The gospel of Sunday Assembly: Joy without the Lord

"So many things that I like about church, such as the community and the singing, but there was one thing I didn’t like and that was God" - Sanderson Jones. (Reuters)

"So many things that I like about church, such as the community and the singing, but there was one thing I didn’t like and that was God" - Sanderson Jones. (Reuters)

In a festive atmosphere evoking a French holiday camp crossed with a gospel service, Sanderson Jones, a British stand-up comic, announced in French that the city’s first Sunday Assembly would “celebrate life”, before a young woman read a poem and the French philosopher Charles Pépin spoke about the cosmic nature of joy without God.

The gathering of 130 people jumped to their feet and waved their hands in the air when Alexandrie Alexandra, a hit by the late pop star Claude François, rang out in a small hall beside the Boulevard Périphérique.

The hour-long event, punctuated by more singalongs and a party game, ended with a moment of silent reflection before coffee was served. A collection was organised to pay for the hall.

Explaining the concept, Jones said there were “so many things that I like about church, such as the community and the singing, but there was one thing I didn’t like and that was God”. So he and fellow comedian Pippa Evans decided to “steal the best bits”.

He said he’d been told that, “if Parisians can be joyous on a Sunday morning, it can work anywhere”.
France is a tough nut to crack, a country with a strong streak of secularism but also where religious tensions run high.

Jones was pleased with the turnout at the Paris launch, which had been publicised in the media and on the internet, and particularly with the number of people who stayed behind afterwards to organise future monthly events.

“When we started this in London, people said the British won’t do happy-clappy. They said the same thing in Leeds about people in Yorkshire. But everyone loves an excuse to feel like that,” he said.

Since the first Sunday Assembly in Islington, north London, in January last year attracted 200 people, the “atheist church” has mushroomed across the world, with a mission to live better, help often, wonder more. On that Sunday, 35 assemblies were held across Europe and 16 in the United States.

Michel Crouzier, a pensioner at the assembly, said it might be a challenge for the concept to take off in France. “Here, the notion of community tends to mean sects,” he said.

But Jones fended off any suggestion that the organisation resembled a sect. “It’s structured like any other nonprofit [organisation], with an advisory board.”

Juliette Mangeney, a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research, came along after hearing about the chapters in the US and the United Kingdom. She said the Paris event had been “too much like an American show, not Frenchified enough” for her taste.

Others said they wished the launch had been more spiritual, with more dialogue between speakers and audience, and some complained about the playlist. But in a sign that the theme of joy had worked its magic on at least some of those present, one couple spent the final song, by Jean-Jacques Goldman, locked in a long embrace. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

“Atheist” church’s 10 commandments:

  • A 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.
  • No doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources. 
  • No deity. We don’t do supernatural, but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do. 
  • Radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting. 
  • Free to attend, not for profit and volunteer run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.
  • A community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you), we will be a force for good. 
  • Independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services.
  • Here to stay. With your involvement, the Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place. 
  • We won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you to do it as well as you can. 
  • And remember, the point of the Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have.  (Source:

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