Updated: Dec 19, 2018
by Alexis Potaman
A few years ago, my husband and I traveled to London. We're secular and on vacation so theoretically this would have meant sleeping in on Sunday. But Sunday Assembly popped up on our radar a year or two before our vacation, and as members of Houston Oasis, we were thrilled to have a community to visit while we were away. Unlike Oasis, Sunday Assembly London met every other week at Conway Hall. We were in luck because they were meeting the Sunday we were in town.
We were a little nervous because we weren’t sure what to expect. A lot of the pictures make it look like it’s a church, but as it turns out, it’s actually the Humanist Center of London and contains a library of Humanist literature. The building is hiding off in a corner and the walk from the tube station was under construction. Thankfully someone had posted signs pointing the way. We explained we were visiting from a group “similar to SA” and were promptly introduced to Sanderson Jones who actually knew me by my twitter handle (Is it still blushing if your whole body goes red?) and gave me a big hug. Needless to say I had a bit of a fangirl moment. Everyone was very welcoming, and we felt right at home.
Both Sunday Assembly and the Oasis Network seek to create secular communities. In fact their taglines at the time were “Celebrating Life Together” and “Celebrating the Human Experience” respectively. For those that miss the community aspect that religion brings, both places can be a haven. And both communities have a passion for volunteering and seek to use human hands to help make a difference in the world.
Despite their similarities, these communities differ. The biggest difference is in the frequency of the meetings. The Oasis model is a weekly meeting while the Sunday Assembly Model is bi-weekly. However, it seemed like London initiated “community groups” early on with meet ups around London throughout the fortnight. Since Houston Oasis has taken this approach over the last year, I feel that it has really strengthened our sense of community. In fact, this sense of community has been so strong that it spurred the growth of a second Oasis in the Houston area, Galveston Bay Oasis. Because of this, I’m sure the London Assembly community is just as strong despite meeting less frequently.
At the time we traveled to London, Houston Oasis was meeting in a conference room. Sunday Assembly London was in an auditorium complete with a stage and balcony, which offered a decidedly more theatrical program. We grabbed our seats near the front and stood and sang as the house band began to play. We sang along to pop/rock songs while the day’s MCs danced in the aisle and on stage.
We heard a short talk from someone (à la community moment) where we were encouraged to use our imagination. Had a rousing round of “I Wanna Be Like You” from the Jungle Book before the main speaker. Everyone was out of their seats singing and clapping along. The main speaker had recently been to a secular convention the previous weekend and shared his experience along with a short slideshow from a humanist convention that took place the week before. We ended the meeting by singing “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.” We had to get going but otherwise we would have stayed for tea and cookies (or should I say biscuits?) after the assembly.
All in all, it’s very similar to Oasis, although I definitely prefer a coffee break in the middle. I feel it gives people a chance to organically meet new people. For an introvert like myself, being compelled to meet a single person sitting next to me can be a bit nerve wracking. I find it easier to join a group already in conversation and have the opportunity to gauge people first. You know, find out that they’re not religion-bashing, children-eating, Satan worshipers before opening up.
While we weren’t bothered exactly, my first thought of the high spirited clapping and song lyrics projected on the screen was how Pentecostal it felt. The Church of England is much more subdued than churches in the States, and Sanderson explained people wanted something different. However, I’ve met people so scarred by religion that even passing around collection baskets brings back uncomfortable memories. I can definitely see dancing in the aisle being a big trigger for many back here in the states.
Having said that, we did have a great time. Any time we're in London, we're sure to go back and I encourage you to visit if you ever have the chance.