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Peter Macdonald - An Obituary

Peter Macdonald – Church of Scotland minister and church leader

Born March 28, 1958; died February12, 2020

Peter Macdonald, who has died aged 61, was one of a generation of radical Church of Scotland ministers and theologians who came up in the 1980s determined to make the gospel matter to the common man or woman, and with a sense of social justice at its heart. Macdonald did this with a passion that was infectious and inclusive, revealing the contemporary relevance of Christianity with eternal optimism and good humour that people of all persuasions could relate to.

Macdonald’s rich and diverse array of activities went beyond his ministries at churches in Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. In the capital, he led congregations at St George’s West in Shandwick Place, and latterly at Broughton St Mary’s, where he took up post in 2018 after working as a locum for the previous ten months. Inbetween, Macdonald spent eight years as leader of the Iona Community whose ethos of peace and justice he carried with him throughout his life. 

Peter Macdonald was born in Dumbarton to Donald and Jessie Macdonald. They lived in Alexandria, Vale of Leven, where the family were members of Bonhill Parish Church. MacDonald became involved with youth fellowship, while teenage political activism opened up an irrepressible and relentless questioning of received theological orthodoxies. As a teenager he joined the SNP for a short time before joining the Labour Party in 1983. He left in 2010.

At Vale of Leven Academy he became head boy, and played football for his school team as well as with the Boys Brigade and Drumchapel Amateurs. Much later he became a coach for Spartans FC Youth Development.

After leaving school, Macdonald spent two years as a bank clerk, before studying as a Church of Scotland ministry candidate at the University of Glasgow’s Trinity College, then at the University of Edinburgh’s New College. It was while in Glasgow that he first came into contact with John Bell, who had become university rector while still a student, and who was at the vanguard of the Iona Community’s ecumenical reimagining of worship.

Macdonald visited Iona in Easter 1982 for what was a life-changing experience in every sense. While he was enlightened by the progressive workings of the Iona Community, he also met Lesley Orr, at that time leader of Ruchill Youth Project in Glasgow who had grown up within the Community. The pair were married within a year, and travelled the same road together ever after. Their son Callum was born in 1989, with a second son, Lorn, following in 1992.

From 1985 to 1986, Macdonald was assistant minister at the Old Kirk of Edinburgh, West Pilton. After being ordained in 1986, he became Church of Scotland Young Adult Advisor. He and Orr remained in the area, latterly living in a Columban House community with others across four council flats on the same stair. While his Church of Scotland post saw him develop youth initiatives at home and abroad, he became involved with projects aimed at addressing drug use in the wake of a rise of HIV and AIDS casualties.

In 1990, Macdonald became minister of Torbain Parish Church, based in a 1960s housing estate in Kirkcaldy. Here, he took the lead on a youth homelessness initiative that led to the founding of the Lomonds Trust (now Trust in Fife) and the building of Craig House, an accommodation unit for young people.

After eight years he took over St George’s West, where he oversaw a major refurbishment, determined to put the church at the centre of the community. Part of his time at St George’s West saw its doors open as an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue, making the church and café a bustling hub of activity all day long. This was done initially in partnership with Assembly, then under the banner of The World@St George’s West, with international producers Toby Gough and John Simpson. With support from musician Peter Gabriel and actor Brian Cox, Macdonald brought together a programme of international dance troupes from Cambodia, Brazil and beyond. In 2003, Macdonald was awarded a Herald Angel for his efforts in shifting the landscape of both the Fringe and the Kirk. 

In 2009, Macdonald was elected leader of the Iona Community, an almighty job that saw him steer the organisation through a decade that marked both its seventy-fifth anniversary and 1450 years since Columba first arrived on the island. He also oversaw the visit by president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, and played a key role in a still ongoing Capital Appeal fundraising drive to help refurbish Iona Abbey.

Macdonald’s move to Broughton St Mary’s saw an instant connection with a diverse and eclectic congregation, and he had already begun planning long-term developments which, as with most things he achieved, would leave their mark physically as much as spiritually. His brilliance as a preacher inspired many, while his day to day kindness and care for his parishioners touched and encouraged all who came into contact with him.

Macdonald remained as politically driven outwith the church as within it. Commitment to Palestine was a particular passion. At the heart of his life, though, it was family that mattered most, and he took on the role of partner and father with the same energy, commitment, pride and love that reached out to the world beyond.

He is survived by his wife Lesley Orr, their two sons, Callum and Lorn, his mother Jessie, and his sister Shiona.

The Herald, March 4th 2020

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