History

What was originally Back Street Chapel has stood in King Edward Street since 1689, but the principle for which it stands is far from being a thing of the past. Indeed, what could be more contemporary than a call to honour and respect the freedom of the individual to form and follow their own beliefs about 'life, the universe, and everything' . . . rather than requiring people to subscribe to a unified catalogue of set beliefs and practices?

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 the Catholics (who were just as unwelcome) 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!

They may have had a building - and well over 400 people attending - but they still lacked a clear and definite identity. It took until the later 18th century, and took a painful congregational split, for that clarity to emerge . . . and that emergent identity might best be coined as 'Those who beg to differ'.

The classic understanding of Unitarians is that they denied the doctrine of the Trinity, thus they came to be known as those who believed in a Unitary rather than Trinitarian God. But this misses the fundamental point, the distinctive philosophy; which is simply a demand for the freedom to think and to question, to entertain and explore reservations . . . to beg to differ. It's all a question of authority.