A group of Elizabeth Gaskell House volunteers and trustees were lucky enough to be treated to a Zoom talk by Reverend Cody Coyne, the current minister at Cross Street Chapel, during the second lockdown.
Cross Street Chapel was founded in 1694 as a Dissenters’ Meeting House, and had become a Unitarian place of worship by the ministry of the Rev John Grundy in 1810. William worked there, first as assistant, and then as the principal minister, from 1828 to the time of his death in 1884.
In his study at the house, you get a strong sense of his commitment to the Chapel, writing his sermons, teaching staff, translating hymns and planning the lectures he gave to working men at the Chapel as well as Mechanics Institute and Owens College. The whole Gaskell family attended the chapel, and Elizabeth and her daughters worked in its Sunday Schools. Julia and Meta continued to attend the chapel after their father’s death, too.
The Gaskell family connection with the Cross Street Chapel is therefore long (lasting some 85 years) and important (in the Dining Room at the House, you can see the silver set and plate given to William in recognition of his long ministry), and the ministry continues now, in a new Chapel building, on the same site.
The chapel that William worked in was unfortunately damaged in the war and demolished, and has been replaced with a modern building , which Reverend Cody told us is beautiful inside , and was notable outside when I passed in Pride week for its huge rainbow banner in the front windows.
Unitarians in William and Elizabeth’s time could attend without making the declarations of faith required in the Church of England. Unitarians believe God is a unity, not broken into forms, and that Jesus is mortal. We now have a new family tree of the Gaskell family which also contains details of Unitarian beliefs, on the first floor of the house.
Reverend Cody stressed that Cross Street was, and is, a place of myriad beliefs, priding itself on tolerance. Unitarians are open-minded, and the congregation allows for a range of belief, working alongside each other.
The Charity statement of the Chapel stresses that Unitarians believe in the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and so people’s own experiences are valid. The congregation today includes people who are humanists or atheists, people with Hindu or Muslim experience, and the Chapel seeks to affirm people in a welcoming space, for what they are.
Freedom, reason and tolerance are the three principles that Unitarianism is based on.
The form of Unitarian service, Reverend Cody explained, is based on Protestantism and may be familiar therefore to many, in that there is a sermon and hymns. What may be unfamiliar is that the material is more often poetry, philosophy or material from other traditions, than readings from the Bible. Worship is varied, some Unitarian chapels may sing the Lord’s Prayer, and pre lockdown, Cross Street Chapel had a communion service.
Cross Street Chapel’s congregation have a covenant, which they themselves devised in a process of discussion and in a spirit of inclusivity. Reverend Cody describes his ministry as ‘congregational Unitarian’; seeking to bind the congregation together.
Reverend Cody reminded us that religion means ‘to bind together’ and his congregation includes a wide range of belief, based on the three basic principles, above.
There is some ritual, and the chalice (the symbol of Unitarians) features as a source of light and energy. It looks like a cross, a reference to past martyrs, and there is a ritual lighting of the chalice during services. In Cross Street Chapel, there is also the lighting of candles of joy and sorrow by the congregation, giving members a chance to address their fellows.
Many groups use the space inside the chapel, Alcoholics Anonymous use rooms, as do refugee groups, and Shelter. Black Lives Matter was given space and support by the Chapel.
There is an evangelical commitment, and the congregation have marched with the Pride procession; and were the first Chapel to have a licence to conduct same sex civil partnerships.
Overall, the Reverend Cody gave us a picture of a still thriving ministry and progressive beliefs, as in the Gaskell’s time, and you are welcome to visit the Chapel for Wednesday and Sunday services, or at other times by arrangement. When Covid allows, we have Reverend Cody’s invitation to visit; which we are sure to take up!
Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House