Pippa, along with Sanderson Jones, set up the ‘Sunday Assembly‘. Simply put, Sunday Assembly is a “godless congregation that celebrates life” with the brilliantly life affirming motto to “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More”. With already 63 assemblies all over the world, they’ve produced something that has properly struck a chord with societies around the globe. I wanted to find out what Pippa’s view was on ‘community’. So I did…
TFHG: Community. What does it look like today?
Pippa: Well you look at somewhere like London, where people just don’t talk to each other unless invited to, where so many people are crammed in with one another. But when something happens on the Tube – the driver may say something funny or someone’s started singing Wham, there’s that wonderful moment where people laugh, they share a moment and they stop ignoring each other. Community is where you can talk to people, somewhere you can better yourself and where you’re encouraged to do so. I think with a loss of the church in particular, especially in Britain, we’ve lost a lot of that. Historically, Churches used to be the kind of places where you found out what was going on around you – who was getting married to who, what jobs were available and so on. You know, actual markets used to spring up outside churches because they knew that was one place everyone would turn up to. Going to Church was an event, the service was just a tiny part of that.
TFHG: You guys have really touched on a way to bridge slight failure in modern day community. What are the every day changes needed for people to be more open with others? Is it something that’s going to get worse?
Pippa: It’s about fear and worry that you’re not going to be accepted for who you are. One of the big things about SA is that we are “Radically Inclusive” which means that everyone is welcome and that we don’t preach one way of doing things. It’s not a time to preach. SA is a place of self discovery. You know, us Brits, we can’t even agree on the best way to make a cup of tea! Milky! No, weak! 17 sugars! Soya! So when we get on to bigger topics it all gets a bit intense. This idea that we could all agree on everything is ridiculous. We’ve also become less able to discuss anything without it feeling like an attack. In my humble opinion, that it’s down to the fact that we’re now all on the Internet, Twitter, Facebook – and so on – where you can choose exactly what you want to read. I could just have the guardian as my homepage for example, and on Twitter pick to read those who do to, and it’s inevitable that we start to believe that only our own opinions are the ones that exist in the world. Then, when we stumble across someone who has a completely different view to us, we’re shocked! Because in the last week or so we’ve not actually seen or spoken to anyone who had an opinion that wasn’t our own which makes it hard for us to have a valuable discussion about anything, rather than just an argument. I think that’s one basic thing that we really need to find a way around.
TFHG: I wonder whether our online communicating, which is often via anonymous usernames (not that I can talk!) or at least hidden behind computer screens, is wrongly excusing us from this face to face contact?
Pippa: Well it’s interesting. I went to a talk by Jules Evans who’s a contemporary philosopher, and he spoke about how we now seek sedation rather than experiences that challenge ourselves. So we’d rather watch a box set to deaden ourselves to the world rather than actually explore, develop and express ourselves. I think this is a really interesting idea. Because even if I have something to say, and I comment on a Facebook post or something similar you still don’t have that proper sense that you’re talking with other humans. I heard a story about a radio presenter who used to have the graveyard shift and throughout the show he would get a load of racial abuse via text messages. So when he finished his shift, he’d call up these people and say “Hey! You left me a message so I thought I’d give you a call to see why you felt the need to say those things…” These people would only then realise properly that what they’d said had been said to another human being. Only then, it seems, were they accountable for their actions. In fact, a friend of mine had her bike stolen and having caught these 2 kids who’d nicked it, the police asked her if she wanted to press charges. She said “No, not if they come and tell me why they stole my bike and they apologise to me for doing it”. Amazingly, they didn’t want to apologise, to meet her. Isn’t that weird that they’d rather have charges pressed against them than to simply face the person they stole from and say sorry?
TFHG: Which is fascinating, because it’s this face-to-face accountability that Sunday Assembly seems to be flourishing around. As opposed to forcing people to face up to petty crimes, it’s enabling face to face accountability for all those things that make people beautiful and ultimately human. Have you noticed a change in the people who are coming to your assemblies?
Pippa: Well we’re trying to measure this because we need to find funding soon as we can’t rely on goodwill forever! We sent out questionnaires to everyone on our mailing list and had a huge response, many saying they’d been lonely until they’d finally found this space where they were welcome. When we started, the first thing we asked everyone was “Hands up who’s thought of an idea like this before” – 70% of people there stuck up their hands. A lot of people have been looking to create something like this and luckily we were stupid enough to say “Let’s give it a go!” We’ve had a lot of people who’ve spoken about this lifting of loneliness, building of true friendships as a result of SA. Some people would find these results a bit wishy-washy, but isn’t friendship and self-acceptance what makes the world go round? It’s really what community is all about. SA isn’t the only way to achieve this, but I think it’s plugging a gap left by the loss of organised religion.
TFHG: It’s an interesting challenge for you guys to plug this gap but without inadvertently creating your own religion! Are you fearful at all of the whole thing veering off into a life of its own?
Pippa: I’m only fearful if it goes completely pete tong! But I’m intrigued too. It’s already gone way bigger and better than we’d ever imagined and we’re stepping back and letting it go. I got a tweet a while ago saying “Great video on the Guardian website about how to set up a SA”. I didn’t know about the video and I’d never met any of the people in it! I think they were in Ohio and whilst it was bizarre for me to watch a Sunday Assembly running somewhere I’d never been, I felt really proud and happy to say “I started something that started that.”
TFHG: 10 years down the line, Pippa, what would you like this to looks like?
Pippa: I’d just love there to be a massive network of amazing communities that are doing great things in their area. What’s really fascinating too is, whilst we have a body that helps people set up their own SA’s, a motto that goes “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”, and a fairly vague set of guidelines (the most pertinent points being that it has to be radically inclusive, free and not bashing religion), each community works on their own. SA London is very different to the SA’s in America because the communities are very different. I love this idea that 10 years down the line each of these assemblies is going to be something very pertinent to their own areas and helping hundreds and thousands of people really become the person they want to be – but who they feel unable to be right now.