The Free Church Leaders


Ecumenical joint action has been a feature on Merseyside for many years with all Christian denominations working together. Read below about the role of the Free Church Leaders.

A Merseyside Churches’ Ecumenical Council was formed in 1975, largely through the initiative of the then Dean of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, Edward Patey, and Revd David Savage, a Baptist minister, was appointed as Ecumenical Officer. In July 1976, a Church Leaders Group was formally established, serviced by the Ecumenical Officer who was responsible for implementing any decisions reached by the group.

Membership of the Church Leaders Group included:

  • Revd Norwyn Denny was the Chairman of the Methodist District from 1976 to 1986. He was succeeded by Revd Dr John Newton.
  • Revd John Williamson was the first Moderator of the Mersey Province of the United Reformed Church from 1972 until 1987. He was followed by Revd Eric Allen.
  • Revd Trevor Hubbard was the North West Superintendent of the Baptist Union. He was followed by Revd Keith Hobbs.
  • Colonel Lily Farar was followed by Major Douglas Raynor as the senior Salvation Army officer.

Other members of the Church Leaders Group were:

  • Bishop Michael Henshall, the Anglican suffragen Bishop of Warrington and Bishop Bill Flagg, an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool.
  • Bishop Kevin O’Connor, Bishop Anthony Hitchen and Bishop John Rawsthorne, the three Roman Catholic auxiliary bishops on the Liverpool Archdiocese.

In 1982, the Merseyside Church Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to find a way forward in shared decision making while remaining loyal to their own Churches. They set up a working party chaired by Bishop Michael Henshall to see what practical recommendations could be made and on how extensive a basis. The working party invited the Churches to respond to four questions:

  1. What activities could we possibly do together effectively which are at present done separately?
  2. What specifically would your Church wish to continue to do separately?
  3. What can the Churches do together, which should be done and is not at present being done?
  4. Are there any areas of work which your Church might be able to carry out on behalf of the other Churches?


The working party report, Call to Partnership, led to the establishment of Merseyside and Region Churches’ Ecumenical Assembly (MARCEA). The Assembly would have about two hundred members drawn from all the Churches, a Standing Committee, a Church Leaders Group and department for Ecumenical Affairs, Social Responsibility, Education, Ministry and International Affairs. MARCEA continued until 2003 when it was reshaped and renamed Churches Together in the Merseyside Region.

Covenant for Unity

The working party’s proposals were laid before representative bodies of the various Churches and received overwhelming votes of support and commitment. As a result, the Church Leaders agreed to enter into a Covenant. Norwyn Denny, John Williamson, and Trevor Hubbard were the signatories of the Covenant with Derek Worlock and David Sheppard. It was signed during the Pentecost service in 1985. A national Salvation Army decision prevented Douglas Raynor from signing, but he did join in the prayer asking God to “bind us together as partners with you in the task entrusted to us, that obedient to your command we may proclaim the Good News and make disciples of all nations”.

In 1982, extreme Protestants had shouted down the Archbishop of Canterbury during a service in Liverpool Parish Church. The Bishop and Archbishop were interviewed together on television about this incident, but this prompted a letter to The Guardian asking where was the voice of the Free Church leaders. The Merseyside Free Church leaders responded saying:

"Most of us were in Yorkshire at the annual consultation of Church leaders of the
North of England, where we were expressing Merseyside’s concerns and seeking
to act on behalf of our Anglican and Roman Catholic colleagues, while they, with
our full approval, were in Liverpool, facing up to the media. We meet with the
Bishop and Archbishop regularly throughout the year, and by now have learned
to trust each another, whilst appreciating the different convictions and points of
view which still divide us. We have found that on such occasions they are both
sensitive to our positions, and try to represent all the Churches and not just their

Call to Partnership

Nevertheless, it was recognised that there was a need to fill this gap in the expression of the Christian voice on Merseyside. The Call to Partnership report therefore also proposed that the Free Churches appoint a Moderator to be ‘a recognised spokesman to stand with the Bishop and Archbishop in the corporate witness of the Churches’ and that they should find effective ways of supporting him financially and enabling him to free up the time required. In 1985, John Williamson, the United Reformed Church Moderator, was appointed. Within a very short time, he was involved with the Bishop and Archbishop in activities such as meeting with national and local politicians and producing a joint statement in relation to the Liverpool City Council rates crisis. “The triple partnership provides an additional dimension and gradually we have worked out how practically to consult and share in producing the common witness.” 

After John Williamson’s retirement in 1987, he was succeeded as the Free Church Moderator by Dr John Newton. By this time, the ‘Liverpool two’ had become the ‘Liverpool three’ and people in Liverpool had come to expect the Churches to act together. Even so, in photographs taken by newspapers, there was a tendency just to focus on the two bishops, so that they had to resort to getting the Free Church Moderator to stand between them for photo calls.

Churches Together

In answer to a question about ecumenism at a local Council of Churches meeting attended by all three leaders, John Newton said:

"Ecumenism is sometimes presented as a kind of ecclesiastical game of
beggar-you-neighbour. ‘If you give us this, I’ll give you that’ – for the sake
of ‘unity’. I believe this whole approach to be spurious and unworthy of
those who believe in a God who has set before us the ‘unsearchable riches
of Christ’. We are not trying to strip one another of our most distinctive
treasures, but to share them."

On another occasion, when asked about ecumenism, he said:

"My hope and prayer is that, as Christians draw closer together, so they will
work more effectively as one in their mission and service to God’s children.
Our united resources are called for to minister to the needs of a broken and
divided world: to bring hope to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed,
those dying of AIDS, those who have lost faith or never had it."

Hope Street

It was John Newton who preached when in 1990 the service to launch the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland was held in Liverpool. It followed the form used at Pentecost on alternate years when the service begins in one Cathedral and concludes in the other and includes walking together along Hope Street, which links the two cathedrals. During the sermon, he said:

"We meet in hope, and we meet in Liverpool. At one time to mention Liverpool
and Christian unity in the same breath would have seemed like a sick joke.
This is a city like Glasgow and Belfast that has been disfigured by bigotry and
sectarianism. For years, Liverpool had a powerful Protestant Party, segregated
housing and a firm belief that the orange and green could hardly belong to the
same Christian rainbow. There are still a few contemporary ancestors, who
haven’t heard that peace has broken out, and are sadly bent on fighting the old
wars. But the majority of Christians on Merseyside have moved from rivalry to
co-operation, and co-operation to commitment. Working and praying together,
we have reached a degree of mutual understanding that has given us a common
purpose. We are ‘Churches Together’, not yet fully one, but to a wonderful extent

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