Celtic Christianity

After being ignored by both Catholics and Protestants for centuries, Celtic Christianity is back in fashion. What is it?

By Jessica Gunn

The peaceful interior of the Abbey at Iona reflects the beauty of its spectacular natural setting (below left). Wikipedia photo

As its name suggests, Celtic Christianity began in the Celtic regions of the British Isles. However, its influence was felt as far east as Kiev and as far west as Iceland and North America. Celtic monasteries were established throughout Europe. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and founding father of Christian ecology, is said to have acquired his appreciation of nature from his experience at the monastery at Bobbio, founded by the Celtic Saint, St Columba. It is generally believed that Martin Luther was first inspired to question the theology of the Roman Catholic Church whilst living and studying in an Irish convent in Germany.

What was it about Celtic Christianity that has made it so appealing and so influential – not only in pre-medieval and medieval times, but to people of the 20th century? And why did it apparently disappear for so long?

The most obvious difference between the Celtic Church and its more established counterparts was its structure. The Romans never occupied Ireland. The Ireland of the 6th and 7th centuries had no towns to speak of, no currency and no large-scale industries. Thus, the hierarchical, diocesan structure of the Roman Church was totally inappropriate for the Irish tribal society. The church evolved more as a federation of autonomous monastic communities rather than a structured, bureaucratic body. So, whilst fundamentally in harmony with the Roman Church in doctrine, its isolation led to significant differences in practical detail. It was this that gave the Celtic Church its unique attractions but also led to its eventual downfall.

Wikipedia photo

Saints Go Marching Out

In place of the hierarchical Roman Catholic structure, at the heart of the Celtic Church lay the work of its saints. The Sth and 6th centuries are remembered as the ‘Age of the Saints’, where wandering Celtic patriarchs set out to convert the heathen. History has romanticised them. The Celtic saints were often actually more concerned with preaching to the already converted and some were skillful politicians.

The most famous of these saints is the poet, prophet and sage, St Columba. It was he who founded the community on Iona, a tiny island in the Hebrides. From their base in Iona, Columba and his disciples brought their version of Christianity to the heathen tribes of Scotland.

A distinctive of the Celtic Church was its simplicity and directness. Fundamentally orthodox, the Celtic evangelists were nevertheless well able to adapt their methods to fit the social and cultural needs of the people with whom they wanted to share their faith. They lived among them, understanding and respecting their traditions. They avoided the cultural and religious imperialism characteristic of other minority efforts.

The more refined Roman Catholic Bishops of the time may have been admired for their learning and social graces, but they were seen as inadequate spiritual leaders. Herein lay the strength of the Celts. Indeed, Canterbury, the Roman Catholic base in England, was eventually obliged to admit that conversion of Scotland and northern England was due not to their influence, but that of Celtic minorities.

Bede, the famous Roman Catholic historian of the time was struck by the apparent purity of the Celtic saints. He reminds us that St Augustine (representative of the Pope in England) was criticised for being removed from the lay people and was reprimanded, on occasion, for pride.

‘Celtic Christianity does seem to speak with almost uncanny relevance to many of the concerns of our present age. It was environment friendly, embracing positive attitudes to nature and constantly celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. It was non-hierarchical and non-sexist eschewing the rule of diocesan communities and a rigid parish structure in favour of a loose federation of monastic communities which included married as well as celibate clergy and were often presided over by women.’

lan Bradley, The Celtic Way

Love Of Nature

The Celts were skillful in grafting Christianity onto the ancient pagan religions. For example: The Celtic knot, an ancient pagan symbol of perpetual motion and the endless cycle of existence, was transformed to symbolise eternity.

No activity was too menial or mundane for a prayer of Thanksgiving. This was an attractive concept for people used to worshipping many different gods. Ancient traditions that were reinvented within the framework of Christianity form the core of that which makes the Celtic Church unique.

The Celtic Christians had a profound respect and care for the environment, together with a desire to live in contact with the natural world. They lived too close to nature ever to forget its strength and the idea of domination over it was quite alien to them.

God was believed to animate all things with his energy, and in turn these things reflected and responded to his creative presence and sustaining love. The Celtic Christians were environmentalists before their time. As H.J. Massingham commented in The Tree of Life:

‘If the British (Celtic) Church had survived, it is possible that the fissure between Christianity and nature, widening through the centuries, would not have cracked the unity of western man’s attitude to the universe.’

There are Celtic prayers and poems for every part of the daily routine, be it milking the cows or requesting protection from evil. There is a growing feeling amongst theologians today that too much stress has been laid for too long – by both the Roman Catholics and the Protestant West – on the importance of God’s transcendence, his omnipotence and remoteness from the world. Had the tradition of the Celtic belief persisted, the ruthless disregard and exploitation of the environment today would not be quite so severe.

To the Celts, Jesus and his saints were an almost tangible phenomena in everyday life. They were not burdened with the sometimes excessive structure of the Latin Church. The Celts relied upon personal relationships for internal cohesion and mutual support, not only with each other but also with God. Thus, saints, angels and Jesus himself were thought of as companions and friends, an almost physical presence in their lives. This resulted in the very down-to-earth spiritualism that is apparent still today when we look at Celtic poetry and hymns. To take one celebrated example:

If Celtic had won at Whitby...

