Iona Today

Its now two months since our visit to the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. There we learned of the sixth century Celtic saints who started a monastery and sent missionaries to Northumbria and beyond. Columba and Aidan are the best known but there is also a modern saint whose vision and commitment has left a significant legacy on Scots Christianity. This post is about George MacLeod and the community based in the Iona Abbey today.

The first Iona faith community established by Irish monks served for centuries as a centre of art and learning and it is thought the magnificently-illustrated gospels in the Book of Kells were written here. Creative gifts were encouraged - music, story, calligraphy, jewellery -  all were 'windows into heaven'. Amazing stone crosses were also carved, some of which have endured to this day. But in the ninth century Viking raids forced an exile of the monks back to Ireland, and specifically to the Abbey at Kells in County Meath. On Iona the faith community continued, and some kings of Scotland are reputed to have been buried on the island. In the twelfth century, a Benedictine community was established at the site and flourished for a time, but while some of its buildings survive, the influence of the Abbey then declined until the end of the nineteenth century.

At that time a programme of renovation was planned when the 8th Duke of Argyll, whose family then owned the island, transferred ownership of the Abbey and other buildings to the Iona Cathedral Trust, in order for the church to be restored and reopened for public worship. Restoration itself began in 1902, and in 1905 a service was held in the partially-restored abbey. That work was completed in 1910 but renovations have continued. In 1979 a nonprofit Foundation purchased the island from the Argyll Estates and presented it to the nation; the Scottish National Trust for Scotland now owns much of the island. In 2000, the Iona Cathedral Trust passed the abbey, nunnery, and other buildings over to Historic Scotland.

A new phase in the rebirth of the abbey began in 1938, when the Iona Community was formed by the Rev George F MacLeod, minister of Govan Old Parish Church, situated in a low socioeconomic district of Glasgow.  MacLeod was heir to a baronetcy and had been Captain in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Great War, where he saw service in Ypres and Flanders. His war experiences impacted him deeply and on his return to Scotland he offered for the ministry of the church of Scotland. He trained at Edinburgh University and Union Seminary and was ordained to a chaplaincy role with youth in 1924. Disillusionment with post-war political rhetoric, and experience of the realities of the depression and unemployment birthed in him a deep concern about social inequality and he gradually moved into socialism and pacifism, becoming a member of the Peace Pledge Union.  In 1938  he gave up the financial security of a parish minister's stipend to become the full-time leader of the Iona Community. 

In seeking a place to take his needy young people and provide faith, hope and work to do,  this spiritual entrepreneur founded the community with a  view to restoring Iona Abbey’s cloister.  MacLeod's innovative mission strategy was to bring together unemployed Glasgow craftsmen and trainee ministers to work on the rebuild and also prepare the ministers for work in deprived inner city areas.  The Iona Community  focussed on youth; justice, peace and the environment; poverty and social exclusion; overcoming racism; ecumenical and inter-faith relations; it was unconventional at the time but  had a significant impact on modern Christian missiology. Difficult times came for MacLeod in the fifties when he wished to combine parish ministry with ongoing leadership at Iona and was turned down by the Presbytery and eventually the Assembly. In 1957 when he was nominated (and elected) as Moderator, he was criticised by a colleague as being "half way to Rome and half way to Moscow." He was regarded as many by a maverick but his movement today includes thousands of members, associates and "friends" of many denominations - Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers, and Roman Catholics.

In 1967  he became  Lord MacLeod of Fuinary – the only Church of Scotland minister to have been honoured in this way. George MacLeod's influence on the Church of Scotland was considerable; his work raised awareness of ecumenism and social justice issues, and pioneered new forms of worship and ministry outside more conventional parish or chaplaincy structures. Today staff and members oversee not only the residential centres of Iona Abbey, and the MacLeod Centre on Iona, but also the Camas Adventure Centre on Mull. Songwriters like John Bell and Anna Briggs find their inspiration at Iona and many of use the Celtic worship resources of Iona's Wild Goose Publishers. The Iona Community's publicity material describes:

"an ecumenical movement of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church, committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to following where that leads, even into the unknown, engaged together, and with people of goodwill across the world, in acting, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation."

We visited the Abbey for worship and wandered the cloisters for prayer. I already have lots of Iona resources but we bought more books at the shop - and there I reconnected with a woman minister colleague from New Zealand, serving there for a year. I loved the island and I loved the Abbey, and recommend a visit, even for  day, if you are in the Highlands.

So the Abbey has an ancient and a modern story.The ancient one is that of St Columba, but the modern story about George MacLeod, another man of faith who brought vision and hope has also had a powerful impact on Christian spirituality and mission, the world over.

To Chew Over:  What spiritual entrepreneurs are influencing your faith, hope and mission today? How can you pass on their legacy?

God, because Jesus has taught us to trust you in all things,
we hold to his word and share his plea:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where nations budget for war, while Christ says, Put up your sword,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where countries waste food and covet fashion,
while Christ says, I was hungry... I was thirsty ...
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where powerful governments claim their policies are Heaven - blessed
while Scripture states that God helps the powerless,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where Christians seek the kingdom in the shape of their own churches,
as if Christ had come to build and not to break barriers,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

 women who speak up for their dignity are treated with scorn or contempt,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where men try hard to be tough because they’re afraid to be tender,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where we, obsessed with being adult, forget to become like children,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. 

Where our prayers falter, our faith weakens, our light grows dim,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Where Jesus calls us,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
God, you have declared that your realm is among us.
Open our ears to hear it, our hands to serve it, our hearts to hold it.
This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
  A Wee Worship Book Wild Goose Publications.