John Bell is part of the Iona Community. Based in Glasgow, but travelling eight months of the year throughout the world, John teaches on issues of worship, spirituality and social justice.
I read something which says you, “do not have a mobile phone, driving licence, camera, iPod or wife. He has never traced his family origins, played a guitar or eaten a Big Mac.” Is that true?
Absolutely [laughs] It’s still true, yes.
The island of Iona has a rich spiritual heritage. What’s its history?
The first community in Iona was 563 when St Columba came from Ireland, that was the Celtic church. It was gradually phased out and Britain became more mainstream Roman Catholic.
In the 10th Century the Benedictines came and built what is now seen as a small cathedral and monastery in Iona. In 1540 the Protestants destroyed it and pulled it down. Then at the end of the 19th century the landlord rebuilt the cathedral and from 1938 to 1963 the Iona community rebuilt the monastic buildings so it could be a place of meeting for people coming from all over Britain, and all over the world.
We don’t all live there but part of our existence is to support centres for reconciliation and to be catalysts within churches for social justice.
How have attitudes towards Iona changed over time?
When I was growing up no one ever mentioned the Iona community. It was not something discussed at seminary or known about elsewhere.
The man who founded it - George Macleod…was in the First World War and was a captain in the army, then he became a pacifist…he was also quite keen on the community and being an organisation that spoke for peace and against Britain’s position of having an independent nuclear deterrent. That labeled the community 'communist'.
It was seen as a maverick organisation for a while and for that reason it wasn’t something being talked about in mainstream churches. It wasn’t until the mid 70s people recognised this is not a secretive cult but an expression of Christian faith. The suspicion rate has dropped remarkably.
Has there been a resurgence in interest toward Celtic expressions of Christianity?
Yes, it’s only been in recent years partly due to the interest from Americans that the roots of a very distinct stream of Christianity has been reclaimed.
But sometimes I think there’s an unhealthy interest because people can be spiritual antique collectors and say 'if only we could go back what happened in the 6th century'. Well nobody is going back to the 6th century in regard to plumbing or personal hygiene! I don’t think everything that happened in the past should be seen as being pertinent to the present.
But when you delve into this ancient tradition you find that the relationship of humanity to the earth is far more in keeping with the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures and of Jesus than it is in the Industrial Revolution or the post-reformation period.
What has God been teaching you recently?
One of the things which God has been teaching me recently is to value more highly the Hebrew scriptures because Jesus comes to fulfill what has been written in the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms.
Because Jesus doesn’t say something on a particular issue we think it’s not important, but [in reality] he comes to endorse that which has already been written. I regret that in the past my appreciation of the Old Testament was more casual than it is now.
Having travelled around the world, what’s your perception of Christianity in the UK, compared to other nations?
The UK is the grand old dame. We’re the mother churches of Methodism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, the Quaker traditions and a great many missions to the developing world.
We’ve lost our evangelical zeal and our way of engaging with the lives of people which is much more evident if you go to some parts of Africa, where church growth is exponential because they’ve made a connection.
I’m in touch with a man in Zimbabwe who has a mission to people who are HIV positive. One in four people are infected with the disease. These people gather round those who have been disaffected from the church in this new expression that God loves people irrespective of whether they are HIV negative or positive.
That enthusiasm and desire to do a new thing and see it as a legitimate expression of faith is something you don’t find quite as commonly here. People who work with Church Action On Poverty are seen as fringe lefties who are dealing with something of lesser substance than what the true gospel is.
How do you view the relationship between worship and justice?
We have to decide whether God is the God of the whole world or if he's only part of the religious world. Is he the Lord of all or is he Lord of a segment which we call prayer or liturgy or Sunday worship?
If you admit God is God of the whole world, there should be within the songs and prayers of the church, moments when these realities which are difficult to express in conventional language, emerge as legitimate cause for our concern.
Why is community so important in your theology and teaching?
Where people only meet to sing songs, listen to a preacher and then go away, they are doing that for which Jesus had no time.
God never gave worship to people who did not know each other. He never gave worship to people who weren’t concerned for one another. He never gave worship to people who did not have a common mission. The early church thrived because people had a common experience of Christ.
What's the best Christian book you’ve read?
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer. For me it was a moment of great revelation reading that book that is based on the Sermon on the Mount. Seeing him root those words in human experience challenged much of what I believed about God in Christ beforehand.
You are quite well known in the Christian world. Are you concerned you could be viewed as a celebrity?
[Laughs] I went to a church in my hometown three years ago to preach and I was a little bit nervous because some people would know me or know my parents. I was standing in the door shaking hands with people and this woman comes along, shakes my hand but pokes me in the chest and said 'I used to bath you' and then she walks off!
If you’d grown up where I’d grown up, the possibility of being a celebrity is just not there. I come from a culture where if you put your head above the parapet someone will blow it off.
June 18th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes