Last Sunday, after my 10th service as one of the organisers of Brighton Sunday Assembly, I resigned from their committee. I had known this was coming since our last meeting where I proposed that SA Brighton officially break away from the Central Sunday Assembly organisation. The majority of the team decided to stick with them for the time being and will therefore carry on as they are. I announced then that I’d leave after the 4th of May service.
Having already done a great deal of the planning work for what were to be my last two services, and knowing that the committee were already down on numbers, I decided to go ahead with those shows as if nothing had changed. Both shows ended up being typically lovely events, especially Sunday’s one in the Spiegeltent as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe.
A mixture of new and regular faces came along and enjoyed a combination of linguistics, the Beatles, fire, public speaking, Tina Turner and tea and cake. I was really proud of it and proud of the team; the dozen or so people that helped out in the various ways they did. On handing the venue back at the end, the manager said we were a “model company”.
With Brighton Sunday Assembly being such a successful and increasingly well-loved part of Brighton’s Sundays, it might seem somewhat diva-ish of me to walk out on it now, just because of a bunch of “principles”, but I can simply no longer stomach being associated with the London-based, Central SA project. I deliberately avoided mentioning my resignation while I addressed the congregations at the end of the last two services; I wanted the events to be remembered simply as the joyous, slightly ramshackle little shows they always are, rather than for some dramatic resignation announcement, so I kept it mostly under my hat.
Helping to run Brighton Sunday Assembly takes a lot of work and a lot of time, mostly behind the scenes but on the day as well. Anyone who’s been along on one of the Sundays knows how thinly spread I am during those mornings and how much I have to do. There is certainly some feeling of relief when I consider the fact I will no longer be doing that. My dominant feeling though, is one of great sadness. I didn’t get involved with Brighton SA so that I would eventually feel relief when it was all over. I got involved because I was passionate about providing a non-religious alternative to churches on a Sunday morning. I loved working on the project and would still recommend Brighton SA to anyone who is interested. It has no official links with the Central SA organisation, it only shares its name, so I have no hesitation in offering my moral support. I’d be back there in a shot if they broke away from the central organisation.
Brighton SA is the epitome of how a group of volunteers can come together to provide a reason for people to gather of a Sunday morning. Many people benefit from the sense of community that traditional churches can provide and from those communities other things emerge too; Friendships, charitable work, laughter, knowledge. But for those of us who simply can’t believe the supernatural claims of religions, the decision about whether or not to attend church is a very simple one: No thanks. And we miss out on a few things.
At SA Brighton, we try to do all the good things that traditional churches do, but without any of the supernatural stuff. It’s as simple as that. Of course, lots of people just don’t like the idea at all, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide the option for those that do. My wish is that even those who don’t like the idea of taking part in something like this would support its existence in principle; that it is better for a godless alternative to exist than not to exist.
While working on SA, I have spoken publicly to hundreds of people about why I support the project. Many of them started off opposed to the concept but ended up in favor at least of its existence, if not enthusiastic about coming along to one. I normally speak about Sunday Assembly at the end of my Skeptics in the Pub talk, where the question and answer sessions tend to focus on the subject. I always looked forward to being grilled by audiences of skeptics because I knew that in order to answer the hardest questions, all I ever had to do was tell the whole truth. I felt great comfort in the fact that as long as I could be completely straight with the audience, I was defending something worth defending.
A few things happened to change this, to make it so that I could no longer just tell the straight, complete truth to audiences as I thought the truth might make SA look bad – or it might give ammunition to our opponents. As someone who values freethought, finding myself in this position was painful for me. While I could still be 100% sincere about the things we were doing at Brighton SA, this was no longer the case when it came to talking about the London group.
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.
Chief Executive Officer. Definitely not Pope.
