The Unitarian Church

Photo:The Unitarian Church in New Road

The Unitarian Church in New Road

Inspired by the Temple of Theseus

Buying a suitable plot of land

When 19 people were expelled from a Baptist Church in 1793 for adopting Unitarian 'universalist' beliefs, they first met in each other's houses for worship and discussion and then occupied a chapel in Jew Street (near to the present church). By 1819 the congregation had grown enough to buy a plot of land for its own church building - the present one in New Road. It was purchased from the Prince Regent for £650, as the land was part of the Royal Pavilion gardens. It appears that the Prince was in one of his frequent states of near bankruptcy thanks to his lavish spending on the Pavilion and he needed to raise cash fast!

The Prince signed the Trust Deed himself, which states that the land was purchased for the use of "...a Society of Protestant Dissenters established or intended to be established in Brighton". (It is not clear how the small congregation managed to raise the substantial sum involved in buying the land and building the church.)

The original engraving was covered over

The church building was completed in August 1820, within 14 months of the land purchase. It was designed by Amon Henry Wilds, who built much of fashionable Kemp Town, and it was inspired by the ancient Temple of Theseus in Athens. The pediment on top of the Greek columns was originally engraved with ancient Greek script, which when translated was a New Testament quotation: "To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ"; but this was covered over in the late 1800s because hardly anyone could read ancient Greek and cabmen were given to telling visitors that the place was a synagogue and that the lettering was Hebrew!

Some did not like the Greek style. For example, the Royal Brighton Guide published in 1827 said that it was "built after the manner of a heathen temple".

The opening service

The opening service on 20 August 1820 was attended by 350 people. Over the years this church has called itself different things to reflect changing attitudes. In 1898 its annual report referred to it as a 'Free Christian Church' but before that it had called itself 'Unsectarian'. In 1901 it was called the 'Free Christian Church (ChristChurch)'. By 1922 it had become a 'Free Christian Church (Unitarian)'. In 1932 the name 'ChristChurch (Unitarian)' became generally used, but since the Second World War it has come to be known simply as 'Brighton Unitarian Church'. These changes in the church's public name reflect its long-cherished Unitarian preparedness to be flexible in the way it sees and portrays itself.

The building is in fact registered with the Registrar General's Office, for the conduct of marriages, not as a Unitarian church but as being for  "those who object to being designated". Today only one Unitarian college chapel in Oxford is similarly listed.

The organ

The Brighton Unitarian Church (BUC) possesses a magnificent organ, originally built in 1887 by Alfred Kirkland for the Essex Unitarian Church in Kensington. The casework was from an earlier organ built for BUC by the Brighton firm of Morgan & Smith. In 1965 this organ was rebuilt by the firm Kingsgate-Davidson. Then in 1973 Essex Unitarian Church was demolished and its organ was removed and installed in Brighton. In the late 90s Dr Geoffrey Revell implemented much of its restoration.

In 2003 the main building was closed for a time for substantial rebuilding and renovation work to take place. This was made possible through sustained fundraising, to which the National Heritage Lottery Fund made a generous contribution. By October 2004 the place was restored and redecorated and compliant with new legislation regarding access.

Sources: Unitarian Church website and Reverend Jane Barton

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 178, Jan/Feb 2006]

This page was added on 15/09/2008.

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