formalise the structure. “The reason we want to have an overarching organization is we have a mission to help everyone live as fully as possible, and if you look at the organizations that do things most efficiently, they tend to have a structure to them.”
But if the group is to set limits on its own doctrines, doesn’t that introduce the question of how it deals with non-religious heresy? “If people want to do things differently we say, good on you,” said Jones.
In fact, the Sunday Assembly experienced its first schism last year – a rite of passage for any fledgling church – when members of the Sunday Assembly outpost in New York decided to go it alone following a dispute over different definitions of atheism. Rather than heresy, Jones says, splits should be seen as “awesome product development”.
Despite the obvious potential for such cultural differences in a now global church, however – and the fact that at least 27 new Sunday Assemblies are preparing to open in the US alone — there are no plans for regional management structures at present, says Jones.
He will act as chief executive – and not archbishop, he insists – of what remains for now a limited company, though it has applied for charitable status.
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