Located at the end of a narrow alley leading from what is now Colegate, and almost entirely hidden from view from the street, the Old Meeting House is a fine example of the style of architecture in vogue towards the end of the seventeenth century.
The church was built in 1693, just four years after the passing of the Act of Toleration, which granted Protestant non-conformists the right to build their own places of worship. Prior to this these ‘dissenters’, who rejected the official form and rites of worship demanded by law and prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, would meet in secret, sometimes travelling miles to do so and often gathering together under the cover of darkness, in grave fear of persecution should their activities be discovered.
The Old Meeting House is a Congregational church and was one of the first of that denomination to be built in England. Congregationalism is a form of church governance in which each individual church is administered directly and independently by its congregation and deemed to be answerable to God alone, and not ruled by the traditional episcopal hierarchy of dioceses, bishops and parishes. It has its roots in the Puritan and Separatist movements which came about following the split from Rome and the founding of the Church of England by Henry VIII in 1534, with himself as its supreme head, following his abortive attempt to secure from the Pope an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Puritans – named thus initially as a term of derision – considered the Church of England to be insufficiently reformed and sought to purify it of the pomp and ritual left over from Roman Catholicism, espousing a much simpler form of worship based solely on the teaching of the scriptures.
In 1580 a clergyman and dissident preacher, Robert Browne, came to Norwich to visit his friend, Robert Harrison, who was the Master of the Great Hospital in Bishopgate. Together they formulated the Brownist movement on which the Congregationalist method of church governance is based. On attempting to set up a separatist church in Norwich Browne was arrested but subsequently released, after which he and his followers moved to the Netherlands where they were free to practice their religious beliefs without fear of persecution. Some, worried that they might lose their English identity by emigrating permanently, returned to England and, with the assistance of investors, arranged to establish a new English colony in North America. They sailed from Plymouth on the 16th September 1620 aboard the Mayflower. Roughly one third of these Pilgrim Fathers, as they were later to become known, were from Norfolk. Many of the churches founded in America by them and those who came after them are of the Congregationalist denomination.
To read much more about the Old Meeting House and the history of Congregationalism and its close connections with Norwich please click here to visit the official website.
The Old Meeting House stands at the end of a narrow alley leading from Colegate.
The architectural style of the façade is typical of that of the late seventeenth century.