Once, you couldn’t move for people talking up the Sunday Assembly. These are secular gatherings, first held in London in 2013, which replicate church services in most ways except a faith in God. Yet they have all the trappings: a Sunday service in which there are the equivalent of hymns or at least communal singing, a sermon or exhortation, coffee afterwards, a nice sense of community.
A number of journalists wrote about the phenomenon, sharing their experience of discarding religion and finding something to fill the “God gap” on a Sunday morning.
Yet now, it would seem, the difficulties in maintaining attendance turn out to be common to believers and unbelievers alike. According to Faith Hill, writing in The Atlantic, “Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years – from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. The number of chapters is down from 70 three years ago to about 40 this year … After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out … Building a durable community of non-believers, it turns out, is more complicated than just excising God.”
If it’s hard getting people to come to Mass when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ on offer, it must be far harder when you’ve got an unanchored community whose only common point is the absence of belief. In fact, some Assembly members are agnostics and others are atheists, so even the absence of religion doesn’t mean unity.
It’s all a bit reminiscent of those Protestant sects that slid from non-conformity to Unitarianism and eventually to mere political activism. Unitarianism, in fact, strikes me as the American way of doing agnosticism, or at least deism – a way of being religiously observant without having anything in particular to observe.
The temptation for Christians now is to be uncharitable about the whole Sunday Assembly endeavour: so you thought it was easy to get the benefits of religion without the religion? Ha! Not that easy now, is it?
And yet there is something admirable about the effort of will on the part of members to go through the motions of religion without the promise of eternal life at the end of it. I’ve never had much issue with unbelievers who go to church out of habit, or merely for the liturgy. Like Pascal, I think that going through the motions of prayer is half the battle; your body prays even if your mind doesn’t assent. And while there is no community like the Body of Christ in the Church, we shouldn’t begrudge the poor unbelievers their share of human solidarity.
The interesting thing about the benefits of religion is that they accrue to those who do religion, not those who think it. My friend Patricia Casey, Professor of Psychiatry at University College Dublin, has conducted several studies of the data on religious practice and done her own research, and found that the benefits of religion on mental health relate to practising faith. So those terrifically irritating people who pronounce themselves “spiritual but not religious” derive no benefit to their mental health. Yet those who attend church regularly do receive the benefits, regardless of their belief.
So much, so predictable, you may think: any kind of community and human bonding must be better than none, whether it be knitting groups or sports teams or choirs, excellent though they all are. But that turns out not to be the case: the benefits of religious attendance in mental health terms outweigh other kinds of community gatherings. So there must be something in the nature of a religious gathering that distinguishes it from other forms of human society.
And we can work out what that is, no? We go to church, to Mass, bound by a common belief in the God who made us all. We are exhorted to be good in relation to God, not just each other. The Scriptures remind us of the great realities of being creatures, of being dependent on God. We are exhorted to charity and works of mercy in sermons. We think about eternal life. In other words, there is a vertical axis that binds us together as well as a horizontal one; it looks like a cross.
Self-conscious religion substitutes are rarely as good as the real thing. Let me propose that the Sunday Assembly members pitch up at, say, an Anglican cathedral service instead, rejoicing in real community, not the confected sort, and in lovely liturgy and decent hymns, even if they can’t believe the words. Or sit at the back of a Catholic church in the quiet.
God loves the lost as well as the found, seekers as well as the certain; they’ll be welcome.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard