The magical Unitarian meeting house on Newington Green describes itself as 'London's non-religious church'. The building dates back more than 300 years - though the frontage is Victorian - and has just been renovated with help from the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
There are no services at the moment - for obvious reasons - but today I had the privilege of a peek inside, indeed a tour of the building, courtesy of Amy Todd, the historian who is now the community and learning manager at New Unity (as the Newington Green gathering is now known).
Unitarians were dissenters - Christians, but non-conformists who rejected the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and encouraged intellectual freethinking which attracted the radical and heterodox. As Unitarianism has developed, not all adherents now see themselves as Christians - indeed not all believe in God. Services are fairly traditional and include a sermon and hymns - but the hymns sung would not normally refer to God. The minister at New Unity, I was told, is an atheist.
This is what the Unitarians' website says:
We welcome anyone with an open mind who shares our tolerant and inclusive views, who embraces the freedom of being in a faith community that doesn’t impose creeds or specific beliefs, and who bases their approach not on dogma but on reason.
... Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.
So it's about faith not religion - values rather than dogma.
Prior to the pandemic, the Newington Green meeting house would attract eighty or more people to its Sunday gatherings. It's one of seven Unitarian congregations in London, and there are more than a hundred across the country. About half of congregants are from Unitarian families, one of the regular attenders said, and half have come to the movement themselves.
Mary Wollstonecraft is the most renowned former member of the congregation, and her box pew survives - indeed it's something of a place of pilgrimage for feminists and others who revere Wollstonecraft's memory.
There are also plaques to two other famous writers and radical intellectuals who attended services here, Richard Price and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Lottery funding will enable displays about the history of the meeting house and the development of the space for the community and for meetings and performances. The church's archives, held at Hackney Archives, will also be posted online. That's going to be quite something!
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