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The Celtic Way
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Introduction page


| Celtic Way | Introduction | Spirituality | History | St Cuthbert | Pilgrim Way | 

 

Pages About St Cuthbert 

St Cuthbert and St Cuthbert's, a short video reflection by Rev David Denniston
St Cuthbert Of Durham (Part 1) by Rev Michael Sadgrove
St Cuthbert Of Durham (Part 2) by Rev Michael Sadgrove
St Cuthbert Of Durham (Part 3) by Rev Michael Sadgrove
St Cuthbert Of Durham (Part 4) by Rev Michael Sadgrove
St Cuthbert (Sermon) by Rev Michael Sadgrove
Cuthbert the Saint by Rev Peter Neilson
"Cuthbert Calling"by Rev Peter Neilson
 

Other Celtic Saints 

St Brendan
St Brigid
St Columba
 

The Pilgrim Way 

Introduction
Daily Office
Daily Readings
Reading List
Seminars



Cuthbert cross

An appraisal of the Celts and their Christianity
by Rev Peter Neilson 

This page :

Learning from the Celts
The Caim and the Coracle
Community and Journey
Simplicity and Flexibility
Making Cultural Connections and Winning Cultural Leaders
Standing by the Cross and Seeking Resurrection
Creation and Creativity
Down to Earth and Aware of Heaven
Being at Home, Being Church
Summary: Pointers for the Future

Link to Work Cited 



Cuthbert cross

Learning from the Celts 

"Whilst it had its faults, I believe the early Celtic Church was the nearest thing we get in our Christian history to a complete expression of faith in this country." 1 

The clues to new patterns of church lie not only in the current sociology of our parish, but in our history. It is 1300 years since Cuthbert, the Celtic Bishop of Lindisfarne, established his Christian community at the West End of the Nor' Loch beneath the rock of Edinburgh Castle.  

The evangelisation of our local community is rooted in the Celtic Way. Since the motivation for future vision often arises out of the deep memory of founding visions 2, the Celtic approach to mission may have much to teach us.  

The rediscovery of the Celtic Way has, in recent years, been spurred by anniversaries in 1997 of the coming of Ninian (397) and the death of Columba (597), coinciding as it did with the launch of Augustine's Roman mission at Canterbury (597). The people of these islands were first evangelised by the Celts.  

It would seem that they were effective at a time of cultural chaos, when the Roman influence had been withdrawn (AD 413) and Britain was invaded by Scots from Ireland, Angles from Scandinavia and the mysterious Picts from the North. Any church that learned to sow lasting seeds of the Gospel in that cultural mix has something to teach us in our post-modern pot-pourri of religious aspirations.  

Before embarking on a catalogue of possible Celtic clues, we must note the caution of certain Celtic scholars about the current interest in things Celtic. Professor Wendy Davies of London University asserts that "there is no such thing as a Celtic Church: the concept is unhelpful, if not positively harmful." 3  

Ian Bradley concedes that we must not generalise about dispersed and diverse churches, and prefers, in his later work, to address himself to the specific evolution of the "Columban Church" 4.  

In similarly dismissive tones, Donald Meek, Professor of Celtic at Aberdeen University, urges caution about romantic reconstructions of Celtic Christianity to "scratch the many itches of our ecclesiastical bodies, public and personal ....[reconstructions] determined more by the needs of contemporary society than by the sources." 5  

However, he does affirm with grudging approval the work of Ian Bradley and John Finney whose work provide much of the basis for this analysis. Bradley describes the Columban Church as having distinctive characteristics which will be reflected in the themes which follow, 6 though the particular arrangement of the themes is my own.  

If we are to re-invent church for our times, there are elements of Celtic spirituality that would enrich, inspire and release us from our settled Roman/Reformed patterns of church-life. These insights are one way of unbuckling conceptual strait-jackets.  

