01 June 2024

Unitarians have been
at the Great Meeting
chapel in Leicester for
more than 300 years

The Unitarian Chapel in Leicester, known as the Great Meeting … built in 1708 and the oldest complete brick building in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, in the six days following Trinity Sunday, I have been illustrating my prayer diary each morning with photographs and memories of churches in Greece that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

By way of contrast this evening, I am looking back on my visit last week to the Unitarian Chapel in Leicester, known historically as the Great Meeting. It was built in 1708, and it is the oldest complete brick building in Leicester, making it an important historic building in the city.

The chapel or Great Meeting is in a city centre location, close to the main shopping and recreational facilities in Leicester, and is included in a conservation area. It is engaged in a £250,000 restoration programme.

The chapel or Great Meeting In Leicester … built in 1708 to meet the needs of Congregationalists and Presbyterians (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Unitarian origins go back to the Presbyterian presence in Leicester after the English civil war in the mid-17th century. The congregation in Leicester was founded around 1672, after King Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed nonconformist ministers the freedom to preach under license. For the next 36 years, the dissenters or nonconformists in Leicester met in cramped and unsuitable buildings, including one in what is now called Infirmary Square.

There was a close connexion between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians in Leicester by 1692, and in that year Edmund Spencer was the preacher to both congregations. Meanwhile, the Toleration Act (1689) allowed dissenters to build their own places of worship, and the chapel or Great Meeting was built in 1708 as a ‘Meeting House of Protestant Dissenters’, to meet the needs of Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

Together they bought the site, originally an orchard beside the Butt Close. The Cherry Tree pub, to this day next door to the chapel, is named because the orchard had cherry trees.

The two-storey red brick and stucco chapel and the central porch has Tuscan columns. The roof is a fine and intact example of early 18th century oak vernacular carpentry and has a unique and ingenious structure that suspends an octagonal plaster ceiling that dates from 1786.

The graveyard was converted into a garden in 1945 and is one of the few green spaces in that part of Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Although the Great Meeting is now Unitarian, it only became so at the beginning of the 19th century. The trust deeds of the chapel do not place any condition on the religious views of the congregation, but a members of the Great Meeting who did not welcome the move towards Unitarianism seceded and set up another Congregational chapel in 1800.

A tablet on one wall in the chapel records the marriage in 1837 of William Rowlett, reputedly the first marriage in a non-conformist chapel in England.

The chapel was extensively modified in 1866, when the seating capacity was expanded to 1,160, the chancel was added and an early 19th century gallery on three sides was replaced by the present gallery. The concert organ dates from 1882 and is in working order. Another Unitarian chapel was built in Wellington Street about 1876, but it was closed in 1901, when a chapel in Narborough Road was opened.

A garden room with kitchen and basement meeting room were added in 1995, allowing lettings for a variety of educational uses and to groups such as those providing refugee support.

The graveyard was converted into a garden in 1945. It is one of the few green spaces in that part of the city. It is an attractive resource and is open to the public several times a year.

The restored old school rooms accommodate a health centre for homeless people and asylum seekers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The old school rooms have been restored and modified and are rented out by the chapel to a NHS funded Health Centre for the homeless and asylum seekers.

The congregation supported a charity school from the early 18th century, clothing 20 boys and 20 girls, and teaching them to read and write. Children were vaccinated against smallpox and an invoice was submitted in 1750 for ‘washing the children’.

The congregation built a new school-building beside the Cherry Tree pub in 1813, and it was enlarged in 1848. Threatened with the loss of the government grants unless they reduced overcrowding, the congregation built a new range of schoolrooms to accommodate 1,000 children at a cost of £1,800, raised entirely from the members.

At first, only reading and writing were taught but by 1860 the curriculum included reading, writing, grammar, geography, scripture, history, arithmetic, vocal music and drawing. In addition, the boys were taught algebra, geometry, French and drill, and the girls were taught needlework.

The Great Meeting Day School closed in 1872 after the Education Act was passed, but the rooms continued to be used for the Sunday School and adult schools, and were rented out to the ‘Board School’.

Inside the Great Meeting … the chancel and galleries were added in 1866 (Photograph: Leicester Great Meeting)

Joseph Dare (1800-1883) ran the Leicester Domestic Mission for the Great Meeting Chapel from 1847 until he retired in 1876. He was a Unitarian, a teacher, accountant and enthusiastic voluntary worker.

