Church or no Church? The Sunday Assembly
Today (July 17th), tucked away on a regional section of BBC News was an article and video report on the Sunday Assembly meeting in Edinburgh (links below). I’m not sure why the report has been circulated today but it seems to be an opportunity to respond. Perhaps some might expect a response to castigate it for being an imposter, moving in on the territory of the church. But then they might also realise that if it’s so easy to attract people to “church without religion” or church without God then perhaps we are doing something really wrong in the church to make it so unattractive! Another response might be a withering attack on atheism and its own implausibility as a system of belief. Though there might be grounds to do so, and others could do so better than I, in my experience it’s rarely won many people over who are already convicted of their atheism. A further response might be to brush it off as a small minority of people that get taken in by the trappings of the Sunday Assembly. However, as many churches in Scotland decline, it might not be wise to ignore a “church” that is, for the moment, seemingly growing.
My response is probably one that is a lot less cynical. In fact, I think we could learn a lot from engaging with them since they seem to be connecting with felt needs of a significant proportion of people and perhaps in ways the church is not. Dr. Katie Cross has done some fascinating work on analysing traits and trends within the Sunday Assembly and how they approach an issue like grief. It’s important to recognise what a church might learn from thinking through the conclusions this type of engagement raises. Listening to the practices of a community is significant in establishing what that community believe. And it is here that my response begins to take shape.
On the one hand, we might be able to learn more about what the felt needs of people are and, as a church, think about what our response could be. However, on the other hand, I’m not sure a church should only be thinking about “people-pleasing” by creating a space that fulfils those needs (if this is even possible since the diversity of needs means that many different “sorts” of Sunday Assemblies would need to exist to meet the needs of many people. At present I think the Sunday Assembly can only claim to meet the needs of some people who fit into the approach they offer). So my question really boils down to what makes a church, a church? Can the Sunday Assembly really even be compared to a church at all?
This is a vast topic and I really can’t do it justice in a reasonable length of post! However, I want to put out some thoughts to consider as a starting point in the discussion. I think the first, and perhaps the most pertinent, relates to some of the primary motifs we use around church currently. It is hard not to hear phrases such as “building relationships” or “creating a community” or “just love one another” when people express what they think a church should do or be. And, on one level, I have no problem with the sentiment behind these. The problem comes when we don’t move beyond these ideas (especially as I think the Sunday Assembly might say it’s about building relationship, creating community, and loving one another too). The resulting challenge then is whether the idea of community has surpassed the idea of church? McDonnell reminds us that ‘a sociological analysis of the local church is not a substitute for a theology of the Church.’
So what might it mean to leave behind community and embrace church? I think for one it might be leaving behind the idea that church should be a comfortable place. By all means church needs to be a safe space and it needs to be a caring space and it needs to be a place of sanctuary – but it also shouldn’t leave us unmoved and unchanged. If one of the main distinguishing factors of the church is the Lordship of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit then inevitably there will be times when church is challenging. And this will not only be personally challenging but also a call for the gathered church to challenge wider social issues. Miroslav Volf encourages us to remember that
there is a reality that is more important than the culture to which we belong. It is God and the new world that God is creating, a world in which people from every nation and every tribe, with their cultural goods, will gather around the triune God, a world in which every tear will be wiped away and ‘pain will be no more.’
If we think that all church should be is a place that does not disturb the status quo and all we have to do is create a community to sing songs, pray prayers, and hear good words (as good as all these things are) then I think we are perhaps missing the point.
In closing I want to move beyond the ideological distinctiveness of church to the distinctiveness that is found in church practices. The Sunday Assembly seems to be happy to adopt the practices of church in corporate singing and learning through “sermons”; they also share times of fellowship and may even have symbolic rituals; but I am almost certain that they won’t practice the eucharist (or Lord’s Supper / Communion). When we come to the Lord’s Table we do so, neither out of habit nor out of ritualistic fervour, but because it is the place where we meet Christ together. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of community and it is a sacrament of grace, but perhaps more than that, it is a sacrament of transformation, moulding us into the sort of people who change the world around us. Once again we can hear the words of Miroslav Volf as a challenge to our week-by-week practice.
We would most profoundly misunderstand the Eucharist, however, if we thought of it only as a sacrament of God’s embrace of which we are simply the fortunate beneficiaries. Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in – even our enemies. This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist.
It is then in our distinctive practices that we are made to be a church. I recognise that the Sunday Assembly are not trying to be a church (at least I don’t think they aim to be a church rather than, more modestly, offer an alternative to church) but my intentional here is to show that the Sunday Assembly is better compared to other social groups – sports clubs or bridge clubs or whatever clubs – rather than being compared to a church. It is the distinctive practice of a church which shapes them as the Body of Christ.
So yes, on the one hand it is easy to see why the Sunday Assembly is compared to a church as it wants to be “church without religion” but I think this fails to do justice to the unique way a church shapes and challenges itself. Of course, the Sunday Assembly still provides a challenge to the church to ensure that when we gather, we do actually gather in the name of Christ expecting to be challenged by the presence of Christ and not simply as a community of Christians happy to remain comfortably insulated. I finish with an extended quote from Paul Fiddes that encapsulates, far better than I could, the nature of a church that is shaped by Christ.
The life-style of the church will not be simply the same as the culture of the society in which it is placed, and will at times be called to challenge it; this is because the church’s life will be shaped by the preached word and the sacrament, which embody the pattern of relationships in God in their own particular ways. Only the church, not secular society is a eucharistic community. Social groups outside the church, and the coherence of things in the natural world may become at times, a ‘sacramental’ community in that they become occasions for Christ to embody himself, and become gateways into the dance of God’s life. But only the church is formed by the actions of the two sacraments which recall the story of Jesus and bring it into the present. Only in the church are bread, wine and water means through which Christ promises to be present, and where he can regularly be expected to meet us.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!
 McDonnell, “The Ratzinger / Kasper Debate: The Universal Church and Local Churches,” 234.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 50-51.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 129.
 Fiddes, Tracks and Traces, 191.