What was originally Back Street Chapel was built soon after the Act of Toleration in 1689 and licensed for public acts of worship for those dissenting from the Church of England in 1690. The principle of religious freedom continues to this day.
When the Church of England required absolute subscription to the doctrines and rituals contained within the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, there were significant numbers of voices raised in question and resistance – resistance to specific doctrines or practices, yes, but also resistance to the authority of the Church so to dictate religious belief and behaviour.
Some 2000 clergy were ejected from the Church that August, and the congregations they took with them were all branded Dissenters. Gradually, over years and decades, these groups clarified their distinctive views and thoughts, and began to be identified accordingly – Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, Congregational, Quaker and so on. The laws of the land forbidding such dissenting groups to gather for worship, or for the ejected clergy to convene services within five miles of any major town, they were forced to meet secretly in private rooms, or in secluded barns far from the eyes and ears of the authorities.
So it was that for much of the 17th century the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and other dissenting groups were to be found – or preferably NOT found! – meeting in barns in Sutton for years.
With the passing of the Act of Toleration in 1689 these groups could come in from the cold and build places of meeting in the towns, and the King Edward Street Chapel was built that very year. To this day we are reminded of that background story because it was built as a barn – a Cheshire Barn – and to this day it is still technically required by law that the Chapel doors must stand open during services so that the Magistrate may be able to hear if sedition and heresy are being preached!
The identity of the chapel as Unitarian emerged during the ministry of John Palmer between 1764 and 1780. Unitarians were so called because they denied the doctrine of the Trinity, finding that this doctrine was absent from their reading of the New Testament scriptures. Unitarianism has evolved from a biblical based dissenting Christian tradition to a pluralist movement that recognises and welcomes truth within all spiritual paths.
Our approach to the spiritual life can perhaps be summed up as “deeds not creeds.” Our beliefs vary, but we share values based on the oneness of humanity and a concern to care for each other. This call to treat others as you would like others to treat you is known as the ‘golden rule’ and is common to most religions and spiritual systems.
Today our chapel is home to people from many different traditions and walks of life. Although our beliefs and practices differ from those of the early Dissenters, the distinctive philosophy of Unitarianism continues to hold dear the freedom to think and to question, to entertain and explore reservations . . . to beg to differ. It’s all a question of authority.
Our beautiful historic chapel building, built from local red sandstone, is Grade II* listed. The exterior features a downspout bearing the date of 1690. Inside there are several historic features, including a high two-decker pulpit in the middle of the north side – rarely used nowadays, but still quite impressive! There are galleries are at the east and west ends. The west gallery has been converted into an office, library, and meeting space. In the east gallery is a two-manual organ dated 1846, made by John Bellamy. The old box pews were replaced with bench pews in 1930 and later the central pews were removed to create an open meeting space at the centre of the chapel. It is a popular venue for weddings, and our licence includes same-sex and well as opposite-sex marriages.
Roll of Ministers
Rev. Joseph Eaton 1690 – 1697
Rev. Nathaniel Scholes 1697 – 1702
Rev. Adam Holland 1703 – 1716
Rev. Thomas Culcheth 1717 – 1751
Rev. Benjamin Street 1751 – 1764
Rev. John Boult 1764 – 1772
Rev. John Palmer 1772 – 1779
Rev. Lothian Pollock 1780 – 1821
Rev. George Cheetham 1821 – 1826
Rev. William Fillingham 1826 – 1830
Rev. John Williams 1830 – 1842
Students from Manchester New College 1842 – 1843
Rev. George Vance Smith 1843 – 1846
Rev. John Wright 1846 – 1853
Rev. Joseph Church Meeke 1854 – 1865
Rev. Thomas Felix Thomas 1865 – 1873
Rev. John Tait Russell 1876 – 1885
Ministers and Students 1868 – 1888
Rev. Joseph Freeston 1888 – 1897
Rev. Arthur Leslie Smith 1897 – 1901
Rev. William Geo Cadman 1902 – 1913
Rev. J. Hipperson 1914 – 1920
Rev. Thomas Paxton 1921 – 1938
Rev. H. Lismer Short 1939 – 1954
Rev. George D. Foote 1955 – 1958
Rev. Peter Jones 1959 – 1963
Ministers and Students 1964 – 1967
Rev. T. H. Davenport 1967 – 1969
Rev. J. Kielty 1969 – 1979
Rev. P. L. Hughes 1980 – 1900
Michael Joyce, Student Pastor 1990 – 1993
Eileen Forrester, Lay Leader 1993 – 1999
Jo-ann Lane, Student Pastor 1999 – 2000
Rev. Michael Dadson 2005 – 2017
Laura Dobson, Student Pastor 2020 – 2021 and Minister 2021 –
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”His Holiness the Dalai Lama