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Interview: Ron Ferguson, writer and minister

27 July 2011

‘My headmaster regarded the world of newspapers as a moral cesspit’

I’m a freelance. I write weekly columns and book reviews for two Scottish broadsheets — the Glasgow Herald and the Press and Journal. I also do occasional pieces for the Sunday Post and Life and Work.

The newspaper work puts the food on the table, and it frees me to write the books and plays that I really want to write.

I love living in Orkney while writing for national daily news­papers. I’m by no means an expert on technology, but it enables me to enjoy the quality of life a remote island affords while keeping in touch with what the newspapers of the world are saying.

I also enjoy the free remit I have from the newspapers I work for. I cover religion, literature, culture, psychology, and the daftness of much modern life.

I left school at 16 to go into journalism. My headmaster was furious — he wanted me to go to uni­versity, and he regarded the world of newspapers as a moral cesspit. He would have been happier if I had said I was going to work as a banjoist in a brothel.

He is right to a certain extent. I’m a little afraid that the recent scandal will allow some politicians to restrict journalism. Good investig­ative jour­nalism can work without having to hack into people’s phones. It’s a very worthwhile calling really, getting to the truth of matters.

Seven years afterwards, I decided to leave journalism and study for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. When I told my fellow journalists about my decision down in the pub, George Millar, a journalistic mentor of mine, with whisky glass halfway up to his mouth, shouted: “Jesus Christ!”

So I went to university, after all. I loved it. I continued to write, even when I was engaged in active ministry in the Easterhouse housing scheme of Glasgow, as leader of the Iona Com­munity, and as minister of St Magnus’s Cathedral in Orkney. After we had completed the building of the Magnus Centre in Kirkwall, I decided to return to full-time writing.

In Easterhouse, people who lived in our street were in some ways my tutors. The Church of Scotland had set up an experiment in community ministry on the estate, with Protest­ant and Roman Catholic churches work­ing together, and I was ap­pointed to that position for six years. We lived on the housing estate itself.

It was a very tough area, notorious for gang warfare. Few people went to church. Life was a matter of survival for most. I found that I had to learn a lot of new things and unlearn what I thought I knew. But I enjoyed it immensely, and our kids have good memories of being there.

Some people in the Church of Scotland head­quarters asked me after two or three years: “Are you winning?” I said: “I’m not sure. It’s more about learning than any­thing else.” Quite chastening.

The Iona Community was quite different again, in terms of travelling round the country to meet mem­bers, going to India, being involved at an ecumenical level.

Coming to Orkney was quite differ­ent again, as it was my first go at parish ministry. St Magnus’s Cath­­edral doesn’t belong to any Church but to the council-taxpayers of Ork­ney. It was a marvel­lous experi­ence to be there, receiving visitors from all over the world. Some would ask me when mass was — and I’d have to try to ex­plain the experience of Presby­terian Scotland.

It’s sometimes hard to know if I’m a minister who’s a writer, or a writer who’s a minister.

I’ve written 14 books. The first one, Grace and Dysentery, was an account of the visit to India when I was leader of the Iona Community. A number of my books are collections of columns in the Glasgow Herald. I wrote a book about my home town and football team, Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil. George Mackay Brown, who was a keen Celtic supporter, gave it a good review, and it became a kind of cult book. It was the book I most enjoyed writing.

I wrote biographies of Geoff Shaw, a minister from the Gorbals district of Glasgow, who became a politician, and of George MacLeod, the charis­matic founder of the Iona Com­munity. I also wrote Mole Under the Fence, a series of conversations with a theological mentor of mine, Fr Roland Walls.

Passion and curiosity make a good biographer. When I undertook the biography of George MacLeod, I wrote it in the “omniscient author” style, laying out the facts as objectively as possible. More than 20 years later, for the book about George Mackay Brown’s spiritual journey, I took a less detached, more personal line.

I think the Celtic spirituality is so popular because of its incarnational nature. It’s not disembodied. It speaks of whole salvation, body, mind, and spirit, rather than simply soul salvation. Celtic spirituality has become something of a cottage in­dustry, sustained by vague definitions and sometimes wishful thinking, but it continues to appeal because it speaks to the heart as well as to the mind.

George MacLeod described Iona as “a thin place, only a tissue paper separating earth and heaven”. It does have something special, in that it has been a place of prayer and pilgrimage for so long. Mind you, a lot of romantic tosh is written about Iona as well. Iona can be an intense place, and therefore sometimes a tense place, particularly if you work there.

I only worked on Iona full-time for two years, when I was deputy warden at the Abbey. After that, as Leader of the Community, I was only there for part of each year.

I love conversation. In fact, my book about George Mackay Brown is, in some ways an extended conversation with the reader. Conversations with writers, artists, theologians, and friends run right through the book. I learned so much from them.

When I was born, the doctor told my mother that I was the ugliest baby he had ever seen. It wasn’t a great start to life, but in those days, doctors were often “characters”.

My father was a painter and decorator, and my mother was a librarian. My father was asked to be an elder of the Kirk, but he declined because he enjoyed a pint of beer and putting some money on the horses, which he didn’t feel right for a church elder. My mother was a spiritual person in lots of ways, but she wasn’t a churchgoer.

I had quite a lot of illness as a child. Once, I had double pneumonia, which was very serious indeed in those days. My mother told me she once had to hold a mirror to my lips to see if I was still breathing. So George Mackay Brown’s frailty through tuberculosis had some resonances for me.

That changed — from being the smallest teenager in my year, I suddenly started growing to six feet one inch, and 12 stone. You manage to overcome these things, you know.

My wife, my three grown-up children, and my two young grandchildren are very much a rich part of my life.

I wanted to play for Cowden­beath Football Club — I did play for them in a charity match — and to play for Scotland. Something tells me I’m not going to achieve the last one.

Books are a very important part of my life. They have influenced me in so many ways. I love writers such as Robertson Davies, John Burnside, Carol Ann Duffy, Salley Vickers, Richard Ford, John Updike, George Steiner, James Robertson, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robin­son, and so many more. They have been rich companions on my journey. In more specific-ally religious terms, my favourite writers include Rowan Williams, Jean Vanier, Will D. Campbell, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Gillian Rose, Charles Taylor, R.S. Thomas, and Kathy Galloway.

George MacLeod influenced me a great deal. So did John Cook, my boss when I was an assistant minister in Easter­house, Glasgow. George Mackay Brown, obviously. Martin Luther King.

Favourite part of the Bible? the Beatitudes. Least-liked? The tedious stuff in the book of Leviticus.

The News of the World scandal makes me angry. Its amoral, cynical abuse of people is grotesque. I think journalism is an honourable vocation, particularly when injustices that people would like to conceal are exposed. I was angry that decent journalists with families and mortgages had to pay a heavy price for the sins of others, including some of their bosses.

I’m happiest when sitting with my wife on the decking of our house in Orkney, on a lovely still June evening, a glass of Highland Park in my hand, smoking a good cigar, and reading an absorbing novel.

I’m much drawn to Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Prayer works best for me when it is about being still in the presence of God. I do pray for individual people who are particularly on my heart and mind.

I’d like to get locked in a church with John Knox, Carol Ann Duffy, Jennie Lee (my third cousin), and John Corn­well. The craic would be fantastic.

The Revd Ron Ferguson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

George Mackay Brown: The wound and the gift will be published next month (St Andrew Press, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-07152-0935-6).

The Revd Ron Ferguson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

George Mackay Brown: The wound and the gift will be published next month (St Andrew Press, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-07152-0935-6).

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