Believe in Dog
Rev Andy Pakula is the atheist minister of New Unity, a non-religious church in Islington. A self-confessed dog fanatic, he believes that dogs can teach us a lot. “For a start, there’s unconditional love,” he says. “And there’s being in the moment. Eagerness. Loyalty. All great qualities that we can learn from. That’s why we’re hosting a special gathering for dogs and the people who love them.”
It all takes place on Saturday 20 January at an event called ‘Believe in Dog’, held at New Unity’s Meeting House on Newington Green N16. Dogs are, of course, invited.
How does Rev Andy feel about trying to run a church service where lots of dogs are gathered together? Won’t it be unpredictable, to say the least? “The chaos and confusion are part of the point,” he laughs. “Why should church gatherings always have to be po-faced and heavily regulated? Let’s embrace the unpredictability and enjoy the occasion for all it’s worth!”
So what will actually happen? “We’ll celebrate dogs we enjoy today, and dogs we remember with sorrow-tinged joy,” he explains. “We’ll have some short readings that make us smile, some doggy-related singing, and an opportunity to share what our dogs have taught us. We’ll also take a collection for alldogsmatter.co.uk.”
What if you don’t actually own a dog? “Of course we want you to join in!,” says Rev Andy. “You’re welcome at New Unity, dog or no dog!”
Stoke Newington church to host service – for dogs
A non-religious church in Stoke Newington has given paws for thought after announcing it will host a special service this month – for dogs. New Unity’s atheist minister Rev Andy Pakula said the event, called ‘Believe in Dog’, is an opportunity to celebrate our canine companions.
He said we can learn a lot from dogs: “For a start, there’s unconditional love. And there’s being in the moment. Eagerness. Loyalty. All great qualities that we can learn from. That’s why we’re hosting a special gathering for dogs and the people who love them.”
The 20 January service will include short readings, some “doggy-related singing”, and a chance to share stories and memories about current and former pets. Anyone can attend, dog or no dog, and the church will also be collecting for leading charity All Dogs Matter.
Andy, who has his own “beloved” dog named Rumi, said he is looking forward to hosting the unusual congregation, adding: “The chaos and confusion are part of the point. Why should church gatherings always have to be po-faced and heavily regulated? Let’s embrace the unpredictability and enjoy the occasion for all it’s worth!”
New Unity members do not subscribe to the idea a supernatural deity, as Andy explains: “Instead of supernatural beliefs, we explore what it means to be a good person, taking our inspiration from literature, art, and the world around us. We have a Sunday gathering, and other activities continue throughout the week, from discussion groups and meditation to pastoral care and social justice work in the local community.”
Connecting social change makers in historic Newington Green church
Amidst minced pies and mulled wine, people gathered in Newington Green Church on Friday for the inaugural meeting of the Changemakers’ Hub – a group to support people seeking social change form connections and help one another.
The 300-year old church seeks to draw on its illustrious history of social activism. Mary Wollstonecraft, a seminal 18th Century feminist philosopher and activist, was a member of the congregation.
“One of the things that’s special about this place is an underlying belief that people can change the world for the better,” said Penny Walker, a volunteer with the church who has worked with several NGOs. “Having radical ideas about how to do that is part of the tradition of this place.”
By the end of the evening, several concrete ideas emerged for how the group might serve its members: as a place for mentorship, as a library for information on how to run a good campaign, or even as a central signpost pointing to smaller, more directed groups in the local area.
Stoke Newington church launches social justice incubator
A Stoke Newington church has taken inspiration from its rich history of radicalism to launch a regular incubator for “people who want to make change happen”. New Unity, a non-religious congregation based in Newington Green, is hosting the first open meeting for its Changemakers Hub this Friday. It aims to bring together people with ideas for “greater justice” and those who can help make them a reality.
Rev Andy Pakula explained: “We recognise that lots of people want to create change, and this project is for those who may have a great idea, but don’t know how to get it off the ground and refine it. There's a need for community action, and we want to provide support for when you run into the inevitable brick wall, and help find a way around it.”
