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.”

300 years of radical history

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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

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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.”