Sunday Assembly : Some Serious Reservations

I note with interest the recent review of The Sunday Assembly and its establishment in Melbourne, Australia (Freethinker, July). As a person who was going to be involved on the committee of said establishment, I am obviously supportive on the desire to create a non-theistic church which retains 'church-like' community. However I have some serious reservations about The Sunday Assembly which lead to my resignation from the organising committee.

Because the issue is a public one, rather than a personal one, I have a duty to bring the reasons for my resignation to public attention.

According to the working constitution proposed to The Sunday Assembly groups, such bodies are unincorporated associations. This means the volunteers who act for such bodies are personally liable for being sued or any debts associated with the group. An unincorporated association is unable to own its property, as it is not a legal person. It cannot sue or bring legal action against other organisations. It cannot receive gifts or donations in its own right.

Whilst not offering volunteers legal protections, rights, and responsibilities is bad enough in its own right, the constitution also requires that Sunday Assembly event guidelines are determined by an external, private, for-profit company that will receive income from the volunteers and congregation members.

This is, in my opinion, the worst possible organisational design possible for a body that wants to be a non-theistic church. In reality, it's a business with a volunteer network. Until The Sunday Assembly becomes an incorporated association and severs authority to a private company, I am afraid that I must warn people of the organisational structure chosen and suggest that they go elsewhere to find a non-theistic church-like community.

Yours sincerely,

Lev Lafayette
Melbourne, Australia.
(Published in The Freethinker, August, 2013)


lev.lafayette's picture

Apparently my letter to The Freethinker was not only published, but received a response. In the interests of continuing discussion, and to clear up some erroneous comments, the following is contributed with some additional elaborations.

Sanderson writes:

One of the original organisers of Sunday Assembly Melbourne, Lev Lafayette, wrote in to say we have "the worst possible organisational design for a body that wants to be a non-theistic church" (but what do you really think, Lev?). We must say we disagree strongly with him....

To be honest, one cannot discern where that the concerns raised are properly addressed, let alone refuted. Usually if you disagree with someone this is a good idea.

The letter in response remarks:

His principle objections being that the Sunday Assembly is being run for profit, while encouraging local chapters to start unincorporated associations that leave volunteers horrifically exposed.

Yes, these are some of the objections. What has been done about them? Well, not much apparently. Instead, there is a cultural history of the establishment of the Sunday Assembly, as follows:

In April I wrote a blogpost called ‘Notes on Transparency and Structure‘ where I explained that that The Sunday Assembly was initially setting up as a limited liability company, because it was the easiest structure. This would then lead to a Community Interest Company, and then, probably, to a charity.

In addition to having the worst combination of a for-profit company from which unprotected volunteers in congregations contribute funds, the roadmap then suggests that three major organisational changes be carried out (from limited liability company, to community interest company, to charity).

Significant changes in legal structure are not to be taken lightly (and nor are initial decisions), as anyone who has worked intimately with such changes would know. So whay take such a bizarre pathway? More is revealed....

Apparently, setting up a C-i-C is a lot of paperwork, and regulations, and is generally a bit of a hassle for a very young enterprise, while the benefits, at our micro-scale, are small

This simply is not true. Even the regulations are relatively simple; a CiC can't be a political organisation, an Industrial and Provident Society, or a charity - the third requirement will make the desired change from CiC to charity particularly interesting.

The formation and registration of a CiC is about as difficult as any other limited company. New organisations can register by filing the Form IN01 and memorandum and articles of association together with a form CIC36.

That's it. Two forms. If this constitutes "a lot of paperwork", then the organisers are in for a bit of a shock of what running a limited liability company will entail, let alone the planned transitions.

While we are technically a for-profit company believe you me, there have been zero profits, only costs. Every single pound that has gone into it has been our’s, we have taken not one penny of salary.

This is not the point. To reiterate, yet again, it is not about whether the company directors are making money or not, it is whether they could and whether members of the Sunday Assembly have democratic control over the organisation that governs them. At no stage has the motivations of the people involved been brought into question, just whether the structure is the right one.

Lev also claims that the unincorporated association is a ghastly structure that will lead only to woes. In fact, the unincorporated association is a very common legal entity which is used by sports clubs, university associations and all manner of community groups across the UK.

It is a common legal entity, but it doesn't mean it's the right one. Some useful free legal advice is provided by Net Lawman on the limitations of unincorporated associations (and also by Morton Fraser), which have been previously explained in the original letter to The Freethinker by myself An unincorporated association is unable to own its property, as it is not a legal person. It cannot sue or bring legal action against other organisations. It cannot receive gifts or donations in its own right.

Saunderson follows this up with a very dangerous claim:

These organisations then pay for public liability insurance themselves, so that their volunteers are not exposed to liabilities.

Actually, no, no, no, no, NO!

There is still exposure to liability. Insurance may cover that claim, depending on the amount insured for, but whilst the body remains unincorporated the liability of the committee and indeed the members is not limited (that's what the "limited" stands for in an organisation limited by guarantee, proprietory limited, limited by shares, etc). "They" (meaning the members) are exposed to liabilities.

Unincorporated associations are really only useful when an organisation is so small that it has no income or liabilities or risks to speak of (e.g., an invitation-only book club that meets in member's houses). As soon as a body starts meeting in the public with scores of people there are risks, physical and financial. It is very poor advice to suggest that such a body remain unincorporated.

Unfortunately when these legitimate issues raised have been presented a matters of interpretation and motivations:

When Lev raised his conecerns in earlier in the year I was deeply saddened that I wasn’t able to convince him that we aren’t maleficent Macchiavelian hucksters.

Frankly, this is quite unfair, offensive, and defamatory. At no stage did did I ever suggest ill-intent upon the part of the organisers.

Sadly, the Sunday Assembly is exposing itself to enormous risks, despite any good intentions of the organisers. Perhaps it was unexpected, but there are responsibilities that come with larger public organisations and having the right choice of legal structure is one of those concerns that must be considered with due diligence.