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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: George Macleod on the founding of the Iona Community

Looking Back


Looking Back: George MacLeod on the founding of the Iona Community

This article from the Life and Work of October 1938, the first of three by co-founder the Rev George MacLeod, explores the collapsing links between Church and Society that the Community was in part a response to; and addresses some misconceptions.


Iona Cathedral and village, pictured 1938


The Iona Community is a thrust towards the future.

There are signs that the Church is becoming afraid. (You and I are the Church.) Fear, as usual, shows itself in blaming someone else. So parsons begin to blame youth for being indifferent and going pagan. Youth begin to blame parsons for being “out of touch.” Which is all very odd. For never in history have parsons been more in touch with youth than to-day; probably the Church is better served by its ministers than at any time since the first centuries! Also, it is probably true that youth have never been more interested in religion than to-day – independently so, and not by reason of tradition. The truth is that if youth’s searching is to be satisfied, if Parson is going to get his answer in before the devotees of lesser creeds, we must quickly look to the change in our environment.

What has Gone Wrong?

The truth is that it is no one’s fault. What is happening is a growing cleavage between the Church and the Community. The glory of the Church of Scotland used to be summed up in the phrase “Kirk and Mart.” It was the “Church of the people” in the most glorious sense. There was hardly an activity of Life that did not at some point impinge on the Church, as the Market-Place so often stood beneath the Old Kirk spire. The poor were the care of the Church. Education was within the cloak of the Church, as it was her child. Physical Fitness (at least in the towns) was almost entirely the perquisite of the Church; the only gyms were Church Halls; Y.M.C.A.s, Boys’ Brigades, Football teams, and Guildries were about the only places where the mass of our youth could “get a game” and where unconsciously they imbibed the truth that physical fitness was an interest of God. Supremely, the Social Life of our people – until a few years back – was the glorious responsibility of our Church. (“The penny readings and the Sunday-school parties were my only outings,” Granny keeps on saying.) And, since Granny’s day, the Church has very largely held her ground as Scotland’s greatest centre for her social life.

Going, Going, Gone!

That is what is happening, make no mistake about it, in the old relationships between Kirk and Community. For consider – the State takes over the care of the poor (and does it much better – we are not complaining); the State takes over Education, similarly to break another strand that held children to the Kirk. Physical Education? How many children are going to continue gyms in our Church Halls when they get it three times a week in a first-class gym at school? And Social Life! What a plethora of other groupings now produce “the Social” (to the bewilderment of Granny and the rejoicings of our youth): Rural Institutes, Dramatic Clubs, Societies, Co-operatives, Orders of the Eastern Star – to mention only those there is nothing wrong about and a very great deal right. One by one the strands are being broken that knit Community to Church.

What Happens Then?

Whatever happens, it is going to mean a revolution in the practice and approaches of the Church. There are some who say that it will simplify the work of the Church: “We will be left with the Spiritual to deal with”; “There was too much social organisation anyway”; “We may be reduced to a small group of believers, a mere remnant again, dealing with our real function.” Well if that is what is going to happen, there seems a place for the Iona Community to study Worship alone for this coming situation. For, if the Church is to be cut off from the main life-streams of the Community, we of all Churches have a worship – in itself – that is unlikely to satisfy the devout remnant of our people. But in fact the problem that faces us is not as simple as that. There have been remnants in the Church before, since the time of Isaiah, but they didn’t occur in that way. We must be careful lest we achieve a false sense that we are a noble remnant, when in fact we would be approximating more to a remnant sale.

The real Truth is that “God so loved the WORLD (not just His Church) that He gave His Son”! Any Church that is content to be a remnant (ceasing to be missionary in its determination to spread the gospel to every creature) ceases thereby to be a Church. We have no less a task than this – to proclaim the banns again between Church and Community; to find what the full place of the Church is in this New Community that so rapidly is growing up around us; to experience, by the practice of Community (in Iona), what the essential thing is that “The Redeemed Society” has to give – something “other than” this plethora of other groupings offers.

What We Hope to Discover

Never again is the Church going to dominate Education or Physical Fitness or Social Life or the care of the poor; we have Christianised Society sufficiently for it to take over these functions. But it is still our work to permeate them, influence and direct them. How is it to be done in a quite unprecedented situation? It is these things that we hope to discover in worship and in study at Iona. Else these main streams of Life that have become divorced from the Church will run into secular channels to lead Society ultimately into all manner of unloveliness. Wherever in history the Church has ceased to strive to mould the material world around it and has resiled into a self-appointed channel of pietism, two things have always happened: the Church has drooped – even in its own life – and always Society has festered.

Incidentally along with our study and our worship we hope to help skilled artisans to build again the ruins of Scotland’s most precious possession. Daily, that is, we want to be reminded that the Spirit of God is not something that survives in a vacuum but is most richly seen when it tackles the hardest things, such as stone; and that God’s Spirit is most active when He tackles ruins.

Have we in this article at least said enough to assure inquirers that our purposes are modern?

What it is Not

It is not a rebellion against the Church! It is that we may serve the Church more loyally. (Incidentally, were we starting a rebellion we would not have thought of doing so sponsored by five ex-moderators and four professors of our Church!)

It is not a return to Rome. If you care to read succeeding articles, it will become quite apparent that both in the manner of our building and in the study of our worship, it is precisely and acutely the opposite of a return to Rome.

It is not a pacifist Community. We hope that men of strong views will join it from time to time and not be ashamed to hold them – whether for or against that solution; but a further reference to the names of the sponsors should prove that its emphasis is neither pacifist nor otherwise.

It is not a visionary movement – seeking helplessly to play at being Franciscans! (May we occasionally, with due acknowledgement, be delivered from our too enthusiastic friends, lest in the ultimate they be disappointed!) It is on the contrary an exceedingly calculated movement within the normal purpose of the Church. Poverty is not our aim, far less is the principle of celibacy involved. Those who come here will claim no “sacrifice”; we only claim a privilege to make perhaps the sacrifice of those who work in really difficult places a little less acute. Please drop the grand absurdity of “banishment to a lonely desert island”! We shall be back amongst you in the winter-time.

Finally and most assuredly, it is not a one-man enterprise! It is your enterprise or it fades. Money is the symbol of man’s encouragement. If money comes and men, the scheme goes on. If either falters, it simply means that God decides it should not happen now. It is not shameful to have tried. So far, God’s leading – in money and in men – is just enough as is good for us; enough to steer and man the ship; enough to show you what we mean; and then to ask if you want the ship to sail?

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