Interview with Dr. Mark McKergow – Chair, Sunday Assembly Edinburgh

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Mark McKergow is the Chair at the Sunday Assembly Edinburgh. Here we discuss his background, work, and community.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top. What was early life like with regards to geography, culture, religion, or lack thereof?

Mark McKergow: I was brought up in the east of England, in a rural village. My father worked for agriculture. Both my parents were very religious Christians. My dad was a churchwarden for nearly 50 years. My mother played the church organ and was a brilliant musician.

I started off by attending, of course, as you would as a child. Then, I suppose, at about the age of about 13 or 14, gave up going, and found excuses not to go because, for the most part, it seemed to be of nonsense, the religious aspect.

You could see how also this thing worked as a community thing, even at that point. I abandoned Christianity at about 13, 14, probably. I did not abandon working alongside Christians, at that point. I volunteered with the Salvation Army for a while, in my gap year. I was very impressed with the commitment they showed to the homeless and the poor, and so forth, and was quite inspired by that at the time.

That’s where I came from as a background, for myself. I was living in the country, but I had always been a town person. I don’t quite know how that happened. [Laughing] As soon as I got the chance to go to college, I quit the village.

I went to a very rural boarding school, as well, which was perfectly good in its own way. It was rather non-denominational, notionally Christian, but not at all powerfully. Mostly it was about singing hymns together in the morning. There are worse things to do than that.

I abandoned church at that point. Later on in life, my wife became a humanist funeral server. We had talked about how good these humanist funerals were, and whether there should be a more regular gathering for humanists and those of that persuasion. We talked about it without ever getting off our arses and doing anything. Then the Sunday Assembly came along.

Jacobsen: How long have they been around in the locale you’re at? I know they’re new.

McKergow: The very first Sunday Assembly was on January 6th, 2013. It was in London. We were living in London, and close to that, at the time.

We went to the very first one, my wife, Jenny, and I, and immediately saw that it was fantastic. The spirit of it was wonderful, good. Having moaned about there not being anything and failed to produce anything ourselves, we decided to throw our shoulders to the wheel and help as much as possible.

That was when the Sunday Assembly started, the very first start. The Edinburgh one, where I now live, started in about August 2013. It was one of the first to start outside London. That was because we have a very big festival with a huge comedy component to it, every August.

The founders, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, were both up here doing their comedy thing for the festival and decided to have a Sunday Assembly as well, as part of that. The people who did it liked it and carried on. There’s been a Sunday Assembly here in Edinburgh since August 2013.

Jacobsen: When people come to the Sunday Assembly Edinburgh, what can they expect in a normal service? As well, outside and surrounding the community, what else can they expect in terms of provision, via membership, or just general attendance and community?

McKergow: We don’t have a membership scheme as such. It’s very much, “Rock up and come in.” What can they expect? We run our events, our “services”, as we call them, reclaiming the word, with a normal format. Across Sunday Assembly, there are some norms that have developed. I think you’ll find out it’s not unbiblical.

We start off with people get welcomed in, a cup of coffee, chat to people. There’s music playing in the background. There are people outside handing out orders of service with information about the songs and the speakers and so on, welcoming people in. We kick off with two songs, always. We discovered that having one, the people are just getting going after one song, so we always start with two songs.

Then we have the host, who says hello and describes what Sunday Assembly is about, briefly. We do that every time. Talk about how our mission, our motto, which is, “Live better, Help often, Wonder more,” is to celebrate life, and that we are a secular congregation. We don’t spend time talking about our secular nature. We just do it.

Then there is a poet. There are some poems. Sometimes it’s a poet reading their own work. Each service has a theme. We try and loosely link some of the contributions around that theme. The poet will try and do some poems that connect with the theme. For example, next Sunday, we are doing, “The power of the next small step,” as our theme.

Jacobsen: I like that.

McKergow: We’ll find some poem about that. Then we have a guest speaker, who does a 15 to 20-minute talk, a bit like a TED Talk, but don’t tell TED that. [Laughing] They are jealous about what they call TED Talks. Think TED Talk type of thing. Our speaker, next time, is Rayya Ghul, who is an author, trainer, and therapist who works with the power of the next small step. She’s written books about it. She’s going to come to speak.

Then there’s another song, a middle song, which is sometimes a more reflective song. Most of our songs are fairly up and at ‘em, enjoyable sing-alongs. The middle song may be more reflective.

Then we have a slot called “Somebody’s doing their best.” This time, it will be Simon doing his best. That’s a congregation member talking about something they’ve been grappling with, something they’ve been striving at, something they’ve succeeded with, something they’ve failed but learned from, something they’re involved with that’s worth sharing. It’s an open slot, 5 to 7 minutes, for a congregation member to get up and talk about their own experiences.

Then the host leads a two-minute silent reflection, quiet time. It’s usually followed by a little music. We have a live band, of course, for the singing. The personnel fluctuate a bit here, but we usually have a guitar, a percussionist, and a saxophone, and a singer who leads the music. The guitarist usually plays a little bit of guitar to take us out of the reflection.

Then there’s a period where people have a chat with their neighbours, say hello, meet new people. We do a collection. It’s just like church, in that regard. It’s free to get in. That’s part of our rules. Sunday Assembly must be free to get into. You can’t sell tickets to an ordinary Sunday Assembly. But of course, you must raise money. We must raise money to hire the hall that we use and pay for the cakes and coffee, and things like that. A collection comes around.

After about five minutes, we call people to order again. We give out the notices, usually about the next assembly, about other events that are happening. We’ve just started a community notice board section where anyone in the room can get up and announce events that they are involved with or that would be of interest to the community that we have. That’s been good. We also, then, publicize those events on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Then sometimes the host says a few words to sum it all up, bring it together, “What have we learned this morning?” Then we finish with a good, rousing song, altogether. Then people are invited to hang around for more coffee and chat. We say hello and gradually pack it up.

Jacobsen: In terms of the music that plays throughout a service, what is some of the music that you would be playing?

McKergow: Pop songs. [Laughing] You think Queen and The Beatles, that’s a starting point. We have a great variety of pop songs. We try and make them relevant to the theme. They must be easy to sing, so it helps if they’re known. We usually preview them on our Facebook page, so people have a chance to think about it a bit. It’s all about community singing. It’s not about excellence. It’s just about having a good old sing together.

Lots of our people like that element. One of the challenges for people like me. I’m 58, so I know of songs from the 60s and 70s and maybe 80s. One of the challenges we have is bringing in post-2000 songs, finding modern songs that are still good to sing and that people know. There are a few of them, but I wish we could find more.

Jacobsen: In terms of the demographics of the congregants, who is typically coming into Sunday Assembly Edinburgh?

McKergow: We get about 60 people on average, sometimes more. We do it once a month, first Sunday of the month. We get 60, maybe 70 people, which is good. It fits our room well. We’ve expanded quite over the last 12 months. We were getting 20, 30. We built that up. It’s a good mixed demographic. I think we have a good age range. We have a few kids who come with their parents. There’s a colouring and a lego table for them if they want to do that. We have people right through from their twenties into their sixties and seventies.

Compared to some Sunday Assemblies, the London one is tending to get younger people. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just where they are. It reflects the people who are in London. Here we have a broader demographic. If I had to put a finger on it, I would say there are probably slightly more women than men, but reasonable balance.

And a few dogs. We advertise ourselves as dog-friendly as well as family-friendly. Several people choose to bring their dogs along. That’s fine with us, and fortunately, fine with our venue, too.

Jacobsen: Looking into 2019 and some of the themes, the thematic elements of some of the services upcoming. For those that may not be coming to Sunday Assembly Edinburgh yet, but would like to come, what would be some of the ones that they could expect, whether in the themes of the poetry, or in the music, or in the service in general?

McKergow: As I say, each service we have a different theme. That gives us an excuse to look at new things every time. Our themes are usually based on some part of our motto, “Live better, Help often, Wonder more.” That gives us a wide range to choose from. The first three months of 2019, we are doing “The power of the next small step,” in January, which is about living better, how we can improve ourselves. In February, we are doing one of our Eco-Congregations. A climate change officer is coming to talk about how we can individually, and as a congregation, think about climate change and do something about it.

The Royal Edinburgh Observatory is coming in March to talk about stargazing and talk about something in the night sky. I’m not quite sure what yet. That fits under our heading of “Wonder more.” Somebody comes and tells us something amazing that we did not know.

Those are some of our themes. We try to keep current. People want to talk about current things. We steer off politics, though. Part of our rules is that we are not a political organization, in terms of party politics. We are generally on the side of social justice, and the environment, and those kinds of things. We don’t class that as political, although I think some people might. We are not a political party. We steer away from Brexit and all that sort of nonsense now.

You asked about the wider community. We have several other things that go on. There’s the book club that discusses novels. These are not particularly godless books, although they probably are; they don’t have to be. It’s just a novel discussion group.

I run a live better group a couple of times a year, which meets for five evenings. It’s a peer support group to help each other to live better. In my day job, I’m a professional coach and facilitator, so I’m well qualified to lead groups such as that. I’ve done it for many years for corporations. I do it for Sunday Assembly as well.

We are just about to start a writers’ group as well. There’s the talk of an artists’ group getting together when the weather gets a bit better, to go outside and draw and paint together.

Jacobsen: If you were to summarize your hopes for the next five years since it’s about five years old, for the Sunday Assembly, what would be your hopes for it?

McKergow: Next five years. We had very explosive growth in the movement in the first two years. Since then, we’ve lost track of helping people to start. There have been very few start-ups. That’s because of difficulties finding a way of organizing it. I’d like to see us getting back to supporting new start-ups.

Running a Sunday Assembly is a tough gig. I was the first network manager for Sunday Assembly, right at the beginning, so I helped over 70 Sunday Assemblies to start up, in some way, by providing resources, and running training sessions. I’m supposed to know how to do it. Fortunately, I do. I would like to see us starting more Assemblies again.

We peaked at 70-odd. We are now down to something like 50-odd because, in the end, it’s hard to run them, and people get discouraged. If you get discouraged, then numbers begin to tank.

I understand completely how it gets too tough for people to run. You need energy and you need skill, too. There’s of skills required about how to set up a room, how to advertise it, how to get a sound system, how to find speakers, how to get the band together, how to organize everybody, how to get the coffee and cakes, how to engage people in helping to run it. We have a committee of six people now and a wider supporters’ group of about a dozen more who help to run the assembly. But it’s not easy to do.

I would like to see us starting more assemblies. I would like to see us helping to consolidate the ones that are there. So far, we’ve had a gathering of Sunday Assemblies in a conference of organizers. I’d like to see that continue, as well. I think the more we can mutually support each other, the better it’s going to be.

Jacobsen: Excellent. Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mark.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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