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Posted by on Jan 29, 2014 in Activism, Atheism, Featured, Religion and Society, Secularism | 14 comments

Decision Time for the Sunday Assembly – Guest post by Simon Clare

This blog post is very much a timely piece as there is much newsworthiness concerning the Atheist Assembly and secular gatherings in general. It needs to be read so share away! Simon Clare is organiser of Horsham and Brighton Skeptics in the Pubs and one-time atheist street-preacher. Check out his website at http://www.simonclare.co.uk/ (and will soon feature new blog posts once again!).

Love, hate it or ignore it, the Sunday Assembly project has been successful enough to warrant a serious discussion about how it should be run. Ever since it started in January 2013 the organisation has been enthusiastically driven by its founders Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones but the time has come for the rest of its volunteers to think carefully about how it should be structured in the future. If we get it right, we will safeguard the integrity of the movement and help it continue to grow smoothly and transparently. Get it wrong and we risk it becoming another failed attempt to herd cats, or worse; something indistinguishable from a personality cult. Or even worse; ending up with the same structure as the Catholic church.The Sunday Assembly

Before settling on a particular system of governance, organisers of SA groups need to ask themselves a few questions. What is SA there for? What is it trying to achieve, and how? Does it even need a central governance system? Up until now, people have been swept along by the energy and utterances of the founders, and we organisers have so far been happy to take them at their word. But it is no longer satisfactory for answers to the tough questions to lack detail. Everyone wants the world to be a “better place” but the detail of how to achieve this will determine who supports the project and who doesn’t. These details are called ideologies and the process of implementing them is called politics.

I believe political objectives should have no place in an atheist organisation that has church-style services at its heart, and that such aims would actually be damaging for such a movement. There is a word for communities that get swept up into loyally supporting charismatic people who have ideological or political aims they wish to implement.

It may seem odd that I would be publishing this here instead of sharing it privately among the other organisers. I have been taking part in a discussion “behind the scenes” but it is now time for it to emerge onto the public stage. One of the fundamental aims of any atheist community organisation – particularly one that puts on church-type services – ought to be that it never ever has anything to hide. Furthermore the existing channels within Sunday Assembly for disseminating detailed information are shaky, at best. Not enough words have been written on this subject and that has led to assumptions being made by both organisers and critics of the “atheist church-service movement”. I hope to go some way to making up for that lack of words here but I am also putting the finishing touches to a book which will go into a lot more detail.

So that you know where I am coming from, I am part of a nine-person committee that organises Sunday Assembly Brighton. We have been putting on services since September and despite my skeptical, Dawkins-inspired background, I have come to attach a lot of value to what we are doing, both as a local event and as an international “movement”. I feel like we are doing an important thing. We’re providing an important option, and it feels good. My views, however, are my own.

The Discussion Begins

For a few months now, there have been some “robust” conversations between organisers of regional SA groups and the project’s founders. Last week, Sunday Assembly London (the provisional de facto leadership of the movement) publicly announced that it has started a period of open consultation to thrash out the best way of structuring the thing.

This process was in part instigated because myself and a few others had some reservations about some decisions that had been made during the previous year; most notably the decision by SA London to begin a crowdfunding drive to raise £500,000 for a “digital platform”. I laid out all of my objections in a rather ranty blog post but before publishing it, I sent it to Pippa Evans, Sanderson Jones and Mark McKergow – the people in charge at SA London, so that I could include their reply in my post. I was heartened that, after reading my long rant, they asked me to hold my horses and instead to help carry out an internal review of the governance of SA. The aim of the review would be to consult widely so that eventually a system could be approved by a mass vote of all of the organisers later in 2014. I was impressed that they had the inclination to keep my dissenting views on board rather than suggesting I go elsewhere, so I was pleased to accept the offer.

Before starting the review properly, I met up firstly with Mark McKergow in a pub somewhere in London and then a couple of weeks later with Pippa and Sanderson at the Royal Festival Hall. There was a good understanding between myself and Mark and although his aims differed from mine, he was genuinely open to a range of detailed proposals. Pippa and Sanderson however were very much more focused on being able to Get Things Done and the need to make executive policy decisions without necessarily having to go through a slow, energy-sapping democratic process.Live Better Picture2

I have no doubt that they are sincere in their aim to “help people reach their full potential” and to “change the lives of millions of people” but the absence of any specific details continued to frustrate me. I did a bad job on the day of trying to explain why I thought it was so important to keep the network of Sunday Assembly organisers separate from any political considerations if it wants to stay true to its central aim. As far as I could see, our central aim is simply to support and improve godless church services. Pippa and Sanderson seemed to see the services as just one facet of a more lofty vision.

After some contemplation I concluded that their views about SA governance were irreconcilable with my own and that I wasn’t doing a very good job of explaining my ideas. It would be impossible for me to carry out an impartial review of SA governance whilst advocating for a constitution so different to what the founders were envisaging, so I quit the review. In any case, I have no special qualification to manage such a project, I just have a big, awkward mouth. The review was left in the capable hands of Mark McKergow and I concentrated on formulating my own proposals for how a godless church organisation might function.

A Simple Idea

In my view, deciding upon the “governance” of such an organisation is not about laying down rules for the project’s supporters, or establishing a central authority. It’s simply about serving and protecting the most fundamental aims of the organisation – making godless church services happen. The godless are renowned for their reluctance to have leaders speak on their behalf or tell them what to do and having benefited so much from the publicity around being “the atheist church” Sunday Assembly ignores that fact at its peril.

The unique strength of the Sunday Assembly was that their services had surprisingly broad appeal, mostly attributable to how positive the services were. They celebrated life but resisted the temptation to kick religion – they just ignored it. In theory, everybody could get something out of Sunday Assembly, whichever religion or brand of non-religion they are. Inviting different people to give the sermon each month meant that interesting subjects could be explored without the need to establish a priesthood or any central scriptures of their own. Along with the songs and the readings, the services were something genuinely new.

The success of the format represents, for me, a real example of progress. The atheism subject has moved on very little since The God Delusion and I’m sorry to have to say this but secular humanists are still seen as dusty old grumps. After the God Delusion was published, lots of people who had not previously identified as atheists became atheists in the Dawkins model. This was perfectly fair enough but it didn’t lead us any closer to a solution. Progress on this front won’t come via the defeat of one side or the other but by mutual understanding and knowledge. At the moment, secular humanism is hopelessly inept at showing a smiling, welcoming face to the world and SA allows us to do just that.

The strengths of the Sunday Assembly are the format and the attitude of the services. I see no reason for the organisation to shift its focus away from this simple principle. People don’t need a centralised Church of Atheism to tell them that charity work is good, or that helping people is a rewarding thing to do. Despite not having a church tell them these things, atheists have been getting on with doing their bit anyway. The format of the services is of good enough quality for it to spread organically. As people attend out of curiosity, some will be inspired to launch their own, so what exactly do we need a centralised governance body for? Do we need to be raising funds to pay for people to go out and spread SA?

It is repeatedly asserted by many of the organisers that some kind of central, paid staff will be eventually be required, but I see no evidence presented for this. There is just an assumption that it is obviously necessary. I am open to being swayed on this point but I see no reason for it at the moment. Does the survival of the movement depend on people working full time on publicity? I doubt it. Does it need a complicated system of centrally controlled “accreditation”? I don’t think so. If paid staff were appointed, who would do the hiring and firing or awarding of pay rises? How exactly would money raised for the central staff? From the church collections? It would open a Pandora’s box.

A network of Sunday Assembly-inspired groups is a very useful resource. We can exchange tips, discuss problems, share what seems to work or not work for our services. Such a forum already exists for Sunday Assembly groups, hosted on the (awful) google groups site, but groups that have already decided not to go down the SA route are not party to those conversations and that’s a shame. In fact, that forum is so hopeless that even organisers who already use it are still unclear about how SA works. Skeptics in the Pub in the UK manages with a private facebook group for these discussions, so why would SA need anything more complicated in order to help support its component groups? It only needs something more complicated if it wants to do more complicated things.

Keeping Everyone Aboard

The early splits of the New York and Birmingham groups from SA were the first example of how easily new groups can just go it alone. I know that splits aren’t inherently bad as they can lead to evolution but each time there is a split there is heartache and pain. Division among local organisers can also be a real obstacle to just getting the services to happen, so we must minimise likelihood of splits if we possibly can. This is what being “radically inclusive” means, for me. You can’t claim to be radically inclusive and then in the very next sentence say “if you don’t like it you can go elsewhere”.

We can keep everyone aboard in two ways. The first and perhaps most obvious way is to have policy decisions made by a democratic, representative decision-making body of some sort. The second, perhaps counter-intuitive way, would be to only ever have one policy. A representative democracy is great for making sure that the “leaders” only make decisions based on the consent of their members but it is slow. And clunky. And it still wouldn’t prevent splits. Say 30% of organisers were to disagree with a policy proposal (such as fundraising for an expensive website). What is to stop that 30% from just going their own way? Nothing at all. They will go their own way and they will carry on organising godless church services but they won’t be Sunday Assembly ones any more and we will have lost their experience and their voice.

The alternative sounds simplistic but it’s my favoured option. The network of existing godless churches could exist with a sole policy. To start, support and improve godless church services. That aim unites all of the local groups as well as the ones that have already split off.

So where is the ambition in that? How do we launch amazing projects to improve the lives of millions etc? Firstly, in pursuing the humble aim of encouraging the propagation of godless church services, we will indeed be making the world incrementally better. This simple concept, if it spreads, will be an improvement of the world in itself. Only hubris and naivety would take this simple concept for granted and reach for more. Secondly, there’s nothing to stop members of the SA network from banding to together to achieve particular projects. Groups could start their own charities or NGOs (or companies or whatever) and those bodies can decide to do whatever they like. If local SA groups want to support those projects they would be free to do so but the success or failure of those projects should have no effect whatsoever on the aim of the central network of godless church groups.

