Ladies and Gentlemen.
Firstly may I say a word of thanks on behalf of my Father and all those who love him, for this great honour.
It comes towards the end of a very great life, lived through Christ. It honours and through that honour and the subsequent publicity, magnifies the significance of that life.
It gives contentment to the recipient, wings to his work.
These good things have been created by your efforts.
Thank you most sincerely.
My father has asked me to stress three things today.
Firstly, he has asked me to say how delighted he is to hear that he is sharing this prize with a very great man, a man whose views of Nature in many ways compliment his own interpretation of the Gospel. Secondly, he sends fraternal greetings from the Iona Community to you here, and finally, he has expressed delight to hear that his words concerning the dangers of Nuclear Power, will be heard on a platform in Japan.
Sadly, though my Father is now 94, and whilst his continuing efforts for Peace still inspire us all, his time for writing major speeches is gone.
He has therefore asked me to speak on his behalf, although he has read and approved of this speech.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered here today to celebrate the ‘Progress in Religion’ that my father has made. The concept of ‘progress in religion’ is a difficult one to examine in a short speech, but if we slightly change the terms of reference and examine the changes that George MacLeod has made to the ways that we are religious then it is easier to evaluate the considerable progress that he has made.
To understand this is necessary to make a brief appraisal of the man’s life.
He has always said that his life may be divided into three sections.
THE DELICIOUS, THE DELIRIOUS, and THE DIRECTIONAL.
Let’s start with delicious!
George MacLeod was born in Glasgow in June 1895. Son of a very wealthy, and very Conservative, Member of Parliament. They were delicious days for the privileged.
He was brought up to believe that the British Empire was an expression of God’s will and that God had sent the black man to serve the white.
Delicious days indeed. Days of luxury, days without doubt.
Here is a quote from George MacLeod describing a Sunday morning scene during those delicious days:
“My memory of Sunday is of silence. As twelve o’clock struck the family would be sitting in silence around the fire. When the quarter struck, my father would give a cough, peculiar to the day, and we would all rise and walk silently to Church. We knew that across the nation millions of others also walked silently to worship the validity of our social order.”
1914. And a thunderous explosion rent that silence beyond repair, as Europe was torn from East to West by a war so grotesque it is now almost beyond imagination.
And George MacLeod was in the thick of it.
Yes, the innocent young man was snatched from beside that silent fireplace and sent to Ypres, to the Somme, to Pashiondale.
On one bright sunny August morning he leapt from his trench with four hundred men at his side.
A few hours later he returned to that trench leading the remnants of that Battalion. There were only seventy of them left.
George MacLeod was twenty two years old on that bright sunny morning.
After four years of such war he was a deal less innocent.
He was also better educated.
Educated in leadership. Educated in administration, Educated in fighting, Educated in a fulsome knowledge of mans propensity for destruction.
He was also completely disillusioned with the religion he had been taught as a child. Again and again in his war diaries he remarks that he is saddened by the explanation of the Gospel being given by the Chaplains in the trenches, and bored by the Services.
Although he was not yet a pacifist he found it difficult to reconcile the words of the Padres with those of the Bible. Religion, he felt had to be about more than mere personal salvation.
He was also disillusioned by the social mores of his Victorian home. He found he was filled with admiration for the working class soldiers he was fighting alongside, men he had previously been taught were his inferiors, a concept re-enforced through the traditions of worship.
At the end of the war George MacLeod was in his own words a confused and sorry figure, torn between the standards of his beloved home and radical thoughts filled his brain. He started to drink, smoke, and gamble, heavily.
These he now calls delirious days.
Then one day whilst riding on a train, he suddenly realised that he was in his own words “Travelling to hell in a hurry.”
He resolved at that moment to turn to Christ and use the skills he had acquired as a fighting officer, in the Service of God.
The directional period of his life had begun.
At first his career path was traditional although immensely successful. But at the age of twenty nine the good looking young war hero, a brilliant preacher, was ensconced as the youngest ever minister at Edinburgh’s most fashionable Church, the darling of the Establishment.
His Sunday evening broadcasts were so successful that many Ministers changed the times of their evening services to avoid preaching to an empty Church.
But the dynamic young officer was frustrated. Frustrated by the constraints of the parish system, frustrated by the inflexibility of the liturgy. Convinced that if he was to fulfill his potential he had to be given more power. Power to implement the efficient organisational systems he had learned in the army.
Power to give reign to the great strength which he believes lies at the heart of all men if they only open their hearts to the Holy Spirit.