In April, Sanderson Jones was appointed CEO of the Sunday Assembly charity. This is a salaried role and his wages were backdated to January. All the energetic promotional work you saw him doing – supposedly out of the kindness of his heart – would eventually be paid in this roundabout way. Every other organiser in every other group is a volunteer and it’s the work of those volunteers that has made SA the success it is. Jones has wanted remuneration for his work officially since October 2013, when he allocated a share of their (ridiculous) £500,000 kickstarter attempt to himself “because rent”. This kickstarter failed but the creation of the CEO role allows Jones to be paid after all. I wonder how many existing SA groups would be willing to announce Jones’ backdated salary to their congregation during a service and if not, why not?
I’m open to the possibility of having a paid admin role, as long as it is for a very clearly defined workload, but I am not in favour of having a paid CEO. Sunday Assembly was supposed to be refreshingly different to religious organisations, but for me its structure is depressingly similar to that of the Vatican and represents a betrayal of those of us who got on board in good faith, hoping it would turn out to be something new and different.
On behalf of the SA charity, Jones has already secured £50,000 worth of grants and donations, which will in part pay for his future wages. I hope this money wasn’t obtained by SA at the expense of more worthy causes as it is still unclear what else Jones plans to spend the money on, except for his wages.
[SA Brighton has never contributed money to Central SA or to their charity - all their funds go on delivering the monthly services, just as they tell the congregation before each collection].
It was announced recently that SA London “had money in the bank” and would waive the cost for delegates to attend its “Conference of Wonder” that took place last week. I wonder if that is the kind of good cause that donors had in mind when contributing their money.
There are numerous other items about which I disagree strongly with SA Central and some will no doubt be the subject of future blog posts (and my book!) but this one is already too long. Below are a couple of brief summaries of the kind of things that have led to me removing my support for the centralised Sunday Assembly movement.
- One of the rules for setting up your own Sunday Assembly is that you rotate the host role. We do this every 2 months in Brighton. The idea is that you won’t then end up with a de facto vicar, or leader. I value this concept very highly indeed as I think it is essential that SA groups function as an extension of their congregations, not as a separate clique. For whatever reason, the London group (which has now granted itself the power to accredit other groups with official SA status if they are up to scratch) has largely ignored this little principle. Pippa and or Sanderson are always the hosts in London. Why does the rule not apply to them?
- I want the Godless Congregation movement to be as pure as the driven snow from bottom to top. Without a hierarchy, without money, without positions of power that can end up abused. Without secrets we have to keep. Celebrating the diversity of the groups, encouraging discussion among them, embracing dissent. For me, keeping the organisation voluntary is a key component of maintaining its integrity. As soon as you have paid staff, you need an executive and you need money. If SA were a normal charity or a business then of course paid roles and executive power are needed, but I thought SA was supposed to be neither of those things.
- Jones recently unilaterally appointed the “senior communications guy” for McDonalds UK as press officer for Sunday Assembly. For me, Sunday Assembly is already overburdened with slick marketing and meaningless slogans (“Building lives of purpose”, “Helping people reach their full potential”) and taking on the McDonalds guy means we’re in for more of the same. Godless church-services, we have now shown, are objectively good enough that they shouldn’t require any gloss or spin. We aren’t trying to sell mass-manufactured food-solutions, we’re trying to provide positive, non-religious church-type-services for everyone that wants them. I’d rather let it grow slowly and naturally than see a rapid expansion driven by marketing gimmicks.
- One of Sunday Assembly’s “visions” is to provide a “godless congregation” in every town and city that wants one. However, the SA support network only currently includes officially accredited SA groups, or those on their way to becoming accredited. Having benefited from a huge amount of publicity, this network has grown into a very useful resource. I foresee many organisers becoming disillusioned with Jones’ “leadership” and breaking away to form their own godless congregations and many other new groups completely bypassing the SA brand. Will Central Sunday Assembly allow those non-SA godless congregations to participate on their network? If so, why should groups bother seeking accreditation? And if not, SA should change their “vision” to clearly state that it actually aims to provide an officially accredited Sunday Assembly in every town or city that wants one.