George Fielden MacLeod, Baron MacLeod of Fuinary, Bt MC (17 June 1895 – 27 June 1991) was a Scottish soldier and clergyman; he was one of the best known, most influential and unconventional Church of Scotland ministers of the 20th century. He was the founder of the Iona Community.
He was born in Glasgow in 1895. His grandfather was the highly respected Revd Norman MacLeod of the Barony Church, Glasgow, a Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and Chaplain to Queen Victoria. His father (Sir John MacLeod) was a successful businessman before entering politics as a Unionist MP; his mother Edith was from a wealthy Lancastrian family (owning cotton mills). From this background and heir to a baronetcy, George MacLeod was educated at Winchester College and Oriel College, Oxford.
World War I service
Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, rising to the rank of Captain. He first saw active service in Greece. After falling ill with dysentery, he was sent back to Scotland to recuperate, after which he was posted to Flanders and saw action at Ypres and Passchendaele, for which he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) and the French Croix de Guerre for bravery.
His experience of war profoundly affected him, leading him to train for the ministry. He studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a year at Union Theological Seminary, New York City (1921-1922). Upon return to Scotland he was invited to become Assistant at St Giles Cathedral. During this period his concern over social inequality became increasingly prominent. In 1924 he was ordained as a Church of Scotland minister, to be Padre of Toc H (Talbot House) in Scotland. Such non-parochial appointments were extremely unusual at the time. Following a disagreement, he resigned from Toc H in 1926, but was invited to become associate minister at St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh.
His wartime experiences combined with a profound disillusionment by post-World War I political rhetoric of "a land fit for heroes" deeply affected him. Confronted by the realities of the depression and unemployment faced by those less privileged than himself he gradually moved towards socialism and pacifism. From 1937 he become actively involved with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), and from 1958 with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Meanwhile, in 1930, to considerable surprise, he decided to leave St Cuthbert's Church to become minister at Govan Old Parish Church—encountering the considerable social problems caused by poverty in this part of Glasgow. The pace of work took its toll and in 1932 he suffered a breakdown. He spent some time recuperating in Jerusalem in early 1933; worshipping in an Eastern Orthodox Church on Easter Day he felt a profound spiritual experience, feeling a sense of recovery of the Church as the corporate Body of Christ. This would strongly influence the rest of his life.
He resigned (giving up the financial security of a parish minister's stipend) to become the full-time leader of the Iona Community, which he founded in 1938. The idea of rebuilding Iona Abbey using ministers, students and unemployed labourers working together influenced his thinking; the Iona Community grew into an international ecumenical community, with offices in Govan and a presence on the Isle of Iona.
In 1948 (aged 53) he married Lorna; immediately after the wedding they travelled to Australia for a preaching tour. The 1940s and early 1950s were a difficult period professionally which became known as the "Govan Case"; when George was invited to return to Govan Old Parish Church in 1948 the Presbytery of Glasgow refused to approve his appointment, given his wish to continue his active leadership of the Iona Community. The case was referred to the General Assembly, ultimately he was refused permission to combine the two posts.
Despite a feeling of hurt and rejection over the "Govan Case", George MacLeod remained one of the highest profile figures in the Church of Scotland. In 1957 he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland however not before one Commissioner stood up and asked whether it was appropriate that a man who had been described as being "half way to Rome and half way to Moscow" should indeed be Moderator.
In 1967 he was awarded a peerage, becoming Lord MacLeod of Fuinary – the only Church of Scotland minister to have been thus honoured, and he later became the first peer to represent the Green Party.
George MacLeod's influence on the Church of Scotland was considerable. Although dismissed by some as a maverick, he helped to raise awareness of ecumenism and social justice issues, and inspired many to become involved with such questions. Through the creation of the Iona Community he was a pioneer of new forms of ministry (outside more conventional parish or chaplaincy structures.)
- Derek Wall (1994-03) Weaving a Bower Against Endless Night: an illustrated history of the UK Green Party (published March 1994 to mark the 21st anniversary of the Party) ISBN 1-873557-08-6.
- George MacLeod. Founder of the Iona Community. by Ron Ferguson, Wild Goose Publications (Glasgow). New edition 2001. ISBN 1-901557-53-7
- Daily Readings with George MacLeod. ed Ron Ferguson, Wild Goose Publications (Glasgow). New edition 2001. ISBN 1-901557-55-3
- The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory: Iona prayers. by George MacLeod, Wild Goose Publications (Glasgow). New edition 2007. ISBN 978-1-905010-10-3
|Rector of the University of Glasgow