A birthday tribute to Ian Fraser

TIM DUFFY. Church of Scotland minister, writer and theologian Dr Ian Fraser, who served on the board of Open House for many years, will be 100 years old this month.  An old friend pays tribute to the man he calls Scotland’s liberation theologian.

The year 1917 saw the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of the ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.  Celebrations were comparatively muted, given the continuing horror of war (Passchendaele alone from July to November 1917 produced a quarter of a million casualties on each side).

In the second half of the year, the Marian apparitions of Fatima were followed by the Bolshevik triumph in Russia.  And, on a lesser scale, the year that had already seen the birth of Vera Lynn and Denis Winston Healey, on 19th December saw the arrival of Ian Masson Fraser in Forres.

The legacy of the Reformation in Scotland had followed a Calvinist rather than Lutheran path.  The influx of Catholic Irish and their culture in the 19th century reinforced an existing anti-Catholic mindset.  This animus was reflected even in academic considerations such as David Hay Fleming’s The Scottish Reformation (1903) long considered a definitive text.  Enthusiasts pointed to the prophetic fact that this book contained 666 pages – those were the days.

The following century saw a sea change in the relations among the churches, gradual at first but increasingly warm and amicable.  The improvement was arguably more down to the work of gifted individuals than of the institutions, which often still felt the need to act tribally.  A bishop once said to me of a fine and active friend: ‘Oh, she’s a lovely person, but terribly ecumenical’.  The worst thing about the status quo is that for many folk it is their comfort zone.

Apparently, cosmologists now think that at the heart of virtually every large galaxy lurks a supermassive black hole.  Anyone who has dealt with institutions (including the churches) might recognise a certain similarity.  And as a friend said to me long ago: so many of the most interesting ideas and interchanges inevitably tend to happen at the margins of an institution.  Ian has always relished working across boundaries.

I have often felt that Ian is a kind of reverse missionary.  Instead of taking unchanging certainties to benighted souls at the ends of the earth, Ian went where he felt called to, whether it was Rosyth in 1941 or the 150 plus countries that he ended up going to.  Wherever he was, he listened to and lived with the faith of the local people; which in turn informed and even reformed his own faith – semper reformanda.  Thus missioned and commissioned, he brought back these perspectives on the life of faith and shared them with us.

We are the beneficiaries of his journeys.  The writings and the recordings made by Ian – and Margaret, his wife, companion and living muse – across three quarters of a century are a testimony to his faithfulness to the injunction to go and teach all nations.  For him, however, teaching was never about filling a pail.  Rather it was about kindling a flame; and deriving fuel for the flame of the spirit from those among whom he has worked and worshipped.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ian’s writings is his style.  Of course, it is unique, not to say inimitable; but I have always felt it fell within the classic genre of satire.  In particular, the Menippean satire which deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes.  The literary critic Northrop Frye classifies it as cognate with the genres of autobiography and confession.  Ian is equally at home with the autobiographical encounters which were of fundamental significance; or the faith motivation that drew him often (like the apostle) whither he would rather not go; or the expression (in Scots or koine English) through prayers, poems and hymns of the workings of the Spirit; or else the prophetic denunciation of the time serving functionaries, clowns, dullards and downright villains of church and state who confuse power with authority.  And, of course, he could claim a precedent.  As he says in one of his most pungent observations ‘the only time that Jesus was even-handed was when both hands were nailed to the cross’.

Of course, denunciation rarely goes down well, even when it is received with the rictus of a smile.  Jeremiah was thrown down a muddy cistern for his pains (Jer 38:6) and the satirist Jonathan Swift’s epitaph records that only death ended the ‘ferocious indignation which lacerated his heart’.  The solitary prophet or satirist is bound to feel persecuted.  Yet Ian has rarely been solitary.  His beloved Margaret died in 1987, yet remains for him a presence and inspiration.  I remember too, a year later in December 1988, when Ian’s campaign of civil disobedience in the greater cause of confronting the immorality of the poll tax came to Stirling Sheriff Court.  It was a Gandhian moment.  The details are in chapter nine of Ian’s quirky autobiographical reflections with Ian Cranston, I’ve Seen Worse.  My own recollection is of the throng of Kingdom loonies (certainly not all religious) who had assembled to offer their support.  Solitary – hardly!

Now arguably any respectable theologian would produce a synthesis of his thought, festooned with reference and footnotes, in a big heavy doorstop of a book destined for a quiet life on library shelves.  Although he is an indefatigable writer, Ian prefers a different structure.  Instead of living stones (1Pet 2:5), one might see his work as the living leaves in the testimony of a Book of Life; with all the people he has recorded as the references (but never footnotes), speaking of their lives and sustaining faith.  They have become the theologians of their own situations, mediators of the gospel in poverty and oppression as well as what passes for normality in this world.

But still, Ian a liberation theologian?  Well, how about as a worker priest avant la lettre in Rosyth, using scripture to work through local problems with his congregation.  Or how about going to see and participate with basic Christian communities throughout the world and bringing back their wisdom, free of the cloak of mutual suspicion and defensive dogma.  Or the work in establishing Scottish Churches House in Dunblane: without which the ecumenical movement in Scotland would never have flourished in the way it did; and whose absence is one of the reasons it now languishes.  Or how about celebrating the gospel among ordinary folk in terms ‘byordinar’.  Or fighting with and alongside people subject to institutional oppression, whether of governments or of churches.  Or his conviction that God’s unconditional love for us, made manifest in God’s Son, continues through the work of the Spirit (with a distinctly feminine dynamic).  And although we might like to think ourselves excused or exempt from this love, Ian is the Spirit’s persistent advocate.

For me, Ian’s work when I first encountered it, was an invitation and a challenge to someone, neither ordained nor an academic, to explore the gospel way in the companionship of others.  One way of celebrating Ian’s centenary would be to compile an anthology of favourite and influential passages – and sayings of course – from the many sources of his writings and to make them available electronically, thus carrying on the tradition.

In the meantime, I can’t think of a better celebratory remark for Ian’s centenary and indeed his life, than Robert Burns’ greeting to his publisher William Creech:

May never wicked Fortune touzle him!

May never wicked men bamboozle him!

Until a pow as auld’s Methusalem

He canty claw!

Then to the blessed New Jerusalem,

Fleet wing awa!


Tim Duffy is a former research worker with the Scottish Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.