Celtic Christian History - In the Beginning
Christianity first came to the Celts in the 2nd century (or possibly earlier,) during the Roman occupation, probably through individual converts in the army. However, it was not until late in the 4th century that the distinct characteristics of Celtic Christianity began to emerge. After the Romans withdrew from Britain, there was nearly 200 years of significant separation between the Celtic and Roman mission and churches, when Celtic spirituality was free to develop away from Roman domination.
The most significant development of Celtic Christianity, was its understanding of the Christian gospel independent from what was taught by Rome. Roman Christianity tended to be authoritarian, hierarchical, male dominated, rational, strongly legalistic, with a powerful need for control and uniformity and an understanding of governance which was inherited from a dying Roman Empire.
In contrast, the Celtic church celebrated grace and nature as good gifts from God and recognised the sacredness of all creation. It had a love of mysticism and poetry, a deep respect for the feminine, included women in its leadership and allowed clerical marriages. The Celtic understanding of church leadership was rooted in its rural and agricultural communal culture, and the great Celtic monasteries emerged from this tribal system. Although the abbots were generally not ordained, the leadership and power in the Celtic church, lay with the abbots of the monasteries.
Not unlike Native Americans of the indigenous Africans or Australians, Celtic people had little concept of land ownership or taxes, or tithes and little liking for cities, all of which were introduced into the Celtic lands by the Romans and further established by the Normans.
The Celtic approach to evangelism was a peaceful process without bloodshed. As Christianity was spread in the Celtic countries by converted Celtic Christians, who were usually monks, martyrdom for the Christian faith was almost unknown.
5th and 6th Centuries
The fifth and sixth centuries were marked by large-scale conversions to Christianity in Ireland and Britain, as the Celtic mission continued its emphasis on the image of God at the heart of the human, and its conviction of the essential goodness of creation. Since the Celtic mission had no central organising force, consequently there was considerable variation in liturgical practises and monastic rules. By the beginning of the sixth century, Celtic Christianity was wholly monastic in its structure.
Roman and Celtic missions did not meet again until the Roman mission to Britain in 597, under Augustine of Canterbury, when there was considerable disagreement. At one level the conflicts appeared superficial such as the dating of Easter, or the style of clerical tonsure, but at a deeper level it was due to their radically different ways of seeing.
The Synod of Whitby - 664 A.D.
Conflict between the two missions eventually led to the Synod of Whitby in 664. The representatives of the Celtic mission argued from the authority of St John, who was "especially loved by Jesus", while the Roman mission appealed to the authority of St Peter to whom Jesus said "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church". The outcome was a judgement against the Celtic mission.
The tragedy of Whitby was not the affirmation of the way of St Peter, but that the way of St John began to be displaced in the spirituality of the British Church. Celtic monastic communities were replaced by Benedictine monasteries, and strict uniformity to Rome was enforced.
On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, where the Celtic community had worshipped outside around high standing crosses, or in simple wooden structures, the four stone walls of a Roman church were built. It symbolised the ascendancy of a religious tradition that increasingly was to separate the mystery of God from the mystery of creation. Gradually, the "holy" places came to be identified with the indoor Roman church sanctuary, rather than the outdoor Celtic sanctuary of earth, sea and sky.
After the Synod of Whitby
The decree of Whitby did not immediately change the whole face of British Christianity. For hundreds of years there were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, notably in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland. For instance on Iona, the Celtic monastic community was not finally dispersed until the Benedictine Abbey was built in the 13th century.
The period of resistance was marked by some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition with illuminated gospel manuscripts like the Book of Kells, and high standing crosses with Scriptural imagery on one side and creation imagery on the other. The general picture throughout Britain and Ireland however, was of gradual conformity to the Roman mission although the riches of its spirituality were guarded in the teachings of an oral tradition passed down among the laity for hundreds of years.
The Reformation - 16th Century
Increasingly, and especially after the 16th century Reformation in Britain, the Celtic tradition again met with resistance. The reciting of their prayers was discouraged and even banned, because they were regarded as pantheistic and pagan in origin. In Scotland, a combination of Religious persecution and the 19th century Highland clearances, (in which thousands of families were torn from their ancestral lands to make room for large scale sheep farming,) resulted in the fragmentation of the Celtic culture. This loss of the collective memory, meant that the oral tradition began to be lost.
However, even this did not represent the death of the Celtic tradition however. Attempts were made to transcribe and collect the prayers, in Scotland in Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland in Douglas Hyde's Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).
Carmichael and Hyde were part of a revival of Celtic art and literature, and others were finding new ways to express the spirituality of the Celtic tradition. Although they had ensured that written copies of some of the prayers were preserved, by the 20th century, their living use had virtually disappeared.
Despite the previous centuries of resistance to the Celtic tradition, the 20th century saw a growing toleration of the Celtic tradition and an increasing depth of appreciation for its spiritual riches, and their applicability for today. This included George MacLeod, who founded of the Iona community in the Hebrides (and was at one time Minister of St. Cuthbert's church).
The Iona community remains committed to this vision, and the Celtic tradition remains a vital element in the spirituality of the life and people of St. Cuthbert's church.
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