Pakula said the outcome of Friday’s first meeting will depend entirely on those who turn up, but he wants people to make connections: “We want changemakers to find the right people – it could be someone who can help them build a website, someone who can offer training, maybe some seed funding, anything really. There are no limitations. This will be a nursery where plans grow and involve, with the overall goal of achieving greater justice.”
New Unity was founded by English Dissenters in 1708, and has close links to some of history’s radical thinkers. “Mother of feminism” Mary Wollstonecraft was a member of the congregation at a time when the church’s minister was renowned civil rights campaigner Reverend Richard Price. Price was visited in Newington Green by US founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as well as John Adams, who went on to become the country’s second president.
Pakula said this rich history inspired the Changemakers Hub, adding: “Social justice is at the heart of everything we do. We campaigned against rogue landlords alongside the local branch of Citizens UK this year, and we’ve helped with refugee resettlements. We were also the only congregation in the country to refuse to marry straight people until everyone was given an equal right to do so.” Calling on people to join the hub, Pakula said: “If you want to change the world for the better, but don’t quite know how to go about it – come along. All we want to see is passion. There are so many needs, and so many ways to address them, but to do it you need passionate people. We’ll go wherever that passion is.”
New centre to help vulnerable migrants
A new service for vulnerable migrants in desperate situations has been launched in Upper Street. The New Unity Migrant Centre is supporting people who have faced cuts to legal aid and increases in Home Office application fees. It mainly deals with single and often pregnant mothers who are working full-time around childcare commitments and relying on overstretched friends for support and accommodation.
The Tribune spoke to one woman who had to leave her partner and live with her son in a hostel in another borough. Initially, her local council’s children’s services department would not help due to her NRPF status. Jane (not her real name), who works as a cleaner and has lived in London for 20 years, spent more than £2,000 on an expedited form to have her status lifted, but it was rejected last month. “I felt like my heart had been ripped out,” the 42-year-old said. “I was left with nothing. I can’t describe how it feels. My pay is £600 but my rent is £1,000. I am not sitting waiting for a handout, I just need a break.”
Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry visited the centre on Friday. She said: “The forms that the Home Office expect people to fill out are really daunting. I’m worried that migrants and their families are missing out on the basic support to which they are entitled. If the Unity Project can help people through the red tape – that will be a huge help.”
Andy Pakula, minister of New Unity and one of the founding members of the Unity Project migrant centre, said: “This work lies at the heart of New Unity’s mission to promote social justice. The Unity Project is providing vital assistance to some of the people in our communities who need it most. As a non-religious church, we feel privileged to be able to help in this way.”
New Unity, a non-religious church in Islington, is proud to be a Living Wage employer
This week (November 5-11) is Living Wage Week and we want to celebrate all of the 118 accredited Living Wage employers in Islington. The Living Wage – not to be confused with the national minimum wage – is the only wage rate that is voluntarily paid by over 3,500 businesses in the UK, who believe their staff deserve to earn a wage that meets the costs of living.
New Unity, a non-religious church in Islington, is one of the borough’s accredited employers. Minister Andy Pakula explains: “New Unity became an accredited Living Wage employer a few years ago. We chose to bear the extra costs because, in a city as expensive as London, it is simply unjust to pay less. As promoting justice is one of our chief aims – we couldn’t possibly seek justice while being unjust! Paying the Living Wage pays for itself. Most Living Wage employers find this to be true. No employee will commit their energy and enthusiasm to an organisation that pays them the least they can get away with.''
Five years ago Islington Council became one of the first local authorities to become a Living Wage employer. A lot has been achieved since then, but efforts continue to ensure as many people as possible are paid the living wage in Islington.
Church labelled ‘Birthplace of Feminism’ saved, thanks to National Lottery players
Newington Green Unitarian Church, now the home of New Unity (a non-religious church), has received initial National Lottery support of £1.85million to uncover its fascinating history of radical social reform. This Grade II listed building will now receive essential conservation work, opening it up to the wider public.
