Hi, I’m Ben Jewell, and I’m part of the Sunday Assembly Manchester Committee. Sunday Assembly is super awesome, and I felt enthusiastic about sharing some of that. That’s how I’ve become responsible for some of our marketing and comms.
I thought I’d write a bit about how I got here. Not *here*, literally, in front of my keyboard, but part of the SAMcr committee. I like wrestling with big ideas, and I’ve always been interested in religion. I also like that Sunday Assembly doesn’t tell you what to believe, and we welcome anyone, regardless of religion. That means that our community includes people who believe in a god, or gods, and people who don’t. For context, I would describe myself as Jewish when younger, but would now call myself humanist. I’m keen to hear about other people’s views. What I think, and have expressed here, is based on my personal experience. Your experiences may be different. One of the great things about Sunday Assembly is that we aim to make a safe space where you can have that debate, and celebrate diversity.
Religion can be really positive in lots of ways. All of us need a sense of our own identity, and we all need to feel like we belong. Religion has, historically, given many people both of these. If you’re interested, do check out the brilliant Reith lectures on identity by Kwame Antony Appiah here. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Have a listen when you’re cooking your tea or something.
However, we also live in an increasingly secular society. Figures vary, but at least half of British people describe themselves as having “no religion”. Personally, one of the reasons I drifted away from Judaism was to do with inclusion and exclusion. As a fundraiser in my twenties, I found lots of examples of charitable trusts who would only give to “Jewish causes”, and that made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t happy with giving solely to one tribe. We know there are people in need in all kinds of communities. For me, true charity is not dependant on someone’s beliefs, but on their needs. A good person is not defined by their beliefs, but by their actions. I suspect that many religious people would agree, but the system of religion doesn’t always support this.
The human need for belonging is universal. I was given a book by Brené Brown last Christmas. She says that we must work to build strong communities without hating others for cohesion. Her most popular TED talk is here, and is also well worth a watch. These big ideas – nationalism, religion, even football teams (don’t even go there), they can give us a really potent sense of belonging... but let’s ensure that they don’t become exclusive, xenophobic or hateful.
At the same time, when I was working in fundraising, my grandfather died. He had, as a younger man, been a Church of England missionary. In his later years, I think he lost his faith. As such, when he was buried, he had a humanist funeral. “What the heck is that?” I hear some of you murmur.
It was one of my first experiences of non-religious ceremonies, and it was beautiful. I was struck by how personal it felt. We weren’t reciting any liturgy, we were talking about Reg Trueman, my grandad, and sharing our experiences of him, as a unique individual. Later, when I got married, my wife and I chose to have a humanist wedding. In the same way as for funerals, humanist weddings celebrate the unique relationship between two people, like a tailored suit rather than the more off-the-peg standard text. I recently took the decision to train myself, and now I too am a fully-fledged humanist wedding celebrant (available for bookings)!
So, what is Sunday Assembly? You can see the ten-point charter here. For me, it’s a place where I sing with strangers, and that’s good for my health. It’s a place where I feel welcomed – we aim to be a radically inclusive space. And lastly, it’s a place where I feel less alone. In our “so-and-so says” slot, every month, a member of the community speaks, usually about a personal aspect of their life. Whenever anyone is brave enough to share a bit of their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, I remember that, deep down, all of us are the same.
All humans need to come together to mark the milestones in their life. I’m no anthropologist, but I’m sure that nearly all human cultures feature ritual, and particularly rites of passage. We all come together as a community and acknowledge the changes in each other’s lives – it’s universal. This is something that religion does really well, and I think we also need to retain it in a secular world, for our wellbeing and happiness. If you’d like to discuss any of this further, in person or online, do get in touch. It would be lovely to see you at the next Assembly, second Sunday of every month.
I believe that, in joy or sorrow, in celebration or in conflict, we can always start from our shared humanity. That, and singing power ballads at the top of our lungs.