The Sunday Assembly movement comes to Cambridge


Because no one has the monopoly on having tea and cake with like-minded strangers on a Sunday morning

I had heard from various places about this new Sunday Assembly movement earlier in the year. (See here). I kind of felt that it would be nice to have something like this in Cambridge, but then thought it sounded like too much work – or rather a distraction from what I’m already working on. So when they said they were going to rock up in my neighbourhood, me and Puffles went along to see for ourselves what it was about. (See here for their Facebook group).

“Is it an atheist church?”


“But it’s on Sunday and you all get together and you have a sing-song and people read stuff and there’s a loud beardy bloke and you have tea and cake afterwards so it sounds like an atheist church so it must be an atheist church!”

It isn’t

“Did anyone read from Dawkins and Hitchens?”

No. Instead we had Jocelyn Cutler from Cambridge Carbon Footprint talking about living more sustainable lifestyles. We also had music from the local band Tiger Blue (see here) playing a handful of funky covers (which worked surprisingly well, even though I’d have settled for a different set of songs myself). Finally we also had Fay Roberts with some musical poetry too. So…it was more ‘community cabaret variety’ showcasing local talents with some singalong thrown in and some tea and cake at the end. And it worked.

“How many people turned up?”

It was held at The Junction2 – the theatre bit, and was standing room only, so well over 100 people there. Thus proving the concept works. The challenge now is sustaining it. The audience was more varied than I thought it would be. I anticipated it would be a combination of seasoned and weathered old school humanists crossed with a younger generation from the student societies. But actually there were a number of families with young children and many single people between mid20s to mid 40s.

The latter group is a particularly interesting demographic for me – not least because I’m part of it. But from a community activity point of view, we’re both an under-served and an under-utilised group of people. It feels that there’s little that is ‘non-commercial’ that reaches out to this demographic, and at the same time community and voluntary groups also struggle to reach out and make use of the talents that this group of people has. For me I felt there was a ‘critical mass’ – predominantly male at first glance, that want to be part of a wider community that came along to this event.

There’s wider anecdotal evidence of people wanting to get together ‘for the common good’ too.

The over 600 people that signed up to and come to events organised online via the Thirsty 30s meetup group, or the 800 or so in Cosmopolitan Friends of Cambridge (some are in both groups) gives an idea of some of the potential. Cambridge University’s Country Dancing Society tapped into a couple of these virtual groups in Cambridge and managed to at least double the turnout at one recent event, filling a very large church hall. (I wrote about this here). People from other online groups were also noticeable by their presence. I mentioned Cambridge Carbon Footprint earlier, but there were also people from (perhaps as expected) the Cambridge Humanist Group and Cambridge Skeptics. People in other community groups were also there – such as the Cambridge MAP Project too.

“So…we’ve got all of those people together. Now what?”

Good question – one for the local organisers (Here on Facebook and here on Googlegroups) to consider as they prepare for their next gathering scheduled I understand for early December 2013. What they won’t have is Pippa and Sanderson leading things.

Puffles with the original founders of the Sunday Assembly, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones - the latter reminding me of a young Brian Blessed in personality alone. (That's a compliment!)
Puffles with the original founders of the Sunday Assembly, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones – the latter reminding me of a young Brian Blessed in personality alone. (That’s a compliment!)

The opposite personas of Pippa and Sanderson worked brilliantly. Think of Sanderson as a very cheery young Brian Blessed. Think of Pippa as a comically sarcastic cynic. (“My normal voice sounds naturally sarcastic” she said).

Yet the chemistry worked. Between now and the next assembly, the organisers will need to identify someone who can ‘command’ a large and unfamiliar audience and put it at ease. David Dimbleby managed to do this but in a different manner to Sanderson & Pippa when BBC Question Time came to Cambridge not so long ago. (I blogged about being in that audience here).

Problems with booking speakers and venues

I was surprised to hear that some of the desired speakers were difficult to book. The voluntary nature of, and giving up a Sunday morning for any event would inevitably be barriers for some. Yet I get the feeling from previous events that people in general want proof that a concept works before throwing themselves into it. Now that the concept has been demonstrated – and will be written about by a number of media outlets, getting future speakers on board will hopefully be easier. After all, who would not want a captive and receptive audience of over 100 people to speak to on a topic of your choice?

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The more problematic issue is that of venues. Not surprisingly, Cambridge University colleges were indifferent, if not hostile. In Cambridge generally, there is a shortage of, or rather a difficulty accessing large but affordable venues for community groups.

How do you get derelict buildings such as the old bingo hall (pictured) back into use but in a manner that is not making a continued loss? Certainly the churches such as Centre St Pauls, and Emmanuel URC in Cambridge have worked wonders, transforming their large buildings into facilities that can be used both for church services and also for large community events.


The link to a community action summit

My original blogpost about a Cambridge Community Action Summit for early 2014 is here. (Please read it if this sounds like the sort of thing you’d be interested in contributing your expertise to). The subject link between the Sunday Assembly and this idea is that the people coming along to the former generally had this sense of wanting to ‘belong’ to a wider community, as well as a sense of wanting to be active and enjoy themselves at the same time. Without repeating the blogpost, the aim of the summit, and going through the processes of making a grass-roots community development plan includes making things much easier for people to self-organise for the common good.

The potential is clearly there. The challenge is realising and delivering on that.


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