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The Caim and the Coracle 

Here is the spirituality of grace: living in the grace of God and living out the grace of God. The "caim" was the encircling prayer by which the Celts affirmed the presence of God with him in the circle. In other words, wherever he walked, God was with him, a reminder of God's presence and protection. 7 The Celtic Way is rooted in the Incarnation, the deep awareness of Immanuel, "God with us."  

The coracle was the little craft by which they sailed from place to place. It is said that they would set sail and let the wind blow them, and wherever they landed was the next place for mission, blown by the wind of the Spirit. Here is a spirituality of trust and risk that is the very heart of living by grace.Theirs was a "spirituality and theology of the insecure". 8 We need to become once again the people of the caim and the coracle.  

An example of a Celtic caim (or circling) prayer :

Circle us Lord,
Keep love within, keep hatred out.
Keep joy within, keep fear out.
Keep peace within, keep worry out.
Keep light within, keep darkness out.
May you stand in the circle with us, today and always.

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Community and Journey 

The Celtic lifestyle moved between the community of the monastery and the journey of "white martyrdom" 9. Community life was marked by the gift of hospitality in which the stranger was likely to be Christ in disguise.  

Inspired by the Desert Fathers and the monastic movement through Martin of Tours, they established monasteries as communities of worship, prayer and learning and service. For a generation short on stable experiences of home, the Celtic gift of hospitality is crucial.  

The Celts travelled many miles. Whether this was a burning missionary zeal or a "baptised wanderlust" is not clear, but then the first exodus of Christians from Jerusalem was more to do with political persecution than evangelical passion. God operates within the psychology and sociology of the moment. Similarly, our culture of movement and multi-media communication offers fresh opportunities for the church to move out of static mode into the liberating dynamic of the "interim church".  

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Simplicity and Flexibility 

The Celtic Way was essentially simple and uncomplicated. There were patterns of leadership and authority, but these were based on spiritual wisdom rather than ecclesiastical office. The theme of movement cannot be emphasised enough."The Celts had no great taste for ecclesiology or organisation and expressed their faith through communities which were essentially temporary and provisional." 10The church that truly believes that every structure is provisional will discover a new liberty in the purposes of God.  

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Making Cultural Connections and Winning Cultural Leaders  

The Celtic evangelists began with the understanding that this was God's world and it was good. They believed in Christ as the head of all creation and the head of the new creation. It came naturally to take the positive aspects of culture and "baptise them", even at the risk of sometimes slipping into syncretism (combining different beliefs or principles).  

Wells with healing qualities were used for baptism, Druidic temples became churches and standing stones became preaching points. 11 These Celtic evangelists challenge our negative view of culture and invite us to enter the cultural meeting points, employ the cultural symbols and media and see the positive potential of what God is doing.  

"The Celtic Church did not so much seek to bring Christ as to discover him: not to possess him, but to see him in 'friend and stranger'; to liberate the Christ who is already there in all his riches." 12  

To win the culture, we must win the culture shapers. For the Celts that meant winning the tribal kings, 13 be it Ninian with Tuduvallus or Aidan with Oswald. The church that wants to shape the future will find the Celtic strategy significant. Nonetheless. we must heed the dangers of romanticism and recall Gordon Donaldson's summary of "the conversions as marriage, miracles, conquest and compulsion." 14 Even the beloved Columba was "awesomely terrifying" and "quite unapproachable at times". 15  

Much has been made of Jesus' ministry to the powerless, but he also spent time among the powerful. Today's church stands accused of spending most of its time somewhere in the middle. The Celtic Way prays for, befriends and wins those who shape culture in politics, business, arts, education and media. The rightful emphasis on the Gospel for the weak must not stifle the call of the Gospel to the strong to offer their gifts for the cause of the Kingdom of God.  

