I think it’s important to try and define our term. Many theologians
within the Church, as well as historians have reservations about the use
of the term ‘Celtic Christianity’ or ‘Celtic Church’
because it encourages the response ‘What do we mean by the terms?’
and involves us in a long debate as to how we separate fact from fable,
mysticism from myth.
To speak with authority and give a balanced view about the Celtic Church is always going to be difficult, as written records are scarce - much of what is available to us was written later, and is itself interpretive.
One eminent historian asserts that there was no such thing as a Celtic Church and goes on to argue that the concept can be extremely misleading when attempting to understand the development of religious thought throughout the British Isles in the early medieval period. The argument is that there was considerable divergence in religious practices between different regions of Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and that it makes no more sense to speak of a Celtic Church than it does to speak of a Spanish Church or a Germanic Church during this period.
In his book Celtic Christianity, Ian Bradley describes the first Celtic churches as "the early indigenous Christian communities of the British Isles" and this is perhaps a more accurate description, though it does of course lose some of the mystique! Says Bradley "It is the misty and vague aura surrounding this age that accounts for much of its appeal… The absence of hard facts has allowed hagiographers, romanticists and propagandists for various causes to weave myths and spin legends."
We see this sometimes with the descriptions of the lives of the early saints. It is said that St Aidan's lavish generosity was such that on one occasion when King Oswin had given him a particularly fine horse for his own use, a poor man met him and asked for alms, upon which he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his Royal trappings, to be given to the beggar. Perhaps it was only natural that the King should be somewhat annoyed at the prompt way in which his gift was disposed of, but Aidan pointed out to him, "…that man, made in the image of God, was of more value than his fine horse," and Oswin threw himself at his feet exclaiming, "…that he would never again grudge anything to the children of God."
A story such as this, retold by Bede is perfectly believable. Others are less so, such as the many stories about the childhood of St. Brigid, in which she produces miraculous quantities of milk, bread and other foods, and people have visions of fire surrounding her, coming out of her head and never harming her.
Whatever the arguments for and against, there are certain facts which seem generally accepted. In the centuries before Christ the Celts lived within central Europe, extending into Spain and Turkey, until fatally disturbed by the Roman Empire sweeping through and conquering all in its path - eventually becoming established in Britain by the time Jesus was born.
However, the Empire never did get as far as Ireland, or the Highlands and outer islands of Scotland, and the pagan Celtic cultures flourished there during the centuries that Romans were in Britain.
The Celts, before the coming of Christianity, believed that the divine pervaded every aspect of life, and that spirits were everywhere -in ancient trees and sacred groves, mountaintops and rock formations, rivers, streams, and holy wells. The earth was regarded as the source of all fertility, and the great forces of nature (moon, ocean, sun, and wind) were worshipped as manifestations of the divine.
Conveyed by Roman civilization, sometime during those centuries the gospel came to Britain.The earliest support for the idea that Christianity arrived in Britain early is Quintus Septimus Florens Terullianus also known simply as Tertullian (AD 155-222) who wrote in "Adversus Judaeos" that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime.
‘..all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons--inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ .’
Possibly the uniqueness of the early Church in Britain and Ireland (though even this is disputed by some historians), lies in the simple fact that no sooner had the Romans brought the Gospel to this far-flung outpost of the Empire than they disappeared again, leaving the fledgling Church to blossom in the midst of a formerly pagan culture. Nowhere in the history of Christianity is there so clear an instance of the Christian transformation of a pagan culture, with so little influence by the culture that brought the Christian message.
So where do we see the differences between these strands of our faith – Roman and Celtic?
Roman Christianity tended to be authoritarian, hierarchical, male dominated, rational and strongly legalistic. 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, and included women in its leadership. Celtic society was rural, hierarchical, family based and tribal in nature, with each tribe ruled by its own king. The Church took over this pattern, with the basic unit of organisation being the monastery.
Another important aspect within the development of Christianity in the fringes of Britain and Ireland was that of isolation. Following the example of the Desert Fathers of the East, the early Christian leaders sought isolation in the wild and desolate places, away from what they saw as the encroachment of the world upon their faith. They wanted to centre their thoughts and their lives totally upon God, to be as close as was spiritually possible to the Creator.
The Monastic Rule of St David in the west of Wales prescribed that monks had to pull the plough themselves without draught animals; to drink only water; to eat only bread with salt and herbs; and to spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed: to say "my book" was an offence. David taught his followers to refrain from eating meat or drinking alcohol.
It would seem that these early British Christians saw themselves as independent of the Roman church - as Bishop Diaothus' reply to St. Augustine on the authority of Rome in Britain would seem to indicate;
‘Be it known and declared that we all, individually and collectively, are in all humility prepared to defer to the Church of God, and to the Bