Trouble At The Sunday Assembly

I never was a fan of the idea of The Sunday Assembly, an attempt to provide a non-religious alternative to church modelled very closely on church itself. It’s a bit like vegetarian burgers or sausages; why pretend to be something you’re not? Don’t look like a burger if you’re not a burger. Be your own foul-tasting thing. Have you thought about soya-based dodecahedrons?

And it isn’t just the churchiness of the non-church that I don’t like. It’s the high profile, the publicity, the franchising of it as an organisation that smells bad to me. It smells like a business. Do the people attending see themselves as part of a community or as customers? Because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they’re the latter no matter what they think.

It's like a religion but it's not a religion. It wants your money and your devotion. It wants acolytes and converts. It's quite scary. Image by Shin.

It’s like a religion but it’s not a religion. It wants your money and your devotion. It wants acolytes and converts. It’s quite scary. Image by Shin.

I help to run Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub and the SitP network functions differently. It’s more autonomous, not run from a central point or by a single person, has groups that grow and fade naturally, run by people who want to hear interesting talks and have interesting discussions with no aim to make a profit or form new groups or anything else really.

Think of Skeptics in the Pub groups as terrorist cells, independent from one another but able to call on other cells for help, localised, inflicting education and intelligence on victims once a month in the company of alcohol. Think of Sunday Assembly groups as Subway stores, lovely to have around when you’re hungry but you’ve got to remember that their ultimate goal isn’t actually feeding you but increasing the bottom line in a ledger somewhere and finding new markets in which to invest.

To reiterate: I’m not a fan of The Sunday Assembly. However, until recently I mostly ignored it as an entity. Just this week, though, I’ve read two interesting articles talking about the organisation.

The first article was by Simon Clare – a fellow SitP organiser, running Horsham’s terrorist cell group – who explained why he had left the Sunday Assembly after ten services for Brighton’s franchise.

There were developments at “Sunday Assembly Towers” (as the London team call themselves) that I felt that I could not announce to our congregation for fear of losing them. The moment that someone decides to hold back information from their congregation for fear they might disapprove or walk away, is the moment SA ceases to be a wholly positive movement. I love the idea of reclaiming the positive aspects of traditional churches for humanity, but those in charge of the Central SA group have lost sight of this aim, allowing SA to succumb to the same flaws that twisted the institutions we’re supposed to be providing an alternative to.

Reading Simon’s explanation of some of the goings on at the flagship Sunday Assembly group in London is quite an eye-opener. One wonders if some of the people need to go back and read Orwell’s Animal Farm then take a long, hard look in the mirror to see if they’re still pigs.

The second article comes from Alex Gabriel and it highlights a disturbing practice of Sunday Assembly, namely trying to get interns to work for fifty pence per hour. When you’ve got an organisation that has elected itself a CEO and granted him a hefty, backdated salary then trying to get full time workers in London for a maximum of £20 a week is a bit rich. I.e. you’d have to be rich in order to intern because there’s no other way you’re going to survive in the capital on that otherwise.

Now, we can only offer lunch money (and lots of appreciation) for this, because we have very little money ourselves. However, what we do have is some amazing volunteers and, with their help, we are putting together 6 half day training sessions, so that you not only get experience building community but you also learn cutting edge grassroots and leadership skills from amazing people.

An organisation with one rule for the founders and one for everyone else (rotation of service-holders recommended for SA groups does not apply to London). An organisation that has tried to raise extremely large amounts of funding (half a million pounds for a tour of America). An organisation that wants volunteers who would almost have to be rich in order to qualify. An organisation, therefore, that’s not entirely welcoming to the less well off. An organisation that is seemingly deaf to concerns raised.

It doesn’t just smell like a business to me. There’s a whiff of Scientological cult coming through too. Time to block my nose.

Author: Mark

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