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A Brief History


Every year, we note our Foundation Day, 28 August, when worship began in the chapel that previously occupied this site, in 1806. The houses either side were built at the same time. Our story had started in 1799 when dissenting congregants from St Mary’s, Upper Street began worshipping together in a private house in Highbury Grove. They had chosen to depart from traditionally imposed words and structures, in order to come to worship in ways that a congregation could fully understand, in the true feeling of communion. In this they looked to the early, self-governing Christian churches. Being untied to the state they had, indeed required, the freedom not to obey an imposed hierarchy, or central political order. Our name, Union Chapel, derives from our founding statement, that we welcome Christians of any denomination and are open to all.

Chapel 1806

Union Chapel, Islington in 1806

Chapel rooftops

The 1877 buildings, showing some of our 37 rooftops

Growth in attendance led to the creation of the current complex of buildings in 1876-77, and the buildings you will see today. Islington was growing rapidly during the industrial age, and the new buildings included lecture halls, committee rooms, the vestry, a caretaker’s flat, a manse flat, and a bespoke Sunday School. Thousands of children received here the only formal education they would ever have. The buildings survived nearby bombing in 1944, although there was significant damage. In the post-war years the congregation was declining, as the trend was for people to move away from cities and into the suburbs. The philanthropy that had created the buildings was no longer available to sustain them, and demolition by 1980 seemed certain.
In response, the Friends of Union Chapel were founded, and Union Chapel Project launched to repair and bring the buildings back to their original purpose, as written in the deeds: to be there for the community. Concerts both secular and religious bring people through the door, helping restoration work to continue, and allowing a smaller but lively congregation to assist those in need. We live in the real world, and find within it a real spiritual need for open discussion. Some church members are better versed in scholarship than others, and they in turn bring their own questions. All who come here should feel able to present questions of their own, and suggest their own answers to others. In eight words, “You do not have to agree with me”. Just because you don’t agree with the person speaking to you, you are not distanced from God. The reverse is true: you are provided with another path of thought towards Him. We continue to welcome people from all walks of life, for worship, weddings and blessings; to world famous concerts and recitals; and to our Margins project where we care for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. We welcome you today, to celebrate our continuing work. For more detail on the architecture of the building, and its philosophy of construction and music see the longer article on the Friends pages.