Thank you, Moderator. Recently, a member of the Iona Community wrote in a letter, ‘the passing of Ian Fraser felt like part of the soul of the Community going; a light went out.’ I know what he meant, and this year in particular, as Iona Abbey is closed for the first time in 70 years to residential occupation and the Iona Community is living between the no longer and the not yet, it’s easy to feel shadowed and empty. But though Ian Masson Fraser is no longer with us, his extraordinary 75 years of membership shaped so much of the Community’s work and witness, its hopes and dreams for the future, and the purpose behind this new time of fundraising and rebuilding that I cannot believe that this light has been extinguished.
Here is someone who had a truly global reach, not just through his pioneering ecumenism at Scottish Churches House, with the World Council of Churches and then as Dean of Mission at Selly Oak, but even more so through his sustained presence alongside many forms of basic Christian communities, these expressions of committed and engaged grassroots faith and practice in every continent, and through the ways in which he faithfully bore witness to their life and struggles over many decades. No one can properly do justice to this witnessing to the common life, and it endures most profoundly in the thousands of lives he, with Margaret, touched and influenced
In his many books, articles, pamphlets, hymns and not least his numerous handwritten contributions to Coracle, the magazine of the Iona Community, Ian interrogated everything from political struggle to human rights, from forms of revolution to obedience in the world. In so doing, he drew on scripture, poetry, humour, the daily news and always, the voice of the poor, often raised in outrage.
It’s impossible to talk about Ian’s political witness without also talking about his theological witness. He saw a direct line between the scriptural testimony of Romans 8 and anti-capitalist protest in Seattle, Gothenburg, Prague and Genoa, for ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, powers (G8s included) who would control the world for their own ends have to be confronted.’ He was convinced of ‘the evangelical necessity of research into multinationals by a Filipino lay preacher, ‘lest the world get into a powerful grip which is other than God’s. …. there follows the evangelical necessity of confrontation…. If Christian people do not do their homework, if they merely deplore in word without action, or if they refuse to collaborate with all kinds of concerned allies outside the ranks of the church, then we’re damned and fit for the burning!
This is naming the powers indeed. The necessity for research and then for confrontation are evangelical! Ian, grounded in scripture, was a living rebuttal of the heresy that religion and politics don’t mix.
In walking alongside people living with poverty, it is sometimes hard to avoid the key of victimhood, of passivity, of disempowerment and lack of agency. But one of the most striking aspects of Ian and Margaret’s bearing witness on behalf of thousands of people in hundreds of basic communities in dozens of countries across the world is precisely that they never showed us victims. They introduced us to ordinary people who, living in situations of extreme external disempowerment, chose together to resist the powers of injustice and terror and to live purposefully, with a different kind of power. In showing to us the obedient acts of these people, Ian and Margaret actually revealed the redeemed world. Action is revelation.
In 1980, Ian visited communities in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba and Venezuela. Several of these countries were highly dangerous, and the communities constantly under threat. His travels encompassed his hosts being arrested, all his possessions being locked away from him and the possibility of having to sleep rough on the streets of San Salvador. Ian’s main survival strategy seems to have been the Holy Spirit, who told him to ‘stand around and look forlorn.’ Many miraculous meetings and encounters emerged from this advice! And, as he said, he was not killed even once! There was a kind of blithe, unnerving trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, which ran like a fire through Ian’s life, which was a testimony in itself, and is a challenge to us about the powers we place our trust in. Do we try to think ourselves into new ways of living, or rather, like Ian, live ourselves into new ways of thinking? This is the challenge which Ian has left the Iona Community as we enter our sabbatical period of listening and discernment. What does it mean to place our trust in the power of the Spirit?
Ian wrote: Should I be given the chance before I die to leave one word of advice, what would it be? Without hesitation I know. It would be ‘Lippen on the Holy Spirit: lean on, trust in, keep turning to, develop a living relationship with the Holy Spirit’.
That the Spirit is at work in the world, including its politics, was axiomatic to Ian. He wrote: The Incarnation happened because God loved the world. Jesus came announcing not church but Kingdom – the whole fabric of created life transformed so that it is marked by justice, truth and peace. That we take the world seriously, exactly as it is, is accordingly an article of faith.
When it came to true ways of living, the church may instruct the world, but the world may also instruct the church. The church’s role is provisional as is the world’s. In fulfilled life, depicted as a City, there is no Temple.
Perhaps that’s why tax figured so largely in Ian’s life and writing. His commitment to evangelical research included political and biblical analyses of current tax policy and practice. But his equal commitment to evangelical confrontation saw him withhold that part of his tax dues that went to military spending in the 1980s, fighting his case all the way to the European Court of Justice, and refuse to pay his poll-tax in the 1990s.
Theological and political vitality lies in inclusion and diversity, and finally in the diversity of people who do it. While theology is impossible without culture, the monopolization of theology by any single culture, including church culture, is a guarantee of its atrophy. It was Ian’s enormous gift that he has brought this vitality to so many, and in so doing, was both a role model and a wonderful, empowering encourager. The gift he gave was to step aside, to sit at the feet of ordinary people and hear what the Spirit was saying to the church.
All our fundraising efforts, all our renovations on Iona, indeed all our work on islands and mainland, are ultimately about creating a meeting place for inclusion and diversity from many cultures, in order to listen and hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. It is, if you like, our evangelical research. And the evangelical confrontation of which Ian was an exemplar will continue in the Community’s unswerving opposition to nuclear weapons and the renewal of Trident, in our advocacy for justice and human rights for the Palestinians, in support for refugees and in challenging poverty and inequality. In so doing, we know that we are weak and flawed and faltering. But we will be listening to Ian’s last advice, to lippen on the Holy Spirit, and we will continue to give thanks for this beloved member of the Iona Community who was truly a living letter of the Word.
– Kathy Galloway
Photo: Ian M Fraser, by David Coleman ©