Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Perspective from the Iona Community

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

A Perspective from the Iona Community

Article excerpt


I am very pleased to have the chance to contribute to this consultation from the perspective of the Iona Community (referred to as the Community). First of all, this is because the Iona Community's whole purpose is missionary and is a particular understanding of and approach to ecclesiology implicit in all our concerns and activities. Secondly, it is because within the Community we do not discuss these matters quite as often as we should, and it has therefore been very helpful to me to have had the chance to reflect on them now!

Perhaps I should provide just a little factual background about the origins and current work of the Community in order to provide the context for the perspectives I want to explore.

Iona is a very small island off the west coast of Scotland. In earlier years when people travelled mostly by sea it stood, in a sense, at the crossroads of the nations. To get to Iona now from Glasgow, where I live and where the Community's headquarters are situated, takes about six hours by public transport (train, ferry, bus, and then another small ferry). In the year 563 St Columba arrived from Ireland to found a monastery which became an important missionary base for the carrying of the gospel all over Scotland, into the north of England, and indeed into parts of Europe too Ever since then Iona has been regarded as a place of special significance within the life of the church. It is a place of pilgrimage to which people come from all over the world. Columba's followers were driven off the island by the Vikings in the ninth century. However, in the early 13th century the Benedictines founded a monastery on Iona. It fell into ruins at the time of the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century but in the first decade of the 20th century the Abbey church was restored by trustees into whose ownership the historic buildings had been transferred by the Duke of Argyll.

The Community owes its origins to the vision, energy, passion and persuasiveness of one man, George MacLeod. In so many ways, he was a walking paradox. He had served in the first world war and was decorated for gallantry; later he became a committed pacifist. His background was upper-class and he used his contacts and connections to good advantage in developing the work of the Community, yet he had the common touch and related easily to people whatever their background. He was autocratic and opinionated, yet a man of deep compassion and pastoral sensitivity with a wicked sense of humour. Through his parish work, latterly in Govan, a part of Glasgow renowned at that time for its shipbuilding (it has almost all gone now), MacLeod became increasingly convinced that the church's approach to mission and the way in which ministers were trained was no Longer adequate. He believed the church was out of touch with the ordinary people: its culture was unfamiliar and unwelcoming; the gospel was not reaching them. To Cut a long story very short, and to omit a string of anecdotes that have become the Community's folk-lore as to how the money was raised and the task accomplished, George MacLeod gathered a group of men who rebuilt the monastic buildings of the Abbey. The project began in 1938, and was truly a sign of hope in dark times when unemployment was high and the storm clouds of war were gathering again. The rebuilding work was completed in 1967. In the process many lives were changed, and I suspect that few people believed that the Community would still exist to this day, least of all George MacLeod, who led the Community until 1967, and remained a thorn in many people's flesh throughout his life for his commitment to pacifism and ecumenism, among other significant causes. He was Church of Scotland Moderator in 1957, made a life peer in Britain's House of Lords in 1967, and died only ten years ago at the age of 96.

All the evidence suggests that MacLeod did not intend the Community to be the kind of body or movement that it has become, viz, a dispersed community, rather like a religious order, with a continuing existence and a common commitment to a rule. …

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