the Foy Society

A Brief History of the Foy Society
the Foy Society Remarkably, the Foy Society reaches the age of 90 years in 2014. The first conference was held at Manchester College, Oxford at Easter 1924. The previous year a meeting of ministers and young people at Essex Hall had proposed the idea of a 'League of Youth', but by the time of the first conference 'LOY' had (perhaps thankfully) become 'FOY' - the Fellowship of Youth. From the start the young people involved were clear that it should be an open society, not necessarily tied to individual churches, and not specifically Unitarian in name or management. And so FOY was born. Its purpose was - and still is - "to seek to understand the nature of present issues and problems, political, social and religious". FOY was in a very healthy state by 1930, with twenty or more branches up and down the country. However some Unitarian ministers at the time felt that FOY was too 'intellectual' and did not meet the needs of the young people in their congregations, and so The Young Peoples' League (later UYPL) came into being in 1934, with a more specific Unitarian brief.

the Foy Society Foy has been associated with the village of Flagg in the Derbyshire Peak District since 1929, and the Barn and the Green (a house) are held in trust for the Society. Although the Fellowship of Youth did not at first wish to 'encumber itself with property', Flagg quickly became a focus of activity and it could be argued that it is one of the reasons why the organisation has survived for so long. The Barn sleeps about twelve people, and can be hired by outside groups. Its facilities have recently been upgraded. It was in 1957 that the Fellowship of Youth decided on a change of name. Other options considered at the time were The Priestley Society, The 1984 Society and The Inquirers, but in the end The Foy Society was suggested, and so 'FOY' became 'Foy'. It is rather intriguing that it has now been 'Foy' (51 years) rather longer than it was 'FOY' (33 years), even though it is still often referred to as the latter, such is tradition.

the Foy Society During the mid 1960s individual members of Foy and the few remaining branches were involved in a comprehensive survey of Unitarian congregations in Britain which was published in 1967 (1). A fiftieth anniversary Foy conference was held at Oxford in 1974. Much fuller details of the first fifty years will be found in Grenville Needham's history (2) published in 1974, and in Ben Johnson's Recollections of a Remarkable Society (3) published in 1998. In 1999 Foy's 75th anniversary celebrations were held at Flagg, with a well-attended service in the chapel (which sadly closed a few years ago), followed by a barbecue, sing-song and much reminiscing at The Plough. The July 1999 issue of Foy News included a number of historical articles and items, with a list of conferences and themes for 1971-1999, and lists of Foy Presidents, Treasurers, Secretaries and Editors over the same period.

Foy and the Unitarian Movement - the Last 20 Years

Although constitutionally independent, Foy has always had close links with the Unitarian movement and is an Affiliated Society of the General Assembly. It was noted in 1988 that of the seven people who had written in the 'Personal Views of Unitarianism' series, five were Foy members. From the 1980s until fairly recently, Foy was responsible for organising the youth programme at the GA annual meetings, and we are very grateful to Joan Partington for all her work in this regard. Since the 1990s Foy has arranged a number of awareness days and day seminars as a service to the movement, originally in conjunction with the GA's Social Responsibility Department. The dates, themes and locations have been:

October 1994 The Decriminalisation of Drugs Possession Sheffield Upper Chapel
November 1995 Arms Trade Awareness Day Sheffield Upper Chapel
November 1996 Is Fair Trade Ever Possible? London, Essex Church
November 1997 Just What is the Unitarian Message? Manchester Cross Street Chapel
November 1998 All Together Now? Interdependence and the Unitarian Movement Manchester Cross Street Chapel
October 2001 What Works? An Exchange of Experience Seminar on Unitarian Development Manchester Cross Street Chapel
October 2004 What Works Now? A Further Exchange of Experience Seminar on Congregational Development London, Essex Hall

the Foy Society Over the years, Foy has put forward a number of motions to the annual meetings of the General Assembly, most of which were passed, seeming to catch the spirit of the times. Perhaps our finest hour came in 1985 at Dundee, when we put forward an emergency motion to rescue the idea of a Unitarian Development Fund after the Assembly had deferred it for a year, and it was passed overwhelmingly. The then General Secretary was heard to remark 'Thank God for the likes of Foy'. The 1998 day seminar on Interdependence lead directly to the matter of the GA Objects being put back on the agenda, with a motion at Southampton in 1999 and the final adoption of the 'GA Object' at Chester in 2001. In 2001 we put forward a motion about the value of the Youth Officer post, and although it took a little longer to achieve, we were delighted that Rev John Harley was appointed as Youth Officer in 2005. In 2008 we put forward a motion about the need for government to focus on strategies for the prevention of crime and the rehabilitation of offenders, and this was passed by a large majority.

