12 September 2023

Oxford Quakers
have a story
that goes back to
a meeting in 1654

The Quaker Meeting House at No 43 St Giles, Oxford … Quakers have been in Oxford since 1654 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Quaker Meeting House in Oxford is at No 43 St Giles, between Pusey House, Saint Cross College and Blackfriars Hall to the south, and the former Saint Benet’s Hall to the north. This stretch of Saint Giles also includes the Oxfam shop and the Eagle and Child, once the meeting place of the Inklings but ‘temporarily closed’ for a long time.

Although the present meeting house on Saint Giles dates from 1955, Quakers have been meeting in Oxford regularly since 1654, when they first met at the house of Richard Bettrice, a surgeon, in New Inn Hall Street.

In those days, Oxford Quakers were visited by many prominent missionaries, including the early converts was Thomas Loe, later associated with the conversion of William Penn.

George Fox, the founding figure among Quakers, visited Oxford in 1656 and, despite the rudeness of undergraduates, held ‘great meetings.’

Most of the early Quakers in Oxford were small tradesmen and artisans, although Richard Bettrice was a surgeon. Their practice of interrupting services in the city’s churches brought them into collision with the authorities, and some were whipped out of town, others imprisoned.

On the other hand, the vice-chancellor of Oxford, John Owen, who was an Independent, showed leniency and paid one Quaker’s gaol fees. In the same way, Thomas Williams, a Baptist mayor, refused to confirm sentences of whipping on some Quaker missionaries and he allowed a meeting at his house, where his son was converted.

Thomas Williams also intervened to prevent undergraduates ducking three Quakers, among them the missionary Elizabeth Fletcher who had walked the streets naked as a sign that God would strip those in power.

Quaker meetings were disrupted by undergraduates, who broke down the doors, brought in ‘their dogs and their drink,’ insulted the women, sang bawdy songs, and set off fireworks.

Official persecution increased after the Restoration. In 1662-1663, at least 15 Quakers were imprisoned, some more than once, for unlawful assembly, absence from church, or refusing the oath of allegiance.

Meetings continued, chiefly at Bettrice’s house, and he was fined heavily around 1670. There was difficulty over the use of the house in 1670, and in 1687 the Quakers bought land for a meeting house and a burial ground behind Silas Norton’s house at Nos 63-64 St Giles Street, now part of the site of Blackfriars Priory and Blackfriars Hall.

When William Penn visited Oxford in 1687, he addressed a meeting in Norton’s garden. The meeting house, later entered from Pusey Lane, was completed in 1688, with financial help from other Oxfordshire Friends.

A visitor in 1715 found the undergraduates comparatively quiet at the weekly meeting, which was attended by people ‘of some fashion.’ But he also witnessed the ransacking of the meeting house by a mob during the Jacobite riots that year. Although over £55 worth of damage was reported after the riot, no claim for compensation claim was made, presumably to avoid giving sworn evidence.

By 1735, there were only four or five Friends in Oxford, and the centre of Quaker activity in the area in the 18th century was at Witney, Weekly meetings appear to have ceased altogether after the death in 1745 of Thomas Nichols, one of the most active Friends in the county.

The Quarterly Meeting used the Oxford meeting house occasionally for convenience, and paid for its upkeep until it was sold in 1867. A few Friends continued to live in the city but an average attendance at the meeting house of about 100 reported in 1851 probably referred to the Quarterly Meeting.

The Oxford meeting was revived in 1888, largely by CE Gillett, and the former Scottish Presbyterian church in Nelson Street, Jericho, was bought as a meeting house. In the later 19th century, the meeting, influenced by the Evangelical movement, was unusually ‘advanced,’ with provision for hymn-singing and an emphasis on conversion to Christianity rather than to the Society of Friends. However, the meeting reverted to a more traditional Quaker style of worship in the 20th century.

A drawing of the 1950s meeting house in Oxford in the meeting’s newsletter

Membership increased from 68 in 1919 to 173 in 1946, and 268 in 1972. In 1906 the meeting moved from the Nelson Street chapel, which was sold in 1921, to No 40 Canal Street, and from 1907 the Friends occupied rented accommodation at No 21 George Street until 1919 and at N. 115 High Street, until 1946. They then moved to No 43 St Giles Street, which was bought in 1939. A stone on the fa├žade bears the date 1660.

The present Meeting House in the garden at No 43 St Giles dates from 1955, 300 years after Quakers were first recorded in Oxford.

Oxford Meeting gathers on: Sundays, First Sunday of each month: 10:30 to 11:30, followed by tea and coffee, 12:30 to 1:30pm: Meeting for Worship for Business; all other Sundays: 9:30 to 10:15, followed by tea and coffee, 11 to 12, including children’s meetings, followed by tea and coffee; Tuesdays: 7:30 to 8, followed by a shared breakfast; Wednesdays: 11:30 to 12:15, followed by tea and coffee.

The present Quaker Meeting House at No 43 St Giles dates from 1955 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (107) 12 September 2023

Saint Saviourgate Unitarian Church, the earliest surviving ‘nonconformist’ chapel in York, dates from 1693 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV, 10 September 2023).

