Newington Green Unitarian Church ‘at risk’ after 300 years of radical politics

PUBLISHED: 12:34 25 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:34 25 October 2016

James Morris

Newington Green Unitarian Church. Picture: nicksarebi/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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.

Tour guide Rob Smith with a Mary Wollstonecraft mural at Newington Green Unitarian Church. Picture: Ken Mears

The Church is often accused of backward thinking. But you can’t level this at Newington Green Unitarian.

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, “Unity” was added to Historic England’s “at risk” register.

The church, which was rebuilt in 1860, is beginning to crumble. The roof is leaking and the structure is damp. 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, of Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association, 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 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. Importantly it was more accessible, because it was taught in English rather than Latin.

Newington Green Unitarian Church is so hip that it held a Lou Reed memorial after the musician's death in 2013. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

“His school was very popular, but he was harrassed by the authorities. He was raided, arrested and sent to the US. But he became a scientist at Harvard University, so you could say science at one of the world’s greatest univerities 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 from the church: 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. There was no welfare state at the time, and not much sympathy to the poor. So the church offered a little bit of hope.”

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.

“He created joint Christian and Jewish groups, obviously important in the context of the time. People were coming to Islington from all over the world and he was trying to build bridges. That’s what the church is still about today.”

In 2008, it became Britain’s first religious establishment to refuse to take weddings until same-sex couples had equal marriage rights.

“We weren’t going to collude with unfair law,” Rev Andy Pakula says. “Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013. Our stance wasn’t earth shattering, but it made a few pebbles move. We showed religious people do care.”

Rev Pakula’s focus is now on preserving the church’s legacy: “There is inevitable deterioration and shoddy repair jobs over the years. What we are aiming at is grant funding to make our extraordinary heritage more accessible – things like better disabled access and toilet facilities, but also presenting our history in a more useful way.”