York Unitarians: Their story
Today's York Unitarians are mostly new Unitarians or Unitarians new to York. In this way they are like the seventeenth century Commonwealth Puritans who, following the return of King Charles II, gathered anew in private homes to worship God without the hindrance of the Church of England's set forms and rituals. In 1689, when legal toleration came for this and other Puritan groups, Lady Hewley and a few other patrons had an unusual brick meeting house built in St. Saviourgate (in earlier years often called "The Presbyterian Chapel") as a home for this group of dissenting Puritans.
York Unitarians are the present heirs of these dissenting Puritans. Following the direction of rational (as distinct from evangelical) dissent late in the eighteenth century they welcomed as their minister, Newcome Cappe, an early advocate of the view that Trinitarian theology was inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus. He was followed by Charles Wellbeloved whose scholarship brought to York its first university level institution, a dissenting Academy formerly at Warrington and Manchester and now Harris Manchester College in the University of Oxford. Wellbeloved combined being college principal with being minister at St. Saviourgate Chapel. The College attracted to York a community of scholar-ministers who contributed to the city's intellectual life and to the early years of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.
By 1813, when Unitarian views became legal at law, York's rational dissenters were distinctly Unitarian. That's when they found themselves in the eye of a major legal battle about trusts. Orthodox Dissenters claimed that the Unitarian trustees of Lady Hewley's trusts no longer subscribed to the same evangelical faith as Lady Hewley did; while the Unitarian trustees argued that over the generations there had been a natural and inevitable progression in their religious views. The court favoured the orthodox. Fortunately in 1844 Parliament passed emergency legislation protecting Unitarian congregations (including York) and their trusts from further encroachment by orthodox dissenters. .
During the nineteenth century while Leeds and other mercantile cities expanded and their Unitarian congregations with them, York remained small. So did its Unitarian congregation and, after the loss of Lady Hewley's endowments, seriously under funded. Ministers quickly came and went or combined their ministry with other employment. One minister, George Saville Woods, was even a Member of Parliament at the same time as being chapel minister.
By the mid-twentieth and after two world wars and without a minister the congregation's life was exceedingly fragile. But that's when something wonderful happened. A retired Unitarian minister, the late Sydney Knight, moved to York with the deliberate intention (as a retirement project!) of initiating a revival for York Unitarians. Under Sydney's care the congregation sorted out its finances, put its building in order and began to attract new members. Today's lively and forward looking Unitarian community is the result of this initiative and of the hard and devoted work of his successor Margaret Kirk. .
Like their Puritan predecessors York Unitarians are persons who have started their religious life anew - either in a new city or a new religious community and they face the future with hope and confidence and with a commanding and transforming vision of energising faith. .