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Interview: Michael Marten, leader of the Iona Community

21 July 2017

‘Had I not been a member of the community, I doubt I’d have anything to do with church’

The Iona Community was started [in 1938] as a collaboration between trainee Church of Scotland min­isters and unemployed crafts­men. Now anyone can join, and they do. We have a broad spectrum of people involved, and, whereas or­­dained clergy were the majority, I don’t believe that’s the case any more.


I was working as the interim support-services manager for the community, overseeing the business side of things. I became leader of the community a fortnight ago.


I hope I can give a greater sense of how we tell our stories about the community whilst ensuring the internal organisation and future is strengthened and developed. In addition to a Ph.D. in theology, I’ve got considerable experience of ad­­vocacy, lobbying and cam­­paigning, teaching in universities, and man­­age­­­ment consultancy; so I combine a theological with a business under­­standing.


The importance placed on account­ability was what attracted me to the community. I’ve rarely felt a church show any interest in what I did outside it, which to me is far more interesting than what happens inside. That was almost 25 years ago, and it’s one of the key things that have kept me involved.


From the first aim of training ministers to work in wider contexts, the community has become a way of living out a commitment to a com­­­mon four-fold Rule that orients members to certain priorities.


The move away from a clergy-dominated movement is a very obvious outward change, but the other commitments are the same: an underlying purpose and under­standing that we have of the gospel message. God is one who has a preferential treatment for the poor, who calls us to engage with the marginalised in society, who wants radical transformation of the world we’ve been given to steward.


Our Rule involves daily prayer, worship with others, and regular engagement with the Bible and other material which nourishes us; working for justice and peace, wholeness and reconciliation in our localities, society, and the whole creation; supporting one another in prayer and by meeting, commun­icating, and accounting with one another for the use of our gifts, money, and time, our use of the earth’s resources, and our keeping of all aspects of the Rule; and sharing in the corporate life and organ­­­isation of the community.


Miracles, prayers, many people’s generosity keep us solvent — together with careful, ongoing plan­­­ning. We’re engaged in a substantial fund-raising project at the moment, raising money for rebuilding parts of the Abbey, and this should help us develop further programme work.


Iona offers something more than retreats and personal reflection. We’re primarily there for those who are not members: those on the margins, those that society ignores or doesn’t even know exist. At our best, that engagement with the poor, the ways in which we engage in non-violence, integrating the arts with our work, our political and social activism, is all connected with a profound understanding of the interconnection of work and wor­­ship.


There’s no way we can be Christians without a sense of the importance of engaging in the world, and perhaps that’s what marks us out as a community. Our morning office doesn’t end with an “Amen.” It ends with a series of res­­­ponses that en­­courage us to take the gospel into our working lives.


I don’t see any conflict between the arts and political and social issues. We seek to integrate all parts of life. Our music, our liturgies, our pub­lishing are forms of art, and all are intimately related to the ways we seek to live out the gospel.


I grew up in the UK and Germany, and now live in Scotland. I’m mar­­ried to a Church of Scotland min­­ister, and we have a grown-up son.


There’s no specific time or place that I can really point to when I first experienced God. My under­­stand­ing of these questions is con­stantly evolving, but we encounter “Christ in the stranger’s guise”, as a prayer we use in the community puts it, based on Matthew 25.31-46; and that seems to make increasing sense as the years go by.


I’ve never had much interest in a “God up there”, as Sunday schools often portrayed it. I’m far more interested in the contemporary Christian life. Christian Aid’s strap-line, “We believe in life before death,” is the context where I find God — in the interactions with other people, the efforts to share what we can, and resisting those that would deny life in all its fullness to everyone.


George MacLeod, the founder of the Community, talked of Iona as a “thin place”, but I think all places can be “thin”. Iona is beautiful, but I was on Eriskay in 2016, and it’s just as beautiful. It’s not Iona itself that mediates anything for me — it’s the interactions and engagements, the provocations and challenges, the affirmations and expressions of love here that lighten my way, and offer me insights into life and God and our place in the world.


Had I not been a member of the Iona Community, I very much doubt I’d have anything to do with church. The community has char­ac­­terised my Christian life far more than any church. When I joined, our cohort of new members was consistently told that the com­­munity was not an alternative church — but in so many contexts we’ve moved beyond church as a default point to explore Christian living.


It’s with those people that I’ve most in common: those who are on the margins of the Church, who want to belong but are put off by the dominant conservatism, regressive stances regarding women, LGBTQIA Christians, poverty, war and peace, nuclear weapons, and so on.


One of my favourite sounds is boots squelching through mud. It’s a sign for me of being away and having time to think and reflect. As we’ve been known to have an occasional spot of rain in Scotland, this can occur quite frequently.


For comfort, I love crime novels, which are so far removed from my everyday reality that they’re remark­­ably relaxing; but I read widely. As for music, I don’t do well with coun­­try and western, or Death Metal, but I’m very open to most things.


Injustices make me angry, but I try and turn that anger into something productive for change.


Ironically, perhaps, as the leader of a community, I like periods of alone­­ness. I’ll take to the hills, often with a large-format film camera, and, even if I don’t make any photo­­graphs, the exertion of carrying almost 15 kilogrammes of equip­ment is an exhilarating experience that helps to clear my mind and give me happiness.


Colleagues and wayfarers over the years have changed me and influ­enced my thinking — as well as long-dead authors, poets, and pro­phets that I’ve engaged with, and those I meet on a daily basis.


That there’s no fixed outcome to anything gives me hope. We can change where we’re going and what we do. We can choose whether to do good or evil, and, fundamentally, I believe most people want to choose the good. I’ve learnt much from feminists in this regard.


I do pray, mostly for my fellow members and the global concerns of the community. We have an annual prayer book, and each month we pray for each other at least once. I need some kind of structure, and this is one I’m used to. I used to think I wasn’t very good at praying, but I now realise most people don’t feel any differently, and that makes it easier just to get on with it.


I’d want there to be two people with me if I was locked in a church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a good locksmith. I’d want the locksmith to get us out of the church, and then I’d pay her, and take Bonhoeffer somewhere nice for coffee and cake. I wrote my undergraduate disserta­­­tion about Bonhoeffer more than 25 years ago, and I’d like to learn more about the way he wrestled with the complexities of church, the desire for radical change, his preparedness to use violence after a long struggle, and faithfulness to the gospel. He took steps few of us will ever be asked to take.


Dr Marten was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.iona.org.uk

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