This seems to be the only remaining building that's associated with the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary moved to Newington Green at the age of 25, and her time as a congregant was undoubtedly a formative period in the development of her ideas. She was heavily influenced by preacher Dr Richard Price, a friend of Benjamin Franklin and passionate supporter of the American Revolution. In 1792, Wollstonecraft published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. One of the first women to publish her views on the topic, the text would go on to inspire generations of campaigners for women’s rights, and earn Mary the title of the ‘mother of feminism’.
The renovation project will celebrate the building's role in the history of rational dissent and feminism, and the continuing relevance of these ideas today. The archives will be conserved and published on a new website. An education programme will be run with local schools, alongside a public programme of talks, lectures and exhibitions. As such, the site will become a valuable educational and heritage asset for local, national and international visitors.
Rev Andy Pakula, Minister of New Unity, commented 'For 300 years, this building has been a valuable site for rational debate, dissent, activism and spiritual enquiry. Thanks to National Lottery players, we're now a step closer to preserving this unique heritage for generations to come'.
Regular updates on this project can be found on Twitter (@NGDissenters) and Facebook (facebook.com/NGDissenters).
300 years of radical history
Newington Green Unitarian Church is in desperate need of repair. Nothing unusual there. What sets it apart, finds James Morris, are the 300 years of radical history witnessed by its crumbling walls.
In keeping with Newington Green’s radical history, its Unitarian church has been preaching progressive politics since it was built in 1708. But on Friday, it was added to Historic England’s “at risk” register. The church, which was rebuilt in 1860, is beginning to crumble. Funding is needed.
Part of Historic England’s pitch was the church’s famous association with Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century women’s rights activist. A banner across the church front proclaims itself the “birthplace of feminism”.
But its radical ties actually go back much further – to before it was even built. Tour guide Rob Smith explains: “On the site of the church is where Charles Morton [a nonconformist minister] ran his academy in the late 1600s. At that time, there was a lot of suspicion of dissenters, as they were not part of the Church of England. They were prevented from taking roles in society, such as teaching at university. So Morton educated people himself. He taught more modern subjects, like science and politics. And it was all taught in English rather than Latin. His school was very popular, but he was harassed by the authorities. He was raided, arrested and sent to the US. But he became a scientist at Harvard University, so you could say that science at one of the world’s greatest universities originates from Newington Green!”
In the late 19th century, Islington was stricken by proverty. It was Unity that led the fightback, Rob says. “One preacher, William Wooding, did a lot of community work: things like Sunday outings for kids. It was to keep poor people from the clutches of drink, as alcoholism was a big problem in those days. Unity had a big role in tackling poverty.”
This continued in the aftermath of the Second World War. “Another Unity preacher, John Rhys Walker, was one of the first people in Islington to bring communities together after the war. People were coming to Islington from all over the world and he was trying to build bridges.''
In 2008, it became Britain’s first religious establishment to refuse to take weddings until same-sex couples had equal marriage rights. “Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013. We weren’t going to collude with unfair law,” says Rev Andy Pakula.
Rev Pakula’s focus is now on preserving the church’s legacy: “We want to make our extraordinary heritage more accessible.''
The church where you can't marry
An Islington church has become the first in Britain to ban full wedding ceremonies – until the law is changed to allow gay couples the same religious marriage rights as heterosexuals. The church admits the loss of wedding ceremonies will mean a cut in income.
Dr Pakula said: “The Civil Partnership Act of 2005, while a major step forward, deeply wounds religious same-sex couples by denying them the right to formalise their partnerships in the heart of their own spiritual communities. They are being treated like second-class citizens when they are forbidden to celebrate their unions in a way that heterosexual couples take for granted.”
The church, built in 1708, can trace its roots back to a small group of Dissenters who gathered in the area in the 17th century. Dr Pakula added: “In making the decision to not offer legal weddings on our premises, we stand by our values and we say ‘no’ to bigotry, to homophobia and to discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.”