‘But why, oh why, must such praise be sung in cinema?’: The Sunday Evening War Time Meetings, 1939 – 1944

Throughout the years of the Second World War, the tight bonds between two of St Andrews prominent institutions, cinema and church, surfaced strongly. The church was not only a spiritual institution but also a social force, whilst cinema took a socially and religiously active role within the local community. Assuming a particularly significant part towards the war effort, cinema houses adapted to the socio-political climate of the time by transforming their venues to sites of community get-togethers, charity, religion, news, as well as entertainment.

One of the most notable functions at the time, emphasizing the closely intermingled relationship of church and cinema, were the ‘Sunday Evening War Time Meetings’ held at the New Picture House. These meetings were organized by a committee of local ministers of different denominations, Rev. A. M. MacIver, Rev. Archibald Main, Rev. R. S. Thompson, ministers from the surrounding area Rev. J. M. B. Duncan, from Cupar and Rev. Professor Forrester, from Edinburgh, under the chairmanship of Rev. A. S. Dunlop of the Holy Trinity Church in cooperation with the NPH directors. The meetings were of a religious character and ran throughout the wartime winters, intending to provide support and comfort to the local young men and women, as well as members of the British and Allied armed forces stationed in the area.

The gatherings usually commenced with the clergymen of the committee or visiting guest speakers discussing matters of religious and social importance deemed appropriate in the difficult times of war. Examples of such topics included ‘Sentimentality or Christianity?’ and ‘The World Religious Situation’.[1] Up until 1941 the screening of short films after sermons was still at a relatively experimental stage, but the committee soon recognizing film’s ability to help deliver and amplify the sermon’s message, adopted screenings as a regular part of the evenings. Films shown primarily focused on the national war effort overseas showcasing the British military, travelogues, and documentary footage of the war. The meetings were brought to a close by hymn singing accompanied by a choir, the pianist G. A. Short and the orchestra of T. T. Fordyce.[2]

The convener of the meetings, Principal G. S. Duncan of St Mary’s College at the University of St. Andrews, had indicated that the Sunday War Time Meetings were an ‘experiment’ of sorts that evoked a great deal of criticism from other parts of Scotland, as films were not allowed to be screened on Sundays, a day of Christian worship and rest, and therefore special arrangements were made to facilitate these events[3]. Furthermore, reactions also came from local churchgoers, who in response to the psalms being sung at the meetings wrote to the St Andrews Citizen: ‘But why, oh why, must such praise be sung in cinema? Surely there is no more proper place than the church for this!’.[4] Such remarks reflected upon certain local perspectives that regarded the cinema as an unsuitable and inappropriate venue for such events to take place, thus, highlighting the controversial and untraditional nature of this alliance.

Nevertheless, the meetings’ social, cultural and religious influences in helping deal with the adversity of war, gained them popular support and were demanded back every year where ‘it was a common sight to see the large auditorium of the New Picture House filled, with the audience on some occasion even overflowing to the balcony’, proving in retrospect the success of this unique and progressive collaboration.[5]

Ana Maria Sapountzis

[1] ‘Sunday Evening Meeting for Young People’, The St Andrews Citizen (21 November 1940): 4; and (7 December 1940): 4.

[1] G. S. Duncan and A. S. Dunlop, ‘Correspondence: Sunday Evening War-Time Meetings in the New Picture House’, The St Andrews Citizen (26 October 1940): 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ausculator Vulgaris, ‘Old Scottish Psalm Tunes’, The St Andrews Citizen (22 February 1941): 4.

[5] ‘Sunday Evening Meeting for Young People’, The St Andrews Citizen (18 October 1941): 4.