The Domestic Mission aimed to provide social and practical help to the poor, coupled with encouragement to lead a more religiously observant life, leading to self-reliance and moral rectitude. Dare wrote a comprehensive report every year describing both living conditions in Victorian Leicester and his work. It is a unique and record of working class life and of his vocation as an early prototype social worker.

He visited thousands of homes each year to assess need, provide moral support and to comfort the dying. He was concerned at the lack of educational opportunity and set up an additional Sunday School, a library and adult evening classes supported by chapel volunteers.

Inside the Great Meeting … generations of members were active in many progressive causes (Photograph: Leicester Great Meeting)

The congregation was influential in Leicester in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the Unitarians in the Great Meeting providing many of the leading thinkers in Leicester. The contribution of members to the political, economic and cultural life of the town was out of proportion to their size or numbers.

They were active in many progressive causes including opposing slavery and demanding municipal reform, votes for women and universal education. Many members were also involved developing the hosiery trade in Leicester and in establishing banking and mechanised worsted spinning.

William Gardiner (1770-1853), a renowned composer and choirmaster, is credited with introducing Beethoven to England, with his first performance in 1794.

In the 19th century, chapel members helped found the Mechanics Institute, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society and the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, which laid the foundations of the city’s modern museums.

The first seven mayors of Leicester following municipal reform in 1835 were all Unitarians, and the chapel became known locally as ‘The Mayor’s Nest’. The first of these seven mayors, Thomas Paget (1778-1862), was mayor in 1836-1837.

Other Unitarians who made great contributions to the political, economic and cultural life of Leicester included John Biggs (1801-1871), a hosiery merchant, political reformer, MP and three times Mayor of Leicester. The business leader John Mason Cook was a son of Thomas Cook, the pioneering travel agent.

In the 20th century, Joseph Fielding Johnson, a member of the congregation, was a major benefactor of University College, now the University of Leicester. The main administrative block, once the old ‘County Lunatic Asylum’, is now named after him.

Today a number of members of the congregation are active in public and political life, including Leicester’s first elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby.

The World War I war memorial in the porch of the Great Meeting (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The congregation has had many distinguished ministers. Early ministers included the Revd James Watson, who died in 1741, and the Revd Hugh Worthington, who died in 1797. The Revd Charles Berry (1783-1877) became the minister of the Great Meeting in 1803 at the age of 20, in succession to the Revd Robert Jacomb, and remained until 1859. During his time, the building was substantially re-modelled.

Berry was descended from a long line of Independent or Congregational ministers and was also descended from Sir Charles Wolseley. With leading members of his congregation, Berry played a major part in the movement for political reform in the town, and he was one of the founders of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, and of the Leicester Town Museum.

The Revd Thomas William Johnson Barker (1831-1895), who was ordained a Congregationalist minister, was the minister of the Bond Street Chapel from 1858 to 1867, and he wrote a history of the chapel in 1866. He returned to London as the minister of New College Chapel (1868-1889).

Barker rejoined the Church of England int 1890, was ordained that same year, and was a priest in Devonport, Plymouth, and Cullompton in Devon. He was succeeded at the Bond Street Chapel by the Revd Robert Harley (1828-1910), who later served as a Congregationalist minister in Huddersfield, Oxford, Sydney and London.

The Revd Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952) was chosen as the minister of the Narborough Road chapel in 1904 and was the first female minister in any denomination in England. A German Unitarian, she trained at Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College), Oxford, and also served in Birmingham. The 1905 communion set given to her as a gift was used at the Whitsun Communion on Sunday 19 May 2024.

The Revd Dr Arthur Stewart recently retired after 33 years of ministry. The Revd Arek Malecki was appointed last summer, with an induction service on 18 November 2023.

Great Meeting Chapel was the first religious establishment in Leicester to offer same-sex marriages.

Sunday services at 11 am usually follow the pattern of prayers, hymns, readings and an address, with coffee afterwards. There is a mid-week ‘Soul Haven’ meeting with short prayers and meditation on Thursdays. The chapel offers marriages, including same sex unions, naming ceremonies and funerals, which are also available on a humanist, non-theistic basis.

The Great Meeting Chapel and school … an artist's impression

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
24, 1 June 2024

The former Ionian Parliament building in Corfu became Holy Trinity Anglican Church in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with Trinity Sunday (26 May 2024), and tomorrow is the First Sunday after Trinity, although the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi has been transferred to tomorrow in many parishes, including Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford.

In this week after Trinity Sunday, I have been illustrating my prayers and reflections with images of six churches, chapels, cathedral or monasteries in Greece I know that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

In the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (1 June), we remember Justin Martyr of Rome (1 June).

StonyLive!, a celebration of cultural talent in Stony Stratford, begins today and continues until 9 June. There is a variety of cultural activities around Stony Stratford this weekend, with drama, music, comedy, art, dance and spoken word, and a Classic Car Show tomorrow. The festival begins today with the Day of Dance (High Street), the Festival Fringe (Stables Yard behind Vaults Bar), Town Barn Dance (Market Square) and live music all over the town.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The former chaplain’s residence now serves as Holy Trinity Church, Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 11: 27-33 (NRSVUE):

27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 31 They argued with one another, “What should we say? If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Holy Trinity Church maintains an Anglican presence and outreach in the heart of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Holy Trinity Church, Corfu:

There has been an Anglican presence in Corfu since 1814, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands became a British Protectorate. The High Commissioner, the administrators, and the soldiers and sailors based in Corfu, required a place of worship, and a chapel was built in the Doric style in the Old Fortress and was named Saint George.

Saint George’s remained the garrison church until 1864, when Corfu and the other Ionian Islands were incorporated into the modern Greek state. The Greek Parliament in Athens wanted to turn the old fortress into a military base, and Saint George’s became an Orthodox church.

Indeed, this was the church where Prince Philip, later the Duke of Edinburgh, was baptised according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1921.

When the former Anglican Church of Saint George in the Old Fortress in Corfu became a Greek Orthodox in 1864, the Anglican community was left without a church. On the other hand, with the incorporation of Corfu and the Ionian Islands into the Greek state, Corfu no longer needed a parliament building. The Greek government offered the former Ionian Parliament building to the Anglican community. The building was designed by a Corfiot architect John Chronis.

The gift was ratified in Greek law in 1869, and the building was given to the ‘British community of Kerkyra (Corfu) of the Anglican faith so long as it might serve as a house of worship of the said persuasion.’

The deed of consecration was signed in 1870, the Ionian Parliament building became Holy Trinity Church, and the premises to the rear became the parsonage or residence of the Anglican chaplain.

Holy Trinity Church was in a unique position because it belonged not to the British Government nor any church body, but solely and entirely to the Anglican community in Corfu. The church flourished from 1869, with a permanent resident chaplain until 1940, and for 71 years the church served the island’s many British residents.

At the outbreak of World War II, most British residents left Corfu, and the Commonwealth and Continental Church Society (now ICS) was appointed trustee of the church.

The church was bombed during World War II, leaving only parts of the outside walls. Although the parsonage to the rear suffered bomb damage, it provided shelter for the Maltese community. However, with the slow return of British residents to post-war Corfu, the Mayor of Corfu took advantage of this situation, the city took over the church, restored the building, and retained it.

Later, through negotiations, the residence part of the building was retained, repaired and served many uses. While he was the British Vice Consul, Major John Forte set about recovering this part of the building. Major John Forte is also known for reviving the game of cricket in Corfu, and for helping to prevent L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, from setting up a university on Corfu in 1968.

On Easter Day 1971, Holy Trinity Church Corfu reopened on a permanent basis for the first time in 31 years.

For more than half a century later, Holy Trinity Church has been part of the Diocese in Europe and has a vital congregation that continues to reach out to residents and visitors alike in Corfu.

Saint George’s Church was an Anglican and garrison church in Corfu until 1864 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 1 June 2024):

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), has been ‘Renewal and Reconciliation.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday with a Programme Update by Rachael Anderson, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (1 June 2024, Global Day of Parents) invites us to pray:

We pray for all parents and those who parent across the world. May they be given any support they need to raise their children in a healthy and happy environment.

The Collect:

God our redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
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.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Justin:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Trinity I:

O God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you both in will and deed;
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.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Major John Forte is known for reviving the game of cricket in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.