February 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Not-church on time

By Sylvia Rowley
The Weekly Service offers a different kind of communion

The white pillar candles are lit, and members of the congregation have left their leather jackets, duffel coats and anoraks in a pile near the entrance and taken their seats on the makeshift pews.

At the front is Cameron Elliott, a 35-year-old with a black bushy beard, bright eyes and a blue velvet jacket. “Welcome to the Weekly Service,” he says. “The theme for today is the power of connection.”

Two dozen people have gathered together in Thornbury, an up-and-coming northern suburb of Melbourne, to hear an archetypal tale of redemption. Today’s guest speaker is Jimmy Ferne, a former addict who’s come to talk about how he quit drugs with the help of a higher power – but he doesn’t mean God.

The Weekly Service is a secular ceremony created by Elliott and his friend Henry Churchill. It counts its heritage in months not millennia, though what its founders are looking for is perhaps even older than organised religion: a sense of community and a space to contemplate life’s existential questions.

The idea was conceived when the two men met at a barbecue and realised they both harboured the unusual dream of becoming agnostic priests. With church congregations shrinking as they fail to attract youngsters, and charities reporting an increase in loneliness, they decided to give it a try.

So what does a 21st-century non-church created by a pair of millennials look like?

In the place of a chapel, there’s a small auditorium at the back of an open-plan co-working space; instead of hymn books they’ve got a MacBook and projector; for pews they’ve got colourful IKEA cushions on oversized astroturf steps; and instead of tithes, guests, who range from their 20s to 50s, pay a small fee of $5 or $10 to get in.

“One of the main reasons I started the Weekly Service with Henry a year ago was that I felt disconnected from myself, from the people around me and from nature,” Elliott tells the gathered folk.

Just as he’s describing how he’d first tried everything from meditation to alcohol to porn to get over this feeling of isolation, there’s an almighty screech from the laptop in the corner. It’s a loose audio cable.

He jumps up to fix it. “That’s the sound of disconnection,” he quips.

Then it’s over to Ferne, a thespian-looking 31-year-old dressed from fedora-clad head to toe in black. It’s the first time Ferne has told his story in public. He explains how feeling like he didn’t fit in as a youngster led to drugs and partying, and then to addiction, crime and contemplating suicide.

In the end, it was the intimate human connections Ferne found through a recovery group and workshops that helped him heal, he tells the congregation. He went on to co-found his own Melbourne-based group – the Men’s Collective – where “guys can share their feelings, share their emotions and be vulnerable without fear of ridicule”.

After he’s finished speaking, Ferne invites the audience to talk to one another about their own experiences of connection and disconnection.

Cecile, a 32-year-old French sustainability officer with wispy light-brown hair and leaf-shaped earrings, tells me that the superficial relationships she has with others online can make her feel “a bit shit”.

“We’re connected to our phones, but social media just shows us these perfect lives of other people, and TV advertises holidays that no one can afford,” she says. “People, they say ‘yes, I’m great, everything is fine’, even if they are struggling. Coming here is about meeting other people and talking about what’s actually real in life.”

Other topics of conversation in recent weeks have included grief and loss, the mystery of the self, and cultivating a character-building hobby.

Each week there is a singalong at the end of the service, and today the lyrics to ‘Society’ from the soundtrack of the 2007 film Into the Wild are projected onto the back wall. But nobody really knows the tune, and we end up sounding like a poorly rehearsed protest choir. One of the perils of creating new rituals is that sometimes they can feel a bit forced.

After the service, people linger to continue their conversations over a cup of tea.

“I love sitting still for an hour and a half on a Saturday morning, ’cause I don’t do that otherwise,” says 36-year-old Jane. “It gives me a bit of ritual in my life.”

Thea and Lawrence, both 29, have come down from Sydney with a view to setting up a new Weekly Service back home. “[Having] a place to be your whole self however you are feeling is deeply appealing to me,” says Thea, while Lawrence says he longs to “find a community within the city that you can rely on to be there”.

As guests arrive for the next event, members of the congregation take their cue to leave, stepping back out onto the busy high street and into the rest of their weekend.

Sylvia Rowley

Sylvia Rowley is a British journalist and documentary filmmaker, currently based in Melbourne.

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