Iona: at the crossroads of history, the gospel and the word

The tiny windswept island of Iona lies off the west coast of Scotland

By Rev. Ross Smillie

The tiny windswept island of Iona lies off the west coast of Scotland. From the mainland, it takes two ferries and a long bus ride in between to get there. In spite of being so isolated, Iona today feels like a crossroads between history and the modern church.

Iona is home to an ancient Abbey, founded in 563 C.E. by the Irish monk Columba and for 1,000 years the Abbey was an important intellectual and artistic centre for Celtic Christianity. It was at Iona, for example, that the Book of Kells, one of the most beautifully illustrated gospels, was created before being moved to Ireland to protect it from marauding Vikings.

The Abbey church dates to about 1200, but fell into disrepair after the Reformation. It was beautifully restored at the beginning of the 20th century, but would be simply a minor historical building but for a further development, that gave rise to the Iona community.

In the depression of the late 1930s George MacLeod, a radical minister from the Church of Scotland in Glasgow came up with the idea that the Abbey could be a training centre to help Church of Scotland ministers relate better to working class people. So he raised funds, hired unemployed workers from Glasgow and recruited young ministers to come out to Iona. The ministers and labourers lived and worked together in restoring the other buildings of the Abbey.

MacLeod once wrote:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where the church should be and what the church should be about.”

That gathering of ministers and workers developed into the Iona community, which today has members, associate members and friends from many Christian denominations around the world. The community is devoted to a simple rule which emphasizes spiritual commitment, social justice, worship and mutual accountability.

The community maintains two residential centres on the island which offer week-long programs that are part holiday, part workshop and part pilgrimage. The most important thing that happens though, is the building of community.

Staff, volunteers and guests from many countries converge on the island to study, work and worship together. Last month, in the program I took, there were 11 Swedes, three Americans, 10 Brits, two Scots, two Canadians and a Finn. Volunteers and staff were from Scotland, England, Germany, Paraguay, Indonesia, Uganda, Canada and the U.S.

A week on Iona consists of a daily rhythm of worship and work, meals and conversation. We gathered morning and evening for simple but beautiful worship services in the ancient Abbey Church.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings were spent in conversations about a theme, ‘Earth Encounters’ in my case. Many of the afternoons were free, and I spent a couple of them on long walks over the heather covered hills and through the boggy glens of the ruggedly beautiful terrain.

As a result of the work of the Iona community, this tiny island has once again become a source of intellectual and artistic creativity for the world church. Many of the songs we sing in my congregation, for example, were first written for worship on Iona.

That is why I say that Iona is at the crossroads where history and the modern church, the gospel and the world come together.

Ross Smillie is the pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church.

 

 

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