the iona community

The Iona Community was founded in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod, his vision growing out of his ministry in Govan Old, a congregation in an important shipbuilding area on the banks of the River Clyde.  MacLeod was called to be the minister of Govan Old Parish Church from 1930 to 1938.  At the time, half of the population was out of work.  In addition to his experience in the trenches during the First World War, serving this congregation in desperate economic times radicalized him.  He left a large and more prosperous congregation in Edinburgh to serve this large but defeated congregation in Govan and it was a decision that changed the course of his life.

“This is what hit him in Govan – how little the Church spoke to the ordinary lives of people, certainly to the working class.  He was in the middle of the shipyards where life was pretty rough.  Govan parish was only about a square mile, but teeming with folk.  And George was on the doorstep, known to them all, and terribly aware of how little the Church touched their lives and meant to them.”[1]

Though many things contributed to MacLeod’s passion for social justice, it may have been the experience of visiting a man in hospital who was dying of malnutrition that galvanized his conviction.  The man and his family were receiving the minimum amount from the “burroo.”[2]  In order that his family have enough to survive, the man had given over two-thirds of it to them.  Ian Fraser, one of the founding members of the Iona Community said this:

“That must have been very decisive for George.  You’re a great preacher, you’ve got everything before you, you’ve got all the adulation, you have people entranced by you, but here’s a bloke who gave away two-thirds of an absolute pittance, and died of malnutrition.  That’s what you’d to face.”[3]

MacLeod was a charismatic preacher and personality; a man on fire for justice and righting the inequities that were so prevalent in Scotland at that time.  He drew large crowds and packed the church in Govan.  But when he looked out at the congregation he realized that none of the members of his own church were actually sitting in the pews.  Instead, middle-class people attracted to his message and his personality filled the church.

It was a stark truth: a successful church was not necessarily a relevant church.  Charismatic preaching did not actually change the lot of the poor.  Clearly, MacLeod would have to discover a new way of being Church, if he was going to serve the people of Govan.[4]

And so he began a ministry to address the practical needs of his parishioners: the hungry were fed, a community garden established, the men had a workroom where they could repair their children’s boots and shoes, the women had a washroom where they could do their own washing on their days off, and there were social activities to encourage wholesome fellowship.  Appalled by the waste of human talent, MacLeod persuaded unemployed men from Govan to use their skills to restore an old mill into a place where families from the parish could go for a break from city life.  This, as it turned out, would be a test run for the future rebuilding of the Abbey and the founding of the Iona Community.

[1] From an interview with Douglas Trotter, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 11-12.

[2] The “burroo” is the Scots name for unemployment.

[3] From an interview with Ian Fraser, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 12.

[4] Anne Muir, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 12.

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