The Synod of Whitby in 664 decided the fate of Celtic Christianity and the direction of the British church for the next 900 years.

Whitby is not known as one of the great confrontations of Christian history, but it may have had a more profound effect on the world than other, better known crises of faith.

When the Celtic and Roman Catholic bishops convened at Whitby, the principal argument was how to calculate the date of Easter. But at stake was a whole approach to the practice of Christianity. If the Celts’ home-spun, environmentally friendly, non-bureaucratic brand of faith had prevailed, would Britain have avoided the excesses of the Roman system that provoked the Protestant reformation in Europe?

The Protestants triumphed in Northern Europe just in time for the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Their confident theology adapted quickly to the new realities. The ‘work ethic’ endorsed diligence, for did not God heip those who helped themselves? Was not humankind lord of creation, with a divine mandate to have dominion over the earth and to subdue it?

The church naturally resisted the atheistic implications of Darwinism, but in a sense also believed in the survival of the fittest. Obviously Christians, and in particular White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christians, were the fittest. Thus even the sincerest missionary efforts tended to become the thin end of a wedge of exploitation.

Would this have happened if Iona, instead of Canterbury, had become Britain’s spiritual capital? It is a fascinating thought.

How might the stern, yet gentle Celtic church have shaped the world? What if the priorities of Northern Europe (and by extension, North America) had been spiritual instead of commercial? What if the Western missionaries had come quietly among their intended converts, embracing them rather than embossing them with their faith?

If the Celts had won at Whitby, our world might be less materialistic and less steeped in consumerism. Our waters might be less polluted, our rain forests and ozone layer might still be intact, and our fellow creatures might be less endangered. Life might be simpler, less frantic, and happier.

Celtic Christianity was far from perfect and it would have produced its share of problems. But they might have been easier problems to live with – a world more attuned to the things of the spirit might be better prepared to solve them.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

Another significant difference between Latin and Celtic Christianity was their understanding of human nature. Celts believed not only the goodness Of “the natural environment but also that of human nature. The theologian Pelagius, asserted that man could, in fact, overcome evil by his own strength and his own will – he should simply attempt always to do good. Pelagius opposed doctrine that held human nature to be intrinsically corrupt and degenerate. He saw man as imprinted with the image of God, as witnessed by the scriptural reference claiming man to be made in the image of God. Rome, however, adopted the doctrines of predestination and original sin, and declared Pelagius to be a heretic.

Thus eventually, that which gave Celtic Christianity its unique appeal and captivating simplicity led to its downfall. The lack of central organisation, authority and desire to form and command an institution resulted in its eventual submission to Roman rule. The Celtic constitution was too democratic, and its attempt to meet sin by renouncing comfort and concentrating on good works seemed worryingly Pelagian. Equally worrying was the number of married clergy to be found among the Celts, who also upheld the equality and dignity of women – another aspect of their somewhat disturbing non-conformity.

In the 7th century, the rugged but simple Celtic Christians were on a collision course with their refined but relentless Catholic neighbours. The Easter Controversy brought matters to a head. The Celts, following the ancient traditions of the Jews, celebrated Easter according to the lunar calendar, while the Latin Church followed the solar. At a small synod held in Whitby in 664 a decision was taken to adopt the Roman dates.

Yet, this submission, whilst marking the end of one chapter of the Celtic Church, did not entirely extinguish it. The ‘Exulantes Christi’, or Irish wandering monks, preserved knowledge and culture through the Dark Ages of Medieval Catholic Europe. They created a centre of learning in Ireland where young scholars could come to learn what before could only have been learnt in Alexandria, Antioch or Byzantium. Celtic Christianity has left its legacy to the modern world.

The 20th-century theologian Karl Barth argues, that even today, British Christianity is ‘incurably Pelagian’. Van De Weyer, an Anglican priest, claims that ‘the rugged individualism of the Celtic monk, his conviction that each person is free to choose between good and evil, and his insistence that faith must be practical as well as spiritual remain hallmarks of Christians in Britain...In Britain the primary test of faith is not religious observance but daily behaviour towards our neighbours and our pets! Indeed the British love of animals, gardens and nature and our whole tradition of pastoral poetry and landscape painting is another part of our Celtic heritage.’

The reformation, centuries later, could itself be seen as yet another expression of the desire to return to a simpler, more democratic form of Christianity.

No Going Back

One should not idealise the Celtic saints as merely peaceful wandering evangelists, for they lived a very severe life which fully incorporated corporal punishment and long periods of fasting.

The essence of what the Celtic saints said and did continues to convey a pure and serene spirituality. But it is probably only credible within the context in which it was born, a world where towns, rigid organisation and hierarchy hardly existed. Here the concept of ‘peregrinatio’, (a love of wandering) defined as ‘seeking the place of one’s resurrection’, which was so important to the early Irish Church, was possible. The dependence of people’s lives on nature allowed them to appreciate its worth and so to see God within it. Thus, God’s presence was felt in everything; a presence which powerfully evoked a belief in his protection against much-feared forces of evil.

Arguably there could never again be a real return to the religion of the Celts. But there is something about the Celtic Church that continues to attract followers.

The shores of Iona draw thousands of pilgrims every year. They come to see the remains of this lost era; they come to experience the dedication it must have taken for such men and women to live, in such a beautiful yet harsh landscape, dedicating their lives to the God they felt lived by their sides.