From York Chapel


An intergenerational Bright Lights service led by Claire Wilton  and suggested by York’s summer Shakespeare season.



We come to this place of togetherness  to find something precious: a sense of peace – – wisdom – –   friendship – – meaning;

And we come to this place of togetherness  to do precious things:  sing together – speak together – laugh  – –  and make music.

In our chapel building we tap into a rich history  of story-telling,   truth-telling,   drama, and song.

For centuries people – people like us –   have gathered here  to find something precious.

So today may we look for gold together  not only in the things that shine   and glitter in front of us  but in unexpected places too.

Let’s turn over rocks,   and look behind trees,   and clear out the dusty attic.

And let’s sing our own songs   to set the world ablaze. Amen.



 The roots of our Unitarian movement lie in the reformation of the 16th Century – exactly when Shakespeare was writing. And it’s worth noting that this very Chapel was built only 60 years after Shakespeare wrote his last play.


It was a time of growing democracy when it came to Christianity. The Bible was printed in English for the first time and placed in churches in 1538. Many more people were now able to read the Bible, and some began to interpret it differently to the customary understandings of the day.


The next few years witnessed a see-sawing of religious beliefs in Britain as one King or Queen after another favoured either Catholicism or Protestantism.


Through it all, dissenters – or separatists – were going even further in their views than Protestants.


One of the things being questioned by dissenters was the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. People suggested that Christ was human, rather than a part of God; and also believed that everyone would be saved – not just those who believed a specific religious doctrine.


At the time that Shakespeare was writing plays in England, Unitarianism was being founded in Poland and Transylvania. In Britain, however, views that Unitarians might express today were forbidden.


Several early radical reformers who professed Unitarian type beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries were put in prison or killed for what they believed in.


In 1558 when Protestant Elizabeth I came to the throne, Stratford – the town where Shakespeare was born – was outwardly protestant.


But many townsmen and women would have remained Catholic at heart. And there is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare’s father was a recusant – somebody who refused to go to the local protestant church.


Shakespeare’s mother had visibly Catholic relatives too, but Shakespeare himself – and his own children – were baptised in the Church of England.


But as you can see, Shakespeare was writing at a time of great change when it came to religious views.


He had moved to London by 1592 where he was likely to have come across much more active Protestantism and dissent than in the countryside where he was born.   Scholars have tried to make direct links between Shakespeare’s supposed Catholic beliefs and his plays, but not everybody agrees those links are really there.


Some people even think that his plays are pretty immune to religion altogether. He certainly doesn’t use Bible stories as plots, as other writers did – he relies more on classical and other literary sources.


It may even have been quite risky to allude directly to religion when it was so contested at the time.


However, there is one little interesting nugget for us as Unitarians:    In Twelfth Night (which he wrote around 1600) Shakespeare refers to a group of dissenters called “Brownists” – named after their leader Robert Browne who preached against the traditions of the Church of England at St Mary’s Church in Islington – not far from Newington Green, which was an agricultural village in those days – and where an early community of dissenters grew and where the Newington Green Chapel was founded in 1708.


Robert Browne later tried to set up a congregational church in Norwich. Most of the separatists who boarded the Mayflower to go to America in 1620 were Brownists. And the Pilgrim Fathers were known for 200 years as the Brownist Emigration.

And that, I’m afraid, is it. Shakespeare was no secret dissenter, but his plays were written at a time of great change, great daring and great suppression in British religion.



Distributed haphazardly around the Chapel were 28 different letters which the grown ups were challenged to turn into a well know Shakespearian sentence.



‘If music be the food of love, play on . . . ’ and on into our hearts

  • Let the notes of our song-of-love echo and resound.
  • Let the notes of our song echo through long, dark tunnels to reach those who are struggling with life.
  • Let the notes of our song whisper to those recovering from traumatic ordeals, or from serious illness, or bereavement.
  • Let the notes of our song bring harmony to families who are torn apart; families making long journeys to safety; families who are just not getting on.
  • Let the notes of our song sound across the generations, bringing a melody of memory to those who can no longer sing the old tunes.
  • And let the song in our heart give us the strength to challenge injustice and political arrogance, wherever it is found – on this side of the ocean, or the other; in the east; the west; the south; and the north; in Westminster and on the Scottish golf course.
  • Let the song in our heart echo and resound. And when we leave this place, may a chorus of love leave with us.


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