Celltic Christianity – a Brief History
A substantial and rapidly growing Celtic Christian movement exists within the evangelical Christian community. The word Celtic occurs with increasing frequency in the books and music of Christian bookstores, as do the rhythms of Celtic idiom in Christian worship. (Witness, for example, the current popularity of the ancient Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” recorded not only by Christian groups but by secular stars like Van Morrison.) To many Christians, hints of a distinctive Celtic source have beckoned like cool water in a desert land. Michael Mitton—director of Anglican Renewal Ministries within the Church of England—writes in Restoring the Woven Cord about discovering the Celtic tradition after a trip to the “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne:
I discovered a burning and evangelical love for the Bible … a depth of spiritual life and stillness … a radical commitment to the poor and to God’s creation; and the most attractive expression of charismatic life that I had yet encountered. … I am in no doubt that the Spirit of God is reminding us of the first expression of faith in these isles to give us inspiration for Christian ministry and mission today.
Great riches may be found in the Christian traditions of the people who inhabited the fringes of Britain in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. But there is also much wishful thinking in the reconstruction of those traditions. As always, the standard should not be whether it is appealing, but whether it is biblical. Given that guide, there is good reason to become a pilgrim—literally or figuratively—to the holy places and people from that distant age. From Christianity Today, By Loren Wilkinson
From an article by David Ward
The roots of Celtic Christianity are to be found in both the community that grew up around the apostle John and in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
The issues for John’s community, centred around Ephesus in modern day Turkey, focused on the need to embrace Jesus and the Gospel within their own culture, without the need to embrace elements from the Jewish culture of the very first Christians.
Thus, they developed an authentic but culturally different form of Christianity to other developing Christian communities, including the church in Rome, which had significance for future developments in the history of the church.
It is likely that Christians from John’s area founded the second century Christian community in Lyon, Gaul. Many Christians escaped persecution by moving to the western fringes of Roman Britain; Christianity had arrived. The early “missionaries” were true to their roots, and allowed the new, local Christians to adapt the faith to their own, Celtic culture. Trade with the East brought Britain into contact with the desert monasticism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, with their emphasis on the life of contemplative prayer. Ninian, who preached the Gospel in what is now south west Scotland, was influenced by the adapted monasticism of Martin of Tours. It also seems that whole libraries of books were copied and carried to Britain.
Thus these two strands wove together to create a distinctive Celtic spirituality, more akin to the Orthodox tradition of the East than the Roman tradition of the West.
There is little doubt that the life and times of the Celtic Church have been hopelessly romanticised in modern times, but it is still possible to piece together a picture of their beliefs, practices and priorities.
The picture that emerges is of a vibrant, outward-looking church, with much to teach us today.
It was a Charismatic church. The Holy Spirit was present and active in believers’ lives. Stories of miraculous happenings, perhaps embellished by over-enthusiastic writers in later times, bear ample witness to this. Healing, prophecy, hospitality and mercy seem to have been foremost among the spiritual gifts in operation.
It was a Bible-based church. The Celtic Church had a great love for the scriptures, especially the writings of John, and the Psalms. Much time was spent in copying, studying, memorising and teaching scripture. The Bible was their “memory book”, full of stories about God’s dealings with his people and his mighty acts.
It was a Mobile church. As a response to an awareness of life’s natural rhythms, Celtic Christianity had a sense of movement and flow. Times in the quietness of the monastery were times of preparation for times in the busy-ness of the market place. Go-with the-flow evangelism, pilgrimage and a sacrificial commitment to mission were qualities of its spirituality.
It was a Caring church. The Celtic Church encompassed a great
care for all of creation. There was a particular concern for the poor, the sick and the oppressed. Gifts of hospitality and mercy were very much in evidence. They set about building communities of hope in a hostile world.
It was a Praying church. Much time was devoted to contemplative
prayer and the development of personal holiness. Because Jesus was incarnate in the whole of life, no task, no situation was too small or unimportant for prayer. The hostile environment in which the church existed made the people aware of the reality of spiritual evil, and spiritual warfare was part of their prayer life.
Community ~ most expressions of church today have more to do with consumerism than community. Many are looking for a model of church not shaped by either society or medieval models. The Celtic tradition draws heavily on Biblical and Desert Monastic models of community; community is not a mark of the Celtic church, but the mark. Communities are flexible and varied in size, often gathering around a common “Rule of Life”. I am a member of the Northumbria Community, and seek to live by its Rule of “Availability and Vulnerability”. All Rules seek to encourage community members to pray together daily, to live simply and to create unity, to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, to help seekers find Jesus and to grow in relationship with him.
Pilgrimage ~ Celtic thought sees life as a journey. On this journey certain places are significant, they are “thin places”, where God seems closer, places that invite prayer. Just as Jesus was drawn to the desert and the mountain top to spend time alone with God, many find that a journey to a special place becomes a landmark in life, a place of new beginning or of fresh resolve.
Soul Friends ~ if life is a journey, it can be a lonely one. We all need friends along the way. We all need a mature, experienced Christian, who will walk the road with us, modelling the life of Jesus. The Celts in Ireland referred to such a person as an anamchara, a soul friend. They may help us to develop a more Christ-like life and help us with the many choices life brings. Their aim is more general than mentoring or counselling; it is to help us to obtain wholeness of life. We all need such a person.
Contemplative lifestyle ~ most evangelical/charismatic prayer is of the intercessory type, spending time with God in order to ask for “stuff”. Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, is spending time with God for its own sake, allowing him to set the agenda. Developing a God-conscious life makes sense of Jesus command to “pray always”. Time spent in solitude gaining strength and insight flows into times of action in the “market place”; both are part of a contemplative lifestyle.
Rhythm ~ the first Christians and the Celtic believers lived much closer to nature than we do today. They were aware of the rhythm of the seasons, of rites of passage and of tradition. As the church became more urbanised, this link was lost. We need to rediscover the natural rhythms of prayer, work, rest and play. We need to rediscover the power of rites of passage events as ways to draw people closer to God. We need to recapture the great truths of the Celtic Christian tradition and reinterpret them for our own time. I use the Daily Office of the Northumbria Community both as a way of maintaining a rhythm of prayer in my urban environment and as a way of keeping solidarity with other members of my dispersed community.
Jesus’ approach to sharing the Gospel was of the, “What are you looking for? – Come and see!” school of evangelism. He met people where they were, and by encouraging them to spend time with him, observing the way he lived, encouraged them to discover a relationship with God.
The early Christians worked and lived in much the same way, and the community of Christians grew rapidly. This was the kind of Christianity, with a go-with-the-flow approach to evangelism, that reached the shores of the British Isles in the first few centuries CE. It was only with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire that a more aggressive, imperialistic approach to “spreading the faith” started to become apparent. Those who disagreed were demonised, persecuted and killed. To be a Christian became synonymous with adopting a particular culture, rather than becoming a Christian in a way distinct to each culture, while true to Jesus. Celtic Christianity continued to spread through its culture friendly, example based ministry until it too fell foul of the Roman approach at the Synod of Whitby.
Four things marked the Celtic Christians
approach to spreading the Gospel:
It was culturally sensitive
They had an optimistic view of humanity and were not afraid of people. They had a respect for the beliefs of others. They lived alongside people, modelling and living what they taught. They examined local culture, using the gift of discernment, opposed the bad and blessed the good.
They believed that Jesus was the fulfilment of the highest and best aspirations and religious search of the culture around them.
It relied on the power of the Spirit
The Roman church could call on the power of the organisations of church and state to aid and enforce their mission. Whilst it is true that many Celtic churchmen replaced the Druids as counsellors to kings, there are many stories about the humble way they went about their tasks, often spurning the gifts and comfort offered by their patrons. Little wonder that their ministry was accompanied by signs and wonders, evidence of spiritual power.
It was community-based
The family and the tribe, not the civilised town, were the cultural centres in Britain and Ireland. Roman churches had their bishops and cathedrals, Celtic Christians were organised in local communities. Their bishops were travelling preachers and encouragers, under the leadership of the leaders of the communities. These communities carried on the “what are you looking for?-Come and see!” evangelism of Jesus. They were schools, prayer houses, hospitals, hostels, social action centres and craft co-operatives all rolled into one. They provided security as communities within a community in a time of social upheaval.
It was passionate
The Celts loved life. The Celtic Christians shared their faith and their lives out of the joyful abandonment to a life lived to the full in relationship with Jesus. They wandered, as peregrinati “for the love of Christ”, often leaving home and loved ones “for the sake of the Gospel”. They thought, lived and breathed mission, not as the tool of empire building, but as a means of sharing the life that they themselves had found in Jesus.
Celts, Greeks and Romans
It would appear that, compared to other women in the ancient world, Celtic women were able to function within their society on a much more equal footing with men.
The Irish Brehon law gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or until recent times. Women had political equality, and could even lead the tribe. They could ascribe to any office or profession open to men. They had equal right to divorce and to a share of property in such matters. They were able to own and inherit property.
Greek women, on the other hand, had no political rights, were subject to arranged marriages and had no right of inheritance.
Roman women became a possession of the husband at marriage, could not own anything and had few political rights.
Leaders, mothers and soul friends
Given the attitude towards women in Celtic society as a whole, it was inevitable that the “Celtic church” would also afford women a position of honour, which is in stark contrast to the negativity and misogyny shown by the Roman church, influenced as it was by the worst Augustinian attitudes towards human sexuality and women in particular.
Certainly, the universal church custom to only ordain men was the practice in Britain and Ireland, but there was also no clergy/lay divide; women were therefore no more marginalised than a lay brother was.
Women like Brigid, Ebba and Hilda were leaders of mixed monasteries, where men and women lived and worked in co-operation; their counsel was welcomed and expected at the court of kings. They also exercised authority over ordained clergy who worked alongside them.
Women were also affirmed as mothers, givers of hospitality and in their domestic work. This was as much a holy calling, and to be honoured, as their leadership in the church.