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Standing by the Cross and Seeking Resurrection  

The most recognisable Celtic symbol is the Celtic Cross with its circle round the head of the cross. There are disputes as to its meaning - a sign of resurrection, a sign of the sun or an adaptation of a Druidic symbol 16 - but the Celts kept the cross central in the spirit of the Apostle Paul, and also saw in it the sign of victory over evil. A belief in a good creation did not mean naive dismissal of evil.  

Each of the Celtic saints has his or her legend of challenging the evil of their times and the severity of their penitence was not for the fainthearted. We need to return to the Cross as a sign of immense courage for the salvation of the world.  

Their missionary journeys took them to dangerous and difficult places where they might be expected to die, called "places of one's resurrection". 17 Here was a place where only God could bring new life. It was their task to pray, preach, care, worship and wait till the resurrection came. What a positive way to approach the seemingly impossible challenges of mission today, as "places of resurrection".  

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Creation and Creativity 

The love of the Celt for God's good creation has roots in the Bible, paganism and their daily closeness to nature. 18 In days of environmental crisis and ecological awareness, the Celtic Way has very deep resonances for our culture.  

At a time when Western Christianity is under suspicion for its historical-political alliance to industrial development, the Celtic Way offers a creation-nourishing route to rediscovering the Biblical worldview in a generation with a global conscience.  

Unlike our austere Reformed inheritance, the Celts celebrated the gift of imagination and creativity in music, poetry and art, admired for its intricacy in the artistry of the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the endlessly weaving patterns on standing stones. The Celtic gift of imagination is a gift indeed for our visual culture.  

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Down to Earth and Aware of Heaven 

The great appeal of the Celtic Way is their everyday spirituality; the blessing of the fire and the cow, the prayer for the weaving and the milking. God was the God of the everyday. Incarnation was a daily experience not a theological concept. In a society of spiritual search, the Celtic Way of lifting the everyday to God, the way of the Caim, is a very accessible way for people to pray.  

Commentators on the Celtic Way also emphasise their rich awareness of heaven: the communion of saints and the glory of eternal life. After generations of being paranoid about Marx's accusations about religion being the opiate of the people. and the need to be so earthily relevant, we could do well to learn a touch of celebration of heaven from our Celtic friends.  

At a time when the transatlantic winds are likely to bring the current fascination with angels 19 and other heavenly phenomena, we must at least be free from embarrassment when the secular world speaks more freely of heaven than we do. Tomorrow's church will recover the thrill of heaven.  

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Being at Home, Being Church

Amidst all the heart-searching about being the church for the missing generation, we have in our Celtic heritage vital clues that may allow alienated people to "be at home, being church." 20  

The Celtic Way is not an ecclesiastically domesticated form of Christianity. It belongs to the people. In the proper sense it is populist, and therefore accessible to many people for whom church today is not. The Celtic Way is one way of offering ordinary people access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

Inevitably, there must be questions about appearing to lift one historic expression of church and impose it on our times. That is not the intention.  

The historical and cultural reasons for looking back these roots have been given already.  

However, the deepest attraction lies in the fact that the Celtic Church seems to have lived out a rich understanding of the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ: as creative Creator, as incarnate God of the everyday, as Crucified and Risen Lord and as moving Holy Spirit.  

Above all, their art and prayers show us that their sense of community and hospitality arose out of their contemplation of the Trinity. Their gift of practising Trinitarian community may be their greatest gift to us as we seek to live the way of grace in our times.  

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Summary: Pointers for the Future 

In summary, the Celtic missionaries offer us significant clues for the future church. These clues may contain elements of contemporary reconstructionism alongside the strict canons of Celtic scholarship, but, if we carry forward only the well-documented themes of movement and imagination, of hospitality and cultural awareness, theologically anchored in the Incarnation and the Trinity, then we will have seen enough of the profile of that ancient church to make a meaningful match with the profile of our current culture.  

Peter Neilson 

September 1998 

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Link to Work Cited 


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St Cuthbert's Parish Church. 5 Lothian Road. Edinburgh. UK. EH1 2EP


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