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A note from the archive on 90 years of religious broadcasting

News St Martin – Talking Points

Friday 10 January 2014

Monday marked the 90th anniversary of the first broadcast of a church service, which came from St Martin-in-the-Fields on 6 January 1924. 

See a transcript of BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship’s reflection on 90 years of religious broadcasting >>

Inspired by the occasion, our Archive team took a look back through the records and uncovered some of the stories from St Martin-in-the-Fields long partnership with the BBC.

From 2LO London to the digital world of sound & vision

A note from the St Martin-in-the-Fields archives on 90 years of religious broadcasting.

One of our earliest references is from our Parish magazine, October 1924, “Thank God for Wireless“.  The preacher at a St Martin’s service, broadcast a few words directly to a young man dying in Poplar.  A friend of the man shared the earphones as they listened intently.  When the organ struck up, the young man said the first line of the hymn.  When all was finished, he said “Thank God for wireless, I only wish I could have been there.  It was beautiful, and that glorious hymn, the one we used to have at school.”  He died shortly after.  The essence of this anecdote is as true today as it was then.

Some remember the extensive correspondence Austen Williams had resulting from the monthly Overseas Broadcasts and how he would thank personally, on air, named correspondents from around the world.

In 2003, I mentioned the St Martin’s Review (80 years of religious broadcasting) to my 96 year old step-mother.  She said “Oh yes, dear, I know about that.  I visited a friend who lived in St Martin’s Lane and one day, when I was about 18 I think, I shared an earphone with her and we listened to the vicar (Dick Sheppard) on a Crystal Set while he was preaching just down the road.  We found it quite exciting!” And I think we too find it quite exciting even today, in this digital age, hearing our church on ‘steam radio’ and knowing people from beyond our doors are taking part.

In December 1927, the Radio Times publicised the St Martin’s service to be broadcast on the 11th. It reported:  “Whilst the Revd (Dick) Sheppard was in active command of the church … he made the monthly broadcast service the most important fact … of religious programming. Both his own sermons, and those of invited preachers, brought hope and comfort to many thousands of people who may never have seen the lofty spire of the famous London church.  Under his successor, Canon (Pat) McCormick, St Martin’s and its services have lost nothing of their appeal.  This evening, the Christmas Fund (founded by Dick Sheppard) is the broadcast Week’s Good Cause.  A photograph of the inside of the church as the ‘refuge of the homeless’ accompanied the article.

The Review of March 1974 (Fifty Years of Religious Broadcasting) referred to the monthly World Service broadcasts which went out under the care of the Revd Kennedy Bell.  Austen Williams preached at these regular broadcasts, made possible by the BBC. They had made St Martin’s real, genuine and personal to many listeners overseas.  Often, when they came to London as visitors or migrants, they would attend ‘their’ church.  Thus St Martin’s has been able to play its part in the work of the world-wide church.

The Review of December-January 2003, highlighted additional aspects of broadcasting from St Martin’s: the Choir performing on Radio 3, and the introduction of televised services.  The Revd Liz Russell wrote an interesting article with references to secret radios for listening to British broadcasting behind enemy lines during WW2; the poignant meaning and relevance of the words engraved into Broadcasting House “nation shall speak peace unto nation”; the importance and value of public service broadcasting; the intimacy of radio; and how it has put places that had never heard of one another into direct contact.  And where would the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal be without radio?

An interesting reprint in that same edition was an article by Sir John (Later Lord) Reith, the first Director of the BBC, paying tribute to Dick Sheppard following his death in 1937, and reflecting on the pioneering of religious broadcasting. Two factors gave an important boost to this: one was the outstanding reputation of Dick Sheppard; and the other was that St Martin’s was accepted by a wide range of denominations as a place of religious worship where members of many persuasions felt comfortable.

Although television has not been as frequent a medium, it has certainly not been insignificant. In 1937, Pat McCormick became the first clergyman to appear on TV.  The team of Austen Williams and Master (now called Director) of Music John Churchill conducted a number of such broadcasts; and the Services attended by the Primates from the Lambeth Conference provided a colourful and lively (especially with Archbishop Tutu preaching!) occasion when Geoffrey Brown was vicar.

There were many broadcasts during Nicholas Holtam’s time as vicar, and the huge renewal project of church and buildings was well reported on the media and widely known amongst listeners and viewers throughout the UK and beyond.  This was an important aspect of the highly successful Renewal Campaign.

This tradition has already been maintained and enhanced by the current clergy team and Director of Music Andrew Earis, and broadcasting remains an important element in the life of St Martin’s.  With the development of technologies which bring together radio, television, computers, iPads, mobile phones and the like, the revolution of 6 January 1924 continues.  No longer are the preacher’s words limited to the pews of our church; now, a broadcast service can reach the uttermost ends of the earth and space too!  Maybe, just maybe, if we continue learning to listen, understand and get our language right, then nation will indeed speak peace unto nation, and the peace of God will be shared throughout the world with people of all religious beliefs and none.

Michael Hellyer

You might also be interested in… 

Those who listen-in to services” – an invitation to people who listen-in to the broadcast services to subscribe to the St Martin’s Review, from October 1924.

Photos from the 80th Anniversary of the BBC World Service, with then Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Revd Rowan Williams and broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Photos from ‘Remembering Nelson Mandela‘, a service of BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship with Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Revd Justin Welby, and broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Revd Dr Sam Wells talks about the history of the BBC Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal.

More information about the Appeal.