In June this year I shall be participating in a conference in Winnipeg, Canada, representing the Iona Community, of which I am a Member. I shall be there with another Member, and we have been asked to make a presentation introducing our Community to the other participants. One of the things that makes us quite distinct from many ‘religious communities’ is that we don’t live together in one place – our membership is dispersed all over the world and meets together only occasionally, sometimes on Iona, and often elsewhere. We do meet regularly in local networks, but the idea of a dispersed community, bound by a commitment to a common ideal, is not one that many people find easy to grasp straight away.
The Community was founded in 1938 by George MacLeod, a Scottish minister, who conceived of a community that would rebuild the ruined Abbey on Iona in order to work at rebuilding relationships within society. He wasn’t interested in rebuilding the abbey for its own sake: rather, this was to be a place where the disconnect he saw in so much of the churches’ engagement with the public sphere was reversed, where prayer and politics met. He was a mystic, activist, saint, thorn in the side of entrenched power and authority – and raconteur par excellence. His telling of the founding of the community in a film available from the Community’s publishing division includes the immortal line that I have often used myself: ‘And if you think that’s a coincidence, I hope you have a very boring life.’
I recently read something about the statue dedicated to the Highland Clearances in Helmsdale, on the far northeast coast of Scotland (past Brora, before Wick) – and found out that there is a partner statue in Winnipeg, where a great many Scots ended up. MacLeod’s line came to mind: if you think that’s a coincidence…!
Clearly, what this means is that I’ll need to make a trip up north to Helmsdale at some point soon in order to photograph the statue there – and then photograph the Winnipeg version in June. For me there are clear links between the dispersed, diasporic community that I am a member of, and the diasporic spread of Scots all over the world, including in – by coincidence! – Winnipeg (though the Iona Community hasn’t ever engaged in the rampant ethnic cleansing that Scots in North America were part of…). I’ve looked into trains, and an 18-hour day with about 13 hours on trains means I could make it there and back in a day with enough time to make some photographs in semi-decent light – I think I can manage that, even in the middle of the teaching semester, if I write new lectures on the train…
A note about the photograph of the Abbey: this is a scan of an 8×10″ print of an image I made in about 1990/1. I can’t find the negative (I wasn’t as organised back then… it is somewhere…). However, I have recently found this print, so for this website that is ok. Although I can’t find the negative I think it will have been some kind of cheap Kodak print film, perhaps ISO200 or 400, which is what I used a lot at that time.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Community, I can warmly recommend this short history by a former Leader, available as a proper book, and as an ‘ebook’. Or visit the Iona Community website. Or write to me! 🙂