George MacLeod

Iona Abbey | Photo courtesy of Susan Izard

George MacLeod* was born in 1895 into a family that was probably the greatest ecclesiastical dynasty in Scotland. The MacLeods of Morvern on the west coast had given more than 550 years of ordained service to the established Church. MacLeod’s was a privileged as well as an ecclesiastical family. He had childhood memories, for instance, of a written menu for the evening meal and being waited on by maids. His background was broadened by periods of study in England, at Winchester and Oxford. When the First World War came he served as an officer with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, seeing heavy fighting on the Western Front, and his bravery won him the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

The war profoundly affected MacLeod. He witnessed, as did so many, the slaughter of friends and companions. So shaken was he by what he saw that he later described himself as falling apart at this point. Going through half a bottle of whisky and 50 cigarettes a day, ‘I was going to hell in a hurry,’ he said. But as he travelled back to the front after a leave of absence, MacLeod reached a critical turning-point in his life. Not even waiting until the train reached its destination, he knelt down in the railway compartment and gave himself to Christ. It was typical of the man to act as soon as he had heard within himself the compelling truth that he needed to change.

It was of course years before he understood many of the implications of his sudden conversion experience in the railway carriage, but after the war MacLeod trained for the Church of Scotland ministry. His father was a Presbyterian, his mother a Quaker, and during his years at Winchester he had been confirmed as an Anglican, so he now described himself as ‘a walking ecumenical disaster’. After training for the ministry he became Assistant Minister at St Giles’ in Edinburgh, Scotland’s principal Cathedral, and then Collegiate Minister at the prestigious Church of St Cuthbert’s where he was a very popular preacher. But increasingly he became aware of what he called ‘the two nations’ of his country, the rich and the poor. So disturbed was he by this division that in 1930 he accepted, to the surprise of the establishment, a call to the Parish of Govan, the shipbuilding area in Glasgow marked in the hungry thirties by severe unemployment and widespread poverty.

It was during this period that MacLeod moved from a fairly straightforward form of High Presbyterianism towards a more mystical as well as a more political spirituality. This combination of the mystical and the political is what is so remarkable about MacLeod. The true mark of Christian spirituality, he now declared, ‘is to get one’s teeth into things. . . .Painstaking service to humankind’s most material needs is the essence of Christian spirituality.’ In other words, to move more deeply into life, and especially into its places of struggle and suffering, like those he was seeing in Glasgow, is to move closer to the life of Christ, the light that is within even the darkest of situations. The word ‘spiritual’, he believed, was often dangerously misunderstood. People generally imagine that ‘to go mystical’, as he put it, is to turn away from the affairs of the world. It is rather to go more deeply into life, to find God at the heart of life, deeper than any wrong, and to liberate God’s goodness within us and in our relationships, both individually and collectively.

From Listening for the Heartbeat of God by John Philip Newell

*George MacLeod (1895-1991) is known for mainly things and perhaps mainly for his peace activism, but his greatness lies in having brought Celtic spirituality’s way of seeing back into the Church’s formal life. in 1938 he made the decision to begin to rebuild the ancient Abbey on Iona, where in the sixth century St Columba had based his Celtic mission. In part the work symbolized the need to rebuild or rediscover the spirituality that Iona represented for him. Thus began the present-day Iona Community, which initially consisted of MacLeod, young ministers in training and unemployed craftsmen. They were committed not only to the restoration of the monastic buildings on the island but to rediscovering a discipline of prayer and rebuilding justice in their lives and in the cities.