Iona Reflections

I must confess that I came to Iona Abbey with a romantic notion of the Abbey Community.  Somehow in my mind it represented a modern representation of a heroic past involving courageous Christian witness and daring Christian service.  While still impressed and thankful for my time at Iona, I left Iona Abbey searching for something more.  Allow me to briefly (far too briefly to do real justice to something I have given much thought and prayer) explain. George MacLeod started (or more properly restarted the Iona Abbey community) in 1938 out of a heartfelt concern to reconnect the church of his day with the working class people of the community.  He took young ministers (essentially ministers-in-training) and unemployed stoneworkers together to Iona.  As they worked together in rebuilding the Abbey, they shared together in the Christian faith.  Not all of the stoneworkers were Christian but the intermixing of the clergy with laborers helped the church reconnect with the working class of Scotland.  Following the ministry and model of Columba, MacLeod combined genuine conversion-oriented evangelism (witnessing to Christ as they worked side by side) with justice and mercy (helping fight the crippling unemployment of the depression). From those early beginnings the Iona Abbey Community has emerged with a deep sense of justice and mercy ministry.  Though the historic island of Iona and the physical Abbey itself are the spiritual home of the Iona Community, the community’s main ministry is all over the world through the reach of its approximately 270 members and a much larger number of Associate Members. Over the years it has been extremely active in the peace movement, ministry to the marginalized and impoverished, deep commitment to ecological sustainability and the like. Prayer, worship with liturgical and musical renewal has remained a central emphasis as well.  Members (capital M) of the worldwide Iona Abbey Community commit to fivefold rule of prayer and Bible study, economic sharing, planning of time, meeting together for mutual support and accountability, and working for justice and peace.  In many ways, the ministry is impressive and faithful.  And yet, there is  something lacking.  As the justice and mercy ministry has moved more and more to the forefront, a sense of evangelistic witness has faded to mere abstraction. The worship liturgy and prayer alone appear to keep the group from  drifting off into being just another agency of social activism. In a discussion group, a layman from a church in Leek, England probed the Member of the Iona Community on their current connection to the original vision of MacLeod to reconnect the church to working class people.  The response to his probing was  polite but defensive.  The Member of the Iona Community acknowledged that they were essentially a mid-class (mainline) Christian movement that had lost connection with the working class.  Peace and justice were the predominant focus of their work. Later, I sought the layman out to follow up on his thinking.  Perceptively he  commented that it was “hard for an institution to recover its original mission.”  As we conversed, it became clear that this layman did not disagree at all with the commitment to justice and mercy.  What he missed (and had come to Iona looking for) was a concomitant commitment to sharing the gospel in the way of St. Columba and Rev. MacLeod.  He spoke of a great commission commitment to share the faith with others in a way that led to committing one’s life to Christ. The direct application for my ministry and for the Central Texas Conference was not lost on me. However good (and it is truly good, needed and a work of God) social justice ministry is, it alone is not enough.  The second major way the Iona Community is seeking to live out the mission and ministry of Christ is in and through authentic community.  Essentially they represent another attempt (among many) to re-engage the great insights of Christian community tracing a line from the original Christ followers (read the close of Acts 2) and the abbeys of old down to today.  This is a large subject which must wait for another day.  (Watch this fall’s The Wilderness Way.)