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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: MacLeod at 80

Looking Back

Friday June 5 2020

Looking Back: MacLeod at 80

George MacLeod, peace and justice campaigner, founder of the Iona Community and Moderator of the 1957 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, celebrated his 80th birthday in June 1975. To mark the occasion, R D Kernohan penned this profile - finding in MacLeod both provocateur and prophet.

Profile of a prophet

THE most difficult thing about writing a piece to mark the eightieth birthday of Lord MacLeod of Fuinary is probably to convince anyone that he really is that old. He wears his years well. But on June 17th, God willing, he becomes an octogenarian.

And that word, like so much else that George MacLeod has touched, upset, reshaped, and adorned, will never seem the same again.

He is a man who makes all words new: a pioneer, a founder, a leader, a Socialist, an evangelist, an anti-Marketeer, a Wykehamist, a proper baronet as well as a mere life peer, a university rector before the office declined, a charismatic enthusiast, a master-broadcaster, an ex-adjutant of an Argyll battalion, a pacifist with an M.C. and a Croix de Guerre, an ex-Moderator with a sense of humour, even about himself.

“I’ve been given a caption for that cover picture of yours,” he says. “Two crooks. Ha, ha, ha.”

And even at eighty he has not just a parade-ground bearing but an air of the enfant terrible as much as the elder statesman.

Mind you, when I went to dinner with the MacLeod family I had a different line in mind for this profile. In my pocket were three articles from Life and Work of 1938 [read the first here] in which George MacLeod explained what it was he had in mind for Iona and some of the lessons he meant to apply more widely from his experience of the depression years in Govan.

But he had also explained there what the Iona Community was not – neither rebellion against the Church nor visionary Utopianism nor advance guard of a return to Rome nor a one-man enterprise but “an exceedingly calculated movement within the normal purpose of the Church”.

With style

How odd, I meant to think, that critics should have found so much more in it than an attempt to demonstrate the social implications of the Gospel and concern to preserve in this modern environment “the essential truths for which our Presbyterian fathers died”.

When I emerged at midnight, shaken but well fed, I understood more of the reactions of the thrawn, suspicious fathers and brethren of the 1930s.

I had heard a lot about multi-national companies, the splendours of the Portuguese military revolution (though not the Chilean one), the left-wing case against the Common Market, the bright new hope which Anthony Wedgwood Benn is allegedly bringing to British politics, and the editorial virtues of the “Morning Star”, which Lord MacLeod claims to read not only more quickly than the “Scotsman” but before it.

It was done with style, like all George MacLeod has done. But perhaps it is the style that is as provocative as the content.

Yet who could say that is not in the classic tradition of the Christian evangelist – even for that matter of the Old Testament prophets?

Come to that, it is hard to read the Gospels without concluding that the Founder of the Galilee Community chose sometimes to be provocative both in style and content.

But in a world full of anger without love, in which both the tempo of our communications and the temper of the times encourage provocation and intensify conflict, there is something utterly different about MacLeod. It is a power of the Spirit and a commitment to Christ – a personal commitment, says MacLeod, to “a Friend to be obeyed”.

Constant factors

His distinctive insight and his exceptional mission of half-a-century is to preach the corporate nature of salvation, and judgment.

You may disagree with MacLeod; most people do most of the time, but it is impossible not to find radiated through him what he calls “Christ, the light energy of the world” – a world in which “the ultimate form of matter is light energy” and we are the first generation – “we of the age of relativity” – to know of the inherent relation, “body to spirit”.

It is not easy thought to follow; and by the time you have followed it there is no guarantee that MacLeod will not have moved on, reaching who knows what or where if he goes on to 90 or more.

But three factors are likely to be constant: that radiation of Christ, based on commitment and renewal; the affirmation that all creation is of God and waiting for the revelation of the Son of God, with nothing secular and everything sacramental; and the corporate obedience that involves social justice and (as MacLeod would have it) “all things in common, as at Pentecost”.

Place in history

In the last few years MacLeod in his seventies has probably been closer to the reactions of young people, and not least to the Christians among them, than have most of us in the generations between. Except on some political matters, his mind is never closed and his thoughts never stand still.

That makes it difficult to end a commemorative profile, for his contribution to the Church is immense but uncompleted.

But it seems a reasonably interim judgement on MacLeod that, for good or ill, he has been the outstanding personality in the Kirk of the last half-century and the one most likely to demand a mention in the history of the world Church.

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