History & FriendsHistory of the church

The Church for the Nation

To the war torn world…

St Paul’s moved centre stage nationally to play two special roles at a time when the United Kingdom faced its darkest hour.

First, during the Second World War, the BBC moved much of its operations out of London to Bedford. The Trinity Chapel in St Paul’s was to be the studio used by the BBC during the Second World War for broadcasting the Daily Service not only nationally but throughout Europe.

The photograph left, which appeared in the very popular weekly journal Picture Post in 1945, shows the conductor of the BBC Singers (Dr George Thalben-Ball, organist of the Temple Church, London) seated at the back facing the camera, with four singers on each side, and the presiding priest facing him. At the control panel is Dr Roger Fisk, the sound engineer. The signal was transmitted down the telephone lines to Broadcasting House in London, and then redirected to the regional transmitters all over the country and beyond.
 
The BBC altar frontal, now used during Advent, is visible behind Dr Thalben-Ball. It was the result of an anonymous donation of £20 from ‘a Sincerely Grateful Listener’ addressed to ‘the Rev Gentlemen of morning services 10.15’ in June 1941. The design is attributed to Ninian Comper; it was embroidered by the Sisters of Bethany, and has been recently repaired by NADFAS. The central image of the frontal is that of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, coming down from Heaven to animate, guide, comfort and strengthen mankind in times of need. It echoes the dove at the top of the east window.

The Picture Post article accompanying the photograph suggests that these broadcasts, numbering over one thousand in all, similarly supported each of their listeners wherever they might be: 'those lonely listeners on the high seas, or lying in pain at home, friendly and almost casual, with a reminder of taking the dog for a walk, Christmas bells across the snow, and the people next door coming in after supper.' 

This extraordinary period in the church’s history is fittingly commemorated by an inscription on the floor at the entrance of the chapel undertaken in 2009 by Lida Kindersley, one of the foremost letter cutters in Europe. It represents in letter form the Christian message broadcast from this place every day for four years to the war torn world through the medium of air waves:

THE BBC BROADCAST THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE FROM THIS CHAPEL 1941-1945 IN THE DARKNESS OF WAR

NATION SHALL SPEAK PEACE UNTO NATION
THEY SHALL BEAT THEIR SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES
HOPE THROUGH RECONCILIATION
FORGIVENESS THROUGH UNDERSTANDING
PEACE

An event unique…

Secondly, at the southern end of the high altar rail, and inscription on a wooden panel records the National Day of Prayer on Sunday 7th September 1941, when the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York came together to St Paul’s to lead the worship and broadcast live to the nation at a grim time in our history. In the early morning the Archbishop of Canterbury, successor of St Augustine, received communion from the hands of the celebrant, the Archbishop of York. In the words of the Vicar of the time ‘It was an event unique in the history of any parish church in the country. At 9.15, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached in the Wesley pulpit and the Moderator of the Free Churches read the prayers. Dr Thalben Ball was at the organ, and the singing was led by the BBC Singers. The service was broadcast to all parts of the world, and must have uplifted and inspired many millions to a new endeavour to set up a kingdom of righteousness on the earth.’

The photograph (left) published in The Bedfordshire Times portrays the scene during the sermon. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, is in the pulpit. Dr Lang was well known for his opposition, five years earlier, to the marriage of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. Dr Lang retired in 1942 and was succeeded by Dr William Temple the Archbishop of York, also present at the service.

After its bombing on the night of December 29th 1940 St Paul’s Cathedral in London had become the visible icon of national and international resistance to repression and fascism. Nine months later, another powerful message was sent from Bedford’s own St Paul’s, but the BBC did not reveal where these broadcasts came from.

There are few more powerful weapons than faith allied with the power of free speech embodied by the BBC, and both were movingly demonstrated that Sunday in September 1941, as the congregation sang the words:

Grant us Thy help
till foes are backward driven,
Grant them Thy truth
that they may be forgiven:
Grant peace on earth,
and after we have striven,
Peace in Thy heaven.