Belfast Sunday Assembly (Exterior)

Sunday Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sunday Assembly
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 March 2014, 3:00pm

The building

Editor's note: A report such as this would ordinarily not be allowed, as the organization is clearly not trinitarian and most likely not even a church. However, we have made an exception because the structure of the meeting so closely resembled a worship service - and, as the reporter stated, "God crept in" despite it all.] They meet at the Black Box, a well-known local arts venue, home to many festivals, gigs and events. Painted white on the outside, the building features a windowless interior space with black walls, black ceiling and a maple floor. Three rows of chairs were laid out in front of the band, along with a carved wooden lectern that looked like it had a previous life in a church. There was further seating around small tables toward the back. A bar down one side of the room was open throughout the meeting.

The church

Sunday Assembly is (quoting from their Facebook page) "part of a non-religious worldwide network of people who gather locally to hear great talks, sing songs and celebrate life." This was the Belfast branch's third monthly meeting. One of the meetings leaders affirmed from the front that the Sunday Assembly was neither anti-religious nor hung up on atheism, though there was an undeniable secular/humanist feel to some of the content of the meeting as well as plenty of inherited ecclesiastical references.

The neighborhood

The Black Box is half way along a narrow cobbled street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. It's up the street from popular bars, trendy coffee shops and restaurants, the Belfast MAC arts/theatre complex, and a university campus. It's practically in the shadow of the spike (not spire) of St Anne's, Belfast's Anglican cathedral.

The cast

The meeting was led energetically by Caitlin Magnall Kearns. Clare McWilliams performed some poems. Kellie Turtle and Maria Andreana Deana (from Belfast Feminist Network collective) spoke about feminism in advance of International Womens Day. Someone named Nick finished by leading a mindful walk clockwise around the room to help reflect on the message. Mags & the Beards provided the rhythm and the tunes.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Assembly or The Gathering.

How full was the building?

About 40 people attended. There were lots of spare seats and tables. There was no back row gang: people mostly sat near the front without having to be cajoled. There was a handful of young children, though most were taken out soon after the meeting began. Reference was made to the numbers being low, blamed on a clash with the League Cup football final (perhaps some kind of rival religion?)

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. There was a welcome desk with two people sitting behind it. They were already talking to the couple who'd come in before me, so I ended up slipping past, getting a Diet Coke from the bar and finding a seat. However, when I went up to the front to take a photo of the stage before the meeting started, a regular attendee came across to chat and ask if I'd been to their previous assemblies.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. Standard cafe-style white tub chair. Perfectly comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Music played in the background for about 20 minutes before the meeting started. At one point the double bass player plucked along to Fleetwood Macs "Dont Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." There was a little chatter, mostly between couples or foursomes sitting together. People would get up and buy a drink from the bar. Some children danced and played.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Hello. Hel-lo. Heeeeeeeee-lo. Welcome to the Sunday Assembly. Are you ready to assemble?"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books were used during the meeting. The words of the songs and some sermon illustrations were projected onto a screen.

What musical instruments were played?

Guitar, double bass, percussive egg shakers, and vocals.

Did anything distract you?

Like most services, this one's PowerPoint had its dodgy moments, with lyrics escaping off the top of the screen.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

They started with Mags & the Beards (the band) launching into Nina Simones "Aint Got No." People stood as they wished. While introducing the meeting's theme of feminism, Caitlin Magnall Kearns launched into a spirited rendition of Cyndi Laupers "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" that involved a lot of dancing and making her shoes into puppet mouths. All the songs went with a swing, with sing-along covers of Blondie Sunday Girl and Big Yellow Taxi, though I'm not sure whether it was based on Joni Mitchell, Counting Crows or Amy Grant versions! Some of the gathered assembly clapped, but relatively few sang along.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

23 minutes, followed by a 6-1/2 minute talk on a related theme.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – Kellie Turtle delivered a pretty solid talk without preacher theatrics, arm waving, emotional heart string tugging, or having to thump the lectern to underline her argument. She used a small number of slides that complemented her spoken points. I'd half expected a glorified TEDx talk, one of the talks supplied by Technology Entertainment Design, (quoting from their mission statement) "a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers." However, it was neither as flashy nor as single dimensional as some can be.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Kellie's talk was based on "lessons from the Suffragette movement and what we can still learn from it." She outlined statistics about the levels of domestic abuse in Ireland and the very low conviction rate for rape. She talked about the actions and repercussions of the suffrage movement in Northern Ireland. Kellie's three points were: (1) The world and equality that the Suffragettes struggled for still does not exist; (2) the arguments are still depressingly familiar 100 years on; and (3) we still need "rebel" women and men, not all out evangelising others about feminism but simply being agents of social change in their communities. Maria Andreana Deana followed up with a short reflection on her battle against the "perennial guilt" of being told to be "as good a woman as she should be" (measured by others in terms of physical appearance and confidence), which she called "living in a moral hangover."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The free pieces of cake over on the bar after the meeting were divine. All meetings should finish with cake! And it was good to see some people attending who would describe themselves as recovering evangelicals who hadn't lost a longing for building community.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

All a bit energetic for this Mystery Worshipper at half past three on a Sunday afternoon. The final reflection took the form of an exercise in mindfulness (which I've heard preached in churches too): a slow-paced walk around the Black Box venue, with participants encouraged (though not mandated!) to "feel the connection with Mother Earth" as each footstep "kissed" the maple floor. I found myself praying as I walked around, which felt a bit naughty!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I stood near the cake. Another attendee started up a conversation, commenting on how good the cake was. He asked how I'd found the event and wondered if I''d any ideas for future speakers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A lot more chatting than before the meeting started. People milled around at the bar eating cake and finishing their drinks. Did I mention the cake? Mmmmmm.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – They've got the cake right, but it lacked community. It's early days for the Sunday Assembly in Belfast - only their third gathering - but I missed the warm buzz of people greeting each other and catching up over the back of chairs to the others assembled nearby. As a place for deliberative thought and reflection on life and the world, it was promising, but where were the hugs and where was a sense of collective identity? But I can't mark them down for parents deciding to take children out of the room, dodgy PowerPoint, or people not singing; sadly, those are givens in many churches.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It did! I'm sure that wasn't the organisers' express intention, but I don't think they'll mind. It made me realise the much stronger common sense of purpose and belief I see walking into nearly any church building and looking at those gathered. Yet, even in a deliberately godless meeting, God still crept in unannounced and worked (in me, at least) through what was being spoken and enacted.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I'll remember the enormous parallels between the Sunday Assembly and Christian churches. The "church" can't lay claim to the best models, gimmicks or practices, as fundamentally people all over the world use food and music along with a strong verbal message and taking up a collection to build community.

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