I have a number of meetings in Southwark later today. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a Unitarian church I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Unitarian Church in York is in the form of a Greek cross, with each limb equal in area to the central intersection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York:

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the Sundays at this time are also counted as the Sundays after Trinity. In contrast to this way of counting the Sundays and the weeks at this time in the Church Year, my photographs in my Prayer Diary this week include a selection of Unitarian churches.

Saint Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel is the earliest surviving ‘nonconformist’ chapel in York. The early presence of ‘nonconformists’ and ‘dissenters’ in York can be traced back to the Puritans of the early and mid-17th century. After the Caroline restoration and within a decade of the ejection of 1662, five men were licensed in York as independent preachers in 1672, and several houses were licensed for worship.

By 1676, 161 ‘dissenters’ were recorded in York. Sir John and Lady Hewley, Lady Watson and Lady Lister used their influence to protect Ralph Ward and other dissenting ministers, and favoured both Presbyterians and Independents or Congregationalists equally.

After Ward died in 1691, his congregation began building Saint Saviourgate Chapel, also known as Lady Hewley’s Chapel, and it was registered in 1693. The building is in the form of a Greek cross, with each limb equal in area to the central intersection.

Lady Hewley, one of the original benefactors of the chapel, made an allowance to the minister during her lifetime and made provision for this allowance to continue after her death.

A Presbyterian congregation continued to attend the chapel until 1756, when the trustees of the Hewley Charity appointed Newcome Cappe as the minister, despite vocal opposition. He introduced Arianism and during his ministry the congregation declined, leaving only a small number who had adopted his views. Later, the chapel became Unitarian.

The Hewley Charity became the subject of legal action in the 1830s. After protracted litigation, the trustees of the charity were removed in 1836, and the minister’s stipend was no longer augmented from Lady Hewley’s charity.

The Unitarian use of the chapel was not affected and there was an average Sunday attendance of 120 in 1851. The Revd Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858), principal of Manchester College, York – now Harris Manchester College, Oxford – and a noted local antiquary, was minister of the chapel in 1801-1858.

However, the loss of Lady Hewley’s endowments left the congregation struggling financially. Ministers quickly came and went or combined their ministry with other employment. One minister, George Saville Woods, was an MP at the same time as being chapel minister.

York Unitarian Chapel is member of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The chapel is a Grade II* listed building. York Unitarians recently marked their 350th anniversary as a congregation. Services are at 11 a.m. every Sunday and there is a quiet time of meditation on Thursdays at 11 am.. The minister is the Revd Stephanie Bisby.

Following a long gap after the divisions in the Presbyterian Church that became the Unitarian Church on Saint Saviourgate, Presbyterian services in York resumed in 1873 in the Lecture Hall, Goodramgate, by a Presbyterian minister from Hull.

A site was acquired at the corner of Priory Street and Lower Priory Street, the foundation stone of Saint Columba’s Church was laid in January 1879, and the first service was held on 6 November. The building was designed to hold 700 worshippers at a time when York was a booming railway centre and a garrison town, with large numbers of Scottish and Irish workers, many with Presbyterian backgrounds. These Irish and Scottish connections are reflected in the name of Saint Columba of Iona.

The first minister was the Revd James Collie. His family presented three Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows after his death in 1912. The church is built of white brick with decorated windows and there are two main entrances approached by flights of steps. A harmonium was installed in 1881, and was replaced with a pipe organ in 1907 with a Lewis Organ that was fully restored and modernised in 2008.

The church once had a tower, but this was removed in 1949. Some of the cast-iron railings remain.

The United Reformed Church (URC) was formed with the union of the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales in 1972, joined later by the Churches of Christ (1981) and the Congregational Union of Scotland (2000). The Revd Alison Micklem is the Minister of Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church. Sunday services are at 10:15.

Unitarian thinking was also associated with some of the Baptist congregations in York.

There was an Anabaptist congregation in York in the mid-1640s, and there are references to Baptist preachers in York in the 1670s and 1680s. But the current Baptist presence dates from around 1800, when some Wesleyan Methodists seceded and were later known as the Unitarian Baptists after they broke with Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion, which had a chapel in College Street.

By 1816, the Unitarian Baptists were using the Congregational chapel in Jubbergate, but by the 1830s they seem to have merged with the Unitarian chapel in Saint Saviourgate.

A second Baptist society emerged in York in 1799-1802 and met in a chapel in College Street until 1806, when they bought a chapel in Grape Lane. They seem to have faded away in the mid-1830s.

Baptist services resumed in York in 1862 in a hired room in the Lecture Hall, Goodramgate. A church of 30 members was formed in 1864 and the Baptist Chapel on Priory Street opened in 1868. The Revd John Green was appointed as pastor of York Baptist Church last year (March 2022) after filling the role of interim minister since September 2020. Sunday services are at 10:45 am and 6:30 pm.

‘Take a Pew’ … a rainbow-coloured bench in front of York Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 6: 12-19 (NRSVA):

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

A blue plaque recalls Lady Sarah Hewley (1627-1710) as the founder of the Unitarian Chapel and the Saint Saviourgate almshouses in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Holy Cross Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (12 September 2023) invites us to reflect on these words:

We thank you, Lord, for the hope of the cross.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love,
keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Unitarian Church in York was also known as Lady Hewley’s Chapel after it was registered in 1693 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org