Minister, activist and instigator of the Iona Community

Born: December 17, 1917;

Died: April 10, 2018

THE most extraordinary aspect of Ian Masson Fraser, who has died aged 100, is not that he lived to be a centenarian but that he filled each day with something of substance and significance.

He died in his sheltered accommodation flat in Alva, Clackmannanshire. On his desk were the latest of his writings. In his pocket was the magnifying glass he used to read books, pamphlets and scripture every day. A Church of Scotland minister, a social activist, a practical philosopher, he was always a work in progress.

His CV can be briskly summarised: MA and BD, ministerial charges in Arbroath and Rosyth (where he completed a PhD), warden of Scottish Churches House, executive secretary of the World Council of Churches, dean and head of the department of mission at Selly Oak Colleges, research consultant to the Scottish Churches’ Council and an informal ambassador for British Missionary Society and Boards.

His reality was more colourful. He was an instigator of the Iona Community - the Christian community on the island famed as a haven for pilgrims - as well as a traveller to 95 countries where he invited the ire of dictators and totalitarian governments and a relentless opponent of apartheid and repression. He also joined the Frankie Vaughan initiative to end gang warfare in Glasgow and took on the Thatcher government on the poll tax with the case going to the European Commission for Human Rights before the government abandoned the policy. He was also a councillor in Dunfermline for five years.

He wrote more than two dozen books, dodged the retribution of Ferdinand Marcos after criticism of the regime in the Philippines, visited Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador where he supported the oppressed in their struggles, worked with underground churches in the then Czechoslovakia and Poland, and crossed Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin three times. In South Africa, he narrowly escaped raids on what were deemed illegal worship in defiance of apartheid laws.

An interview on his 100th birthday with The Herald Magazine cast him mischievously as a character from a Le Carre novel. He smiled at that because he always aspired to be an agent of God.

He was aware of the difficulties of this choice of employment but his mother maintained that her son had been a graduate of the "university of adversity’’.

His childhood days started early with Fraser helping to make sausages in his father’s butcher shop at 5.45am in Forres before going to school. This capacity for labour never diminished. Fraser entered the world with his sleeves rolled up. The role of a Church of Scotland minister initially held no attractions for him but became his goal when studying at Edinburgh University.

His first job was as a chaplain at a paper mill in Fife from 1942-1944. “As a labourer, at a labourer’s wage,” he said. “It was a lonely thing to do.” It was also essential, he believed, to be a minister. “You have to know the people,” he said. “A man who wants to be a minister in an agricultural region should have to work for a spell on a farm.”

He was a man of a variety of ideas but one guiding principle: that of empowering the church from below, that is empowering the congregation. He developed this when minister in Rosyth, working with the congregation on painting the church, building walls and matching worship with dirty hands. Similarly, in his trips to South America, he stayed with the community, disdaining hotels to sleep in back rooms and worship in tents or halls.

“You must see yourself as an agent,” he said. “There all kinds of leaders mentioned in Ephesians. The minister is not the be all and end all.” He followed this precept from Forres to Fife, from Poland to Guatemala.

He was sustained in his considerable endeavours not only by his faith but by his wife, Margaret, who died in 1987. “I believe death has a right to take people, however awkwardly that falls out,” he said. “But I believe death has no right to separate us. For a wee while we were torn apart by death but then she came back to me.

“I do not know if this seems fanciful but I live with the Holy Spirit and with her. They give insights to me. I feel that when I come to see something more clearly that she has had a hand in it. We were very much together, very much a partnership.”

Margaret, a woman of high intelligence, put her career on hold to sustain him and travelled with him when she could. “Margaret had the stuff in her to prosper in any endeavour. She was so central to our lives as a family,’’ he said.

He was of independent mind and spirit. The loss of Margaret wounded him but he worked on, living in Gargunnock alone until his 99th birthday when he accepted the inevitability of sheltered housing.

He leaves a considerable legacy. The Iona Community was almost the physical realisation of his spirituality. He knew, too, that religion had to be involved in life and politics. The most conspicuous tenet of this belief was his taking a case against the Thatcher poll tax to the European Commission for Human Rights. It was withdrawn when the poll tax was rescinded. “It was the only right thing to do,” he said. “People should oppose a bad law whenever the opportunity arises.”

He has also left a substantial and impressive body of writing, including theology, poetry and hymns. Until the last, he was a seeker, always reading, always asking questions of his visitors, always presenting his faith with an affecting humility.

He is survived by three children, nine grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren.