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A historic Newington Green building that has been home to radical thinking for more than 300 years will be given a vital £1.7million restoration.

Built in 1708, the Newington Green Unitarian Church, also known as the Meeting House, was frequented by “the mother of feminism” Mary Wollstonecraft and Rev Richard Price, who was frequently visited by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

It also housed a group known as the Dissenters, who campaigned for religious freedom and the abolition of slavery. In 2008, it became Britain’s first religious establishment to refuse to take weddings until same-sex couples had equal marriage rights.

But the church, which was rebuilt in 1860, has started to crumble. The roof leaks, walls are damp and two years ago it was placed on Historic England’s “at risk” register. Now the Heritage Lottery Fund has stepped in to grant £1.73m for its much-needed makeover to take it off that list.

“We want to share this vital history with a wider audience: schoolchildren, local community groups and interested parties from further afield,” said John Bates, chair of the team that submitted the bid. “We’ll be adding a visitor centre, creating disabled access, and generally future-proofing the building.”

Today, the building is home to New Unity, a non-religious church that “believes in good”. It continues the Dissenters’ legacy by working towards caring community and social justice. Rev Andy Pakula said: “We’ve always been a radically inclusive community, but thanks to the National Lottery, we can now take this to the next level.”

The renovation will take place throughout 2019, with the reopening scheduled for January 2020.

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National Lottery saves London’s hidden heritage

Built in 1708 as a meeting house for dissenters, Newington Green Meeting House gained fame as a centre for radical ideas and welcoming people of all faiths and none.

Its most famous minister, Dr Richard Price, had a strong influence on the ‘foremother of feminism’ Mary Wollstonecraft, earning the site the epithet ‘the birthplace of feminism’. However, the building is deteriorating and inaccessible, meaning it can only open to a very limited number of visitors. New Unity has been awarded £1.73m to save it and return it to its original purpose as a place for community, people and ideas.

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Meet Andy Pakula, Newington Green and Islington's non-religious minister

Even by Islington’s radical standards, Rev Andy Pakula stands out. A non-religious minister! But listen to his thoughts on religion and he’s not so radical after all. His words make sense. Rev Pakula leads New Unity, the UK’s only atheist church, if you don’t count the Sunday Assembly.

“A non-religious church comes as a shock to many people,” Rev Pakula tells the Gazette, “but often a pleasant shock. At New Unity, we recognise a large segment of the population doesn’t believe in a god. We also recognise the majority of the population is not interested in religious organisations. But a lot of people want community: to help other people or be helped. They long to make a better world for themselves and their neighbours. So we sing. We talk. We have music. We do social work [such as helping vulnerable migrants]. We’re a church, but with emphasis on community.”

New Unity has two congregations: in Newington Green and Upper Street. There are 120 members. Rev Pakula has been there since 2006 after uprooting from his native US.

“I grew up in a fairly secular household and didn’t have any interest in religion. I felt it caused so many problems. I never believed in a supernatural being or god of any kind. I thought religion was not for me – then I found there could be religion without the supernatural. I took it up and eventually had a big career change [from the biotechnology industry] because of that. I became a minister after four or five years of study. Then my wife had the opportunity to run an online retail start-up in the UK. We decided to come here for two years and head back. But somehow, this position appeared at London Unitarian, as it was then called, because it needed someone short-term. We started growing and they said: ‘Hey, why don’t you stick around?’ Both areas are amazing. Newington Green is a little village and has a lot of cohesion. Upper Street is such an exciting place. One thing I love about this part of London is we accept each other, and recognise we’re in a community.”

The church’s latest project is its “coming of age” programme, starting in September. It’s the non-religious equivalent to Confirmation in Christianity or Bar Mitzvah in Judaism, and offers young people between 12 and 14 to gain life skills as they begin the transition to adulthood. For more information, visit new-unity.org/comingofage

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Mary Wollstonecraft: the ‘first feminist’.

At 227a Upper Street sits New Unity, a non-religious church which boasts a unique connection to the women’s suffrage movement. The church, which is now comprised of a majority atheist congregation, can call Mary Wollstonecraft one of its past attendees. Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, was one of England’s ‘first feminists’ and campaigned for the liberation and education of women in the 18th century. Despite the modern architecture of the Upper Street church, the community dates back to 1667 and its Unitarian beliefs forced it to meet in secret.

It’s Wollstonecraft’s rejection of the status-quo and her “dissenting spirit” which the Rev Andy Pakula says motivates New Unity’s willingness to cut against the grain. “If you start out with the core belief that people are good and that everyone has an inherent worth and dignity then how can you say that people should have no say in how they are ruled? And how can you say that women should not have the same rights as men?” The original church has since split into two congregations: one at Newington Green and one on Upper Street and the Upper Street community now defies convention by having a majority ‘non-theist’ congregation, with Mr Pakula himself identifying as an atheist.

The Newington Green site, where Mary Wollstonecraft worshipped, the church community’s original home, was put on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk list in 2016. Last year it was granted much-needed funding for a full renovation of this ‘birthplace of feminism’. It was Richard Price who drew Mary Wollstonecraft to the church after he became minister in 1758. In the same year that he joined the church, he wrote the highly influential ‘Review of the Principal Questions in Morals’ in which he rejected the traditional Christian ideas of original sin and divine punishment. The Newington Green church was visited by titans of American history whom Price knew personally. Among them were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Adams. Ever involved in the American Republican cause, Price issued a pamphlet supporting the revolution in 1776 which sold out in a few days, making him ‘one of the best- known men in England’. It was the subsequent pamphlet war with philosopher Edmund Burke that drew in Mary Wollstonecraft and led her to write Vindication of the Rights of Men, laying the groundwork for her most famous work: Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s connection to Islington, and especially Newington Green, is so important to residents that Roberta Wedge is campaigning to have a statue to her erected. “There has been no big public commemoration. No TV. No Books. No exhibitions,” she says. “I’d argue that Vindication of the Rights of Woman changed the way men and women related to each other just as much as Darwin’s Origin of Species changed the way we relate to the world.”

Although Mr Pakula admits that his church is on the edge of Unitarianism and removed from the faith Wollstonecraft had, he still feels that it can continue the socially progressive work that she started. “Unitarianism fosters a belief in people far more than believing in books and patriarchs and hierarchies. That is the key.” The church’s Heritage Lottery fund grant will also go towards teaching local school children about Islington’s suffrage history. “We want to teach the kids to be challengers of the status quo and to think for themselves. To learn about the history of Mary Wollstonecraft and what she did then, and so think what is it we need to do now.”

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Campaign for Mary Wollstonecraft public memorial on Newington Green gains momentum. Mary on the Green campaign shortlists two designs for ‘foremother of feminism’ statue, and launches petition calling for London Mayor’s support. A long-running campaign to memorialise Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green has gathered pace in recent weeks. Two designs for a proposed public artwork were shortlisted by the Mary on the Green (MOTG) campaign group, with celebrated artists Maggi Hambling and Martin Jennings making the cut. A petition was also launched calling for the support of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and this has gathered over 1,400 signatures at time of writing.calling for the support of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and this has gathered over 1,400 signatures at time of writing. New Unity’s minister Rev Andy Pakula gave the memorial campaign the full support of his church, saying: “Mary Wollstonecraft was an inspiring visionary figure. She not only spoke about women’s rights, she lived a life of freedom, to the condemnation of history. It is high time that she was properly honoured for the ground-breaking work she did.”

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The Unitarian chapel where Mary Wollstonecraft worshipped sits on Newington Green in north London, just on the edge of Jeremy Corbyn's Islington constituency. In the 1780s, the church was home to a group of radical thinkers, including Wollstonecraft who, aged just 25, set up a school for girls close by. It didn't last very long, but the Labour leader says that idealism is just one of the reasons that he chose her as his political hero.

Born in London in 1759, Wollstonecraft is considered by many to be the mother of modern feminism. She was a radical thinker, novelist and writer whose affairs and ideas scandalised polite society.

Mr Corbyn said: "She was a kind of historically suppressed figure. She had an approach which, these days, you'd describe as sexual freedom, or 'free love' and the social mores of that era couldn't cope with that for women."

Written when she was 33, her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women imagined a social order where women were the equals of their husbands. While some might be surprised that Mr Corbyn did not point to a more obvious socialist thinker, he said Wollstonecraft's example was something to aspire to.

"The process she went through in her life shows that if you think hard enough, you can actually change a lot of things. She didn't know it, but she was fundamental to changing attitudes on the relationship between men and women. She didn't want women to be superior to men, she wanted women to have control of their own lives."

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This special event for dogs, held in Stoke Newington’s New Unity church, was the brainchild of its serving Reverend, Andy Pakula. “The service today was for honouring dogs, celebrating dogs, learning from dogs, and remembering dogs that we’ve lost. It was a time to have fun,” he said.

Despite the rain, Rev Pakula said the turnout was high. “Lots of dogs, lots of humans. Some humans without dogs. All the dogs had humans though.” The format followed a traditional religious service with sermons, readings, blessings and songs. The tunes were pop songs revamped with doggy lyrics. The George Michael song, Faith, became Fur. “You’ve gotta have fur, you’ve gotta have fur fur, fur…Humans…”

Despite the humorous nature of the service, the Reverend said there was a serious underlying message. “Although most people have had it with religion – they find so many things repellent there: patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia etc. and being required to believe something they don’t believe in – they have a yearning to find ways to be ever-more human. More loving, more mindful, more connected.”

To find out more about the church and other upcoming events, visit www.new-unity.org

Believe in Dog: a celebration of dogs and everything they teach us.

Thank you to everyone who attended or helped with this year's event. A riotous, moving, funny and barking occasion that reminded us just how much our dogs mean to us, and how much we can learn from them.

Believe in Dog

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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New poll to mark England’s place in history. A recent poll by YouGov has revealed that many people attribute defining moments in English history to other countries. In light of this, Historic England is calling on the public to help create a list of 100 locations that best reflect the nation’s historical impact on the world.

Question 1: WHERE IS WIDELY CONSIDERED TO BE THE ‘BIRTHPLACE OF FEMINISM’? Mary Wollstonecraft, who published her radical text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, attended the nonconformist Newington Green Unitarian Church (below) in north London. Sermons here preached rights for women. 20% answered correctly.

Church labelled ‘Birthplace of Feminism’ saved, thanks to National Lottery players

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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).

Rev Andy Pakula joins the call to protect vulnerable tenants

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In a demonstration outside the Town Hall last week, over fifty students urged the council to do more to tackle Hackney’s rogue landlords. The pupils are members of CitizensUK, the country's largest civil society alliance.

Rev Andy Pakula, minister of New Unity at Newington Green and a CitizensUK member, said: “Hackney Council should seriously consider equipping itself with additional powers to deal with those rogue landlords who make life so miserable for many people in the borough. The licence fees should cover the cost of inspection and enforcement. There should be no cost to taxpayers.”

A council spokesman confirmed it had received the petition and added that new proposals on renting will be published in the coming months.

Rev Andy Pakula explains why Black Lives Matter

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New Unity has denounced “racist” graffiti on its Black Lives Matter banner – after the offender crossed out “black” and replaced it with “all”. The non-religious church, known for preaching social equality since it was formed in 1708, today pinned a new banner at the front of the building after the previous one was defaced last week.

Rev Andy Pakula explained why the “All Lives Matter” graffiti was an “act of racism”: “Core to New Unity’s ethos is the conviction that all lives do matter,” he said. “But our point, and the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, is that our society and systems do not act as though black lives matter as much as white lives. We show this banner in solidarity with this very necessary movement, and because the black lives in our congregation, our community and the wider world, need to be fought for.”