If London SA were intent on directly linking their Sunday services to their greater ideological aims then they can go right ahead (as long as their organising committee agree) but those projects should not automatically become the policy of the worldwide godless church movement. If it’s a good idea, other groups may choose to get behind it. We don’t need to be having dramatic talk of schisms every time the network rejects one of Sanderson Jones’ schemes. At the moment we still have no detailed idea about what exactly SA London’s charity is there for anyway, or why it might need paid staff. That case has not been made to the organisers in any meaningful way. Until that case is made properly, the godless church movement can happily do without it as it has done so far.

So let’s keep it simple. We only need to focus on the thing that has already brought the volunteers together – the services themselves. If we end up with the SA organisation becoming an all-singing, all-dancing socio-political movement with vague ideologies and nebulous policies, it will collapse under the weight of its own good intentions and fail. We will have done a disservice to all the people who don’t yet have a godless option on their Sunday mornings.

  • PaulSJenkins

    Sanderson and Pippa need to decide whether they can let go of their project. If they can’t — if they have intentions to develop its very specific identity — they need to formalise their objectives and establish a hierarchy of organisation. On the other hand if they just want to catalyse a godless social movement then each local Sunday Assembly should be free to develop as its local organisers see fit.

    Personally I feel the second option will better cater for the wide range of likes and dislikes of those who might want to attend a godless social gathering on a Sunday.

    Not that my opinion should count at all — I’m one of those who has no desire to attend the Sunday Assembly on a regular basis (though I did go to the second one in London last year, just to see what it was like).

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the comments, PSJ

  • Paul Orton

    I tend to agree with the article and PaulSJenkins. Keep it loose and together, I say. I’m not sure if option 2 is particularly radical; it is just focusing on what is important to the movement.

    I went to the second one with PaulSJenkins where we did an episode of the Skepticule.co.uk podcast (episode 41) which gives a good flavour of it then. I also went back in June with my children. It’s not something I would want to go to every week anyway, but the difficulties that the movement is having are putting me off. Getting the governance right in the way you recommend does sound very sensible. It would be interesting to hear a response from Sanderson or Pippa though.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the comments, guys!

  • Ian Dodd

    As an organizer for one of the larger Sunday Assemblies in North America, I think Simon Clare has some perspective and value to offer with his critique of the SA governance system, very much a work in progress. I plan to share this with the rest of the Los Angeles committee for discussion. Simon has already been criticized for “airing our dirty laundry” on a public forum, and I have my own reticence about that as well, but I also believe it’s indicative of how frustrating it has been for him to have his views taken into consideration along the back channels, so for that, I give him kudos.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the frank comment. I think when something grows so fast so quickly, it is hard to know the best way to go about changing things, or finding out what the best route it.

    • Simon Clare

      Thanks Ian – I’m looking forward to seeing many more words written by people with a different opinion to mine! The discussion about whether it was right to go public at this stage is one I am happy to have but I hope that on reading the piece people will see that I care more about the future of SA than I do about ruffling a few people’s feathers. It’s a blessing and a curse.

      • Michael Dorian

        Simon, we should stay in touch about this. I broached very similar issues with other SA organizers in several cities in the States; I’m fairly confident these affairs will not vanish and feel SA can only thrive if certain crucial matters are attended to in a timely and transparent fashion.

    • Michael Dorian

      Yes, Simon has opened the door on a much-needed discussion. As the primary SA-NYC organizer who was at the epicenter of that now-infamous split, I’d say that despite Sanderson’s and Pippa’s intentions and their collective “vision”, they ought really to seriously consider the intentions and opinions of their devoted organizers and the members of their “congregations”. And I would contend that the co-founders of SA would do well to truly embrace atheism, not disavow it as “boring”, otherwise they run the acute risk of fading into irrelevance due to a lack of any true substance to sustain over the long run what they have aimed to build in their very effective sprint into the public sphere. I wish them well because I believe we’re on the same side but I’m afraid they are misguided, especially in their approach here in America.

  • http://www.atheismandthecity.com/ The Thinker

    I actually just went to Sunday Assembly in NY yesterday.

  • Michael Dorian

    Yes, Simon has opened the door on a much-needed discussion. As the primary SA-NYC organizer who was at the epicenter of that now-infamous split, I’d say that despite Sanderson’s and Pippa’s intentions and their collective “vision”, they ought really to seriously consider the intentions and opinions of their devoted organizers and the members of their “congregations”. And I would contend that the co-founders of SA would do well to truly embrace atheism, not disavow it as “boring”, otherwise they run the acute risk of fading into irrelevance due to a lack of any true substance to sustain over the long run what they have aimed to build in their very effective sprint into the public sphere. I wish them well because I believe we’re on the same side but I’m afraid they are misguided, especially in their approach here in America.

  • Charles F. Radley

    The SA governance discussion is public and visible at this google group link https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/saenetwork