December 2013 – “Sunday Assembly at the Ethical Society” – Leader’s Message

“Good evening and welcome to the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a non-theist congregation founded in 1876 and dedicated to the practice of ethics.”

I was the speaker at Sunday Assembly’s New York City event (on Monday evening, November 4th) featuring founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They are comedians from the United Kingdom, and Pippa also sings. The story they tell is that they were en route to a gig when they discussed their shared disbelief in a god and wondered how many people felt, as they did, that they were missing out on some good times singing and clapping and hugging strangers just because they didn’t go to church. So they did something that was new for them (but not, of course, for us) and created Sunday Assembly, a joyful gathering that takes the best parts of church – and leaves god behind. It was a hit in London, and young people in their 20s and 30s flocked to the venues where bands played upbeat music, Sanderson told jokes, and Pippa led them in song. Their celebration of the wonder and awe of life sans the divine went viral on the Internet, and by July there was a gathering at a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Several people from Ethical Culture and local humanists groups checked out the “new” godless congregation, and came away saying, “OK, so they’re atheists. Big deal. What will they do next?” “Next” was my meeting with a graduate student at Columbia University who was on the newly-formed Sunday Assembly board. We began a conversation that culminated in producing an event together: The first U.S. stop in Sanderson and Pippa’s “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour of taking Sunday Assembly around the world.

The theme of the evening was seasonally appropriate: Harvest. I considered the topic both literally and metaphorically. “How many of you grew up on farm?” I asked the audience. A few hands went up. “Ever lived on one?” – a few more hands. “Visited? Picked apples? Stopped at a farm stand?” It seemed that almost everyone had some concept of a place where seeds were planted and food harvested, where communal work was done. I shared a story from our Family Programs Director, Audrey Kindred, whose public school in Maine started in August so that children could be released in October to help harvest potatoes on local farms. The entire community participated. It was that important to everyone. Sadly, this ritual no longer exists; agribusiness has taken over. Food is no longer a communal affair of reaping what one has sown.

And yet the image of harvesting stays with us as a lively and lovely metaphor. We sow seeds of love or discord and reap the consequences of our behavior. Seasons evoke the cycle of life, reminding us that we are part of nature: evolving and enmeshed with all living things. We can and we must choose how to live and love, aspiring to creating ethical relationships.

Since I relished the opportunity to share with these newcomers the wisdom of Ethical Culture, I quoted Leader A. Eustace Haydon (1880 – 1975):
“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”
The band played on, accompanying our singing of the Beatles’ “Help” and “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. Sanderson spoke eloquently about developing a practice of gratitude, and Syd Leroy from Center for Inquiry told the story of “Stone Soup” in dulcet tones, accompanied by a mandolin. At the end of the program, we congregated downstairs in social hall to partake of the food and drink members of our team had brought to share.

I am hopeful that Sunday Assembly will fulfill the needs of a younger generation for more music and movement and fewer words. More people want to experience humanism in tactile, not abstract, ways. It’s time to encourage different expressions and modalities of our non-theistic religion of ethics. The next Sunday Assembly meets on Sunday, December 1, at 2 pm in Ceremonial Hall. The theme is “Wonder.” Please join me then and there!

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