the Foy Society Foy has also used its occasional open slots at the GA meetings to some effect. In 1988 at Lancaster we made a presentation about complementary types of worship. This lead to two events entitled 'Not Just Every Sunday': in North Devon in October 1988 ('Beyond the Mortgage - the Essence of Living') and at Bradford in October 1989 ('Every Nation Kneeling') on interfaith activity and worship. We issued a pamphlet about this project in 1998, with advice for anyone planning similar events in future. Interestingly the magazine Stirrings from the students of Unitarian College Manchester in 2002 was entitled 'Not only on Sunday', aiming to bring together material for those spiritual needs which can arise on other days, not just on Sundays. The Foy initiative was referred to. In 1998 we re-issued Trevor Jones's paper on the past, present and future of Unitarianism, shortly after he had retired as the denomination's Religious Education and Youth Department Co-ordinator (4).

the Foy Society Our open slot at the 2002 GA meetings in Sheffield was given over to David Usher (himself a Foy member) for him to present his radical view 'Is There a Better Way? A Critical Look at our National Organisation'. Foy subsequently published his paper in booklet form to allow greater dissemination of these ideas. We did not take a position for or against them. This presentation lead in due course to the setting up of the Renaissance Group, to a motion about re-organisation at the 2003 annual meetings, to the subsequent establishment of the Task Force, and ultimately a move towards an Executive Committee elected nationally, which happened in 2006. So Foy has a strong record of fostering initiatives that have brought new perspectives and new vitality to the Unitarian denomination. And of course we must not forget the importance of GA Zette, the overnight magazine at our annual meetings, which Foy has sponsored and arranged for more than forty years now. One can't imagine the GA without it.

Foy Conferences

It is arguable that the annual conference has always been the most important event in the Foy calendar, and this is especially so since Foy has been a national organisation without local branches. It gives us the opportunity to examine a topical issue in some depth, with the help of visiting speakers and much other input and evidence. Here are the conference themes for the last twelve years or so, with the name of the study leader:

1995 Bumper to bumper: at the transport crossroads Geoff Taylor
1996 Ethics: an exploration in personal morality Rev. Trevor Jones
1997 The Unitarian journey: past, present and future Jimmy Timiney & Howard Hague
1998 The Unitarian ministry: is it past its sell-by date? Jimmy Timiney & Howard Hague
1999 Exploring the boundaries of belief Jimmy Timiney and others
2000 Mutating into the 21st century Rev. Brian Packer
2001 Changing roles for men in society Kathy Packer
2002 Who makes the news? The influence of the media in society. David Warhurst
2003 Is there a better way? A critical look at our national organisation Rev. David Usher
2004 Alternative energy - ultimate panacea or just pie in the sky? Colin Partington & David Warhurst
2005 Addictions Emily & Vicky Hewerdine
2006 Is poverty now history? Allan Warhurst & Sarah Atkinson
2007 Identity David Shaw
2008 The key to avoiding the need for keys: paths to reducing offending and re-offending Helen and Richard Merritt
2009 Living Together in the Next Generation FOY Council
2010 Exploring Humour - You know I'm serious..... because I'm laughing Colin and Joan Partington

Looking at the conference themes over the last 35 years, I reckon that 25 of them fall into the political/social area and 10 into the religious/denominational sphere.

During the last twenty years or so Foy has, I believe, performed a useful service in looking at important aspects of the Unitarian movement and in providing a forum for the discussion of ideas. As a 'non-official' yet active body we were perhaps the ideal group to do this, and we have sometimes been called the 'think-tank' of the movement. As this brief survey shows, Foy has not remained the same over the years. It has changed its name, lost its branches, abolished its upper age limit and has become inter-generational. It has altered and developed in response to the circumstances in which it found itself and according to the wishes of its members, and no doubt it will continue to do so in the future. Who can say where we go next?


(1) Foy Society Survey Group A Census of Unitarian Congregations in Britain, published by the General Assembly, 1967. A shortened version entitled Unitarian Congregations Surveyed by William Needham was issued by the General Assembly, also in 1967.

(2) Grenville Needham The Foy Society: 50 Years. Published by Foy, 1974.

(3) Ben Johnson Recollections of a Remarkable Society: F.O.Y. from October 1937 until Easter 1957. Published and distributed by Ben Johnson, 1998.

(4) Trevor Jones Unitarianism: yesterday, today and tomorrow (1996). Foy, 1998.

Howard Hague - 26 November 2008