So he moved from one of the most fashionable parishes in Scotland to an inner-city working class Church in Glasgow’s shipyards, where unemployment was running at sixty per cent and the social problems were horrendous.
It was there that he started the radical changes that have led me to be standing speaking at this lectern. The essence to the structure of the organisation were militaristic.
Unmarried, he spurned the comfortable manse to establish his home and headquarters in a dingy series of rooms above the church hall. Right in the centre of the action. Operating like a general, with a large team of lieutenants and with a personal servant to attend to his own domestic needs they systematically brought change to all elements to the parish.
The main thrust of his work was to bring the power of the Gospel to bear on the everyday lives of the people of the Parish throughout the week.
He had learned during his time in the army that it is only a demanding common cause that binds people together in fellowship.
Accordingly he made strong demands on the congregation insisting that if they wished to remain on the Parish Roll they would have to make a strong commitment in terms of time. Many left in fury, but hundreds joined with joy.
Soon the Church hall was being used to re-educate the unemployed for new jobs, not just on Sunday but every day of the week.
The projects were amazing. They started a bus company. Wove clothes for the poor. Most exciting of all was the Fingleton Mill Project: An old derelict mill was bought on the outskirts of town and the unemployed shipyard workers were sent to converting it into a holiday home for the Parish. Astonished theology students were sent to help. They were astonished because they thought they were going to run the project and found that they were to be the labourers for the dockers.
At the centre of all this activity was George MacLeod’s worship. Vibrant, exciting, inspirational, and frequently broadcast on the radio, for he was still the darling of the Establishment.
Imagine the impact of sermons such as this:
“I simply argue that the Cross be raised again at the centre 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’s garbage heap at a cross roads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. At the kind of a place where cynics talk smut, thieves curse and soldiers gamble. This is where he died, because that is what he died about. That is the place we must go to worship him.”
He preaches that you cannot be a Christian and not visit the poor, and the establishment love him.
He preaches that you cannot be a Christian and not visit the sick, and the establishment love him.
But then, oh then George MacLeod, Oh then George……… you preach that you cannot be a Christian and kill Nazis…….
Suddenly the establishment is no longer confused about how it feels about the George MacLeod phenomenon. The broadcasts are banned and returned unpublished.
Oh Yes, George MacLeod preach to us about the poor for that is the Church’s business. Preach to us about the sick for that is the Church’s business, but when it comes to international politics George MacLeod we’d be most grateful if you’d mind your own business, or to put it another way we’d be grateful if you’d keep religion to Sundays.
This was the key moment in George MacLeod’s career. He now felt he could go no further in the parish system if he was to bring about the change he wanted so much. Now was the moment for the general to make a bold, risky, battle plan.
He resigned his Parish in Glasgow and throwing caution to the wind announced a new plan based on the Fingleton Mill concept.
He now announced to an astonished world that his team were going to do another Fingleton Mill Project, only this time the unemployed and the theological students working together would restore a Cathedral, the ruined Abbey on the remote Hebridean island of Iona.
To understand this concept properly we must go a little deeper into the George MacLeod theology, and indeed into the history of the Celtic Church. In 563 St Columba came to Iona with a small group of followers to establish it as a base for Missionaries to go out with the Word of God. Missionaries went out from St Columba’s Isle on walking missions which took them as far as the Steppes of Russia, before returning, years later, to their home on lovely Iona.
Columba was in many ways similar to George MacLeod. He too was a retired warrior. Columba had vowed to claim for God as many men as he had killed in battle. George still lived in ghastly regret of the slaughter he had been part of.
Both were dogmatic and forceful leaders. Both had a temper. Both were deeply loved.
Their philosophies were also suprisingly similar. Both believed that religion should be brought into every element of our daily lives, that it should not just be for Sundays. In the Columban settlement there were prayers for milking the cows, prayers for making the butter. Prayers that rejoiced in the totality of God’s natural creation as being part of him. Both men believed in the importance of prayer, spirituality, and mission.
So it was that George MacLeod and a small team of followers arrived on a damp Scottish day beneath the ruined walls of the vast abbey which now stood in the place that Columba had once called home. They felt a little foolish. They had no set plan.
They wished to ‘evolve’ a new set of systems for Christian worship and action through the fellowship of the shared experience of rebuilding the Cathedral. They had little money but a great deal of hope. They also had George MacLeod as a leader.
In starting the ‘Iona Community’ George MacLeod has finally found himself. Now he had few bosses to answer to. Now at last he had found through his understanding of the Celtic Church a theology of spirituality and action that corresponded to his own instinctive beliefs.
The Community quickly mushroomed. Hundreds came as volunteer labourers or to camp for holidays nearby and share the worship and constant discussion on new ways forward for the Church.
The Iona community evolved a lifestyle discipline to hold the project together.
The basis of the discipline was that they were to work on the rebuilding in the summer and to return to their mainland jobs in the winter.
Most only spent one summer at the ‘rebuilding’ but were still full members of the Community, keeping in touch by letter and a shared rule which insisted on meditation, work for peace, and the obligation to help others use their time and money in as efficient a manner as they themselves would like.
These ‘members of the Iona Community’ went like
Columba’s monks throughout the world carrying with them the dynamism of the new ideas in thought, worship and action that were constantly being generated in the central rebuilding project.
Ideas that were disseminated through a quarterly newsletter to the thousands of followers of the movement.
But it was not only ideas that were being generated in the central project. It was a new spirituality and new energy long gone from the tired liturgy of the Church.
Much of this energy came through a great reverence for prayer. The Iona Community on the island worshipped together twice a day – and what worship – the shared common demands of the hard physical labouring and the shared common thirst for new ways to touch the hearts of men created worship which inspired and uplifted. Here for example is their daily prayer.
Imagine it being said at dawn by a group of young ministers and stone masons, standing in their work clothes near the ruined walls:
“Oh Christ the Master Carpenter. Who at the last through wood and nails purchased man’s whole salvation, wield well thy tools in the workshop of thy world that we who brought ‘rough hewn’ to thy bench may there be fashioned to a truer beauty by thy hand”.
The Theology was Incarnational, Cosmic, Celtic.
George MacLeod spoke in prayer to a personal God but he was also drawn to a God that has a ‘frequency’ in all things. A frequency we can tune into:
“Christ above us, Christ beneath us, Christ beside us, Christ within us, invisible we see you, Christ above us, with earthly eyes we see above us, clouds or sunshine, grey or bright.
But with the eye of faith we know you reign.
Instinct in the sun rays, speaking of the storm,
warming and moving all creation,
Christ above us.”
Fifty years on the Iona Community has now totally restored the abbey and it is now a busy conference centre attracting over one hundred thousand visitors a year.
The influence of this great source of spirituality, energy and action has been felt throughout the world and George MacLeod is hailed as a great innovator through its works.
But at the completion of the restoration project the great whirlwind that is George MacLeod felt a need to move on.
He noted that his hero Columba had always in his missions gone to the political leaders to convert them. George MacLeod had always preached that Christians should be in politics. Not necessarily as power brokers but as bastions of integrity witnessing the Gospel and his elevation to the Peerage gave him a new platform.
So in 1969 he resigned as leader of the Community, although he is still a busy member of its discipline and commenced a life as a Messenger taking the message of Iona into the world.
The message was never diluted. We have to bring God into every decision, every action. There can rarely be such a thing as ‘necessary’ violence. We must live within the divine frequency throughout our lives. The natural order is God’s order.
At first the areas of his political interest were diverse: penal reform, the politics of Africa, economics. Latterly he has been obsessively anti-nuclear. Often he has seemed ridiculous, supporting lonely causes.
In the 40’s he told the General Assembly that we should either be pacifists or support Churchill. How they laughed then, they don’t laugh now.
In the 50’s he argued against the African federation.
How they laughed then. They don’t laugh now.
In the sixties he argued against American involvement in Vitenam. How they laughed then, they don’t laugh now.
In the seventies he said the Church must support the radical environmentalists. How they laughed then, they don’t laugh now.
Now in the eighties he tells us that we must get back control of the banks or democracy will become a sham.
Laughable isn’t it?
And so the great warrior fights on.
Today I know he will be at his desk, for even at 94 he maintains a vigorous discipline of daily office work, lobbying for Christian change.
He believes God is in and through matter, and through matter through energy. God is the natural order, and to be part of him we must be of the natural order and also energetic.
This is perhaps best encapsulated in my final quote from Lord MacLeod.
“If on a walk through the countryside we are aware of the presence of God in nature and we are tempted to try and capture it. We pluck the flower, only to find it dies. we fill a bucket from the rushing river only to find in turns to dull water. We fill a sack with the bracing wind only to find it turns immediately to stale air.”
If we wish to be of God, to be of this natural order, we must smother our faces in the flowers, hurl ourselves into the rushing river and then run against the bracing wind.
When we return home we shall say that we have had a ‘lovely day.’ What we mean is that we have had a ‘lively day.’ It has been a benediction of a day!
Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a benediction of a life.
A life crowned by this wonderful award. On behalf of Lord MacLeod and the Iona Community may I finish by saying how grateful we are.