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Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Worshipper: Banana Fillets.
Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Assembly. [Editor's note: We have allowed this report due
to the growing worldwide popularity of the Sunday Assembly movement
and the similarity between the meeting in question and a more
orthodox church service.]
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.
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 meeting’s
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
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 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 Women’s 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.
The date & time:
Sunday, 2 March 2014, 3.00pm (though the meeting didn’t really
kick off until 3.20pm).
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
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Standard café-style white tub chair. Perfectly comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service
Music played in the background for about 20 minutes before the
meeting started. At one point the double bass player plucked
along to Fleetwood Mac’s "Don’t 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
"Hello. Hel-lo. Heeeeeeeee-lo. Welcome to the Sunday Assembly.
Are you ready to assemble?"
What books did the congregation use during the
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 Simone’s "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 Lauper’s
"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
Exactly how long was the
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
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
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 this church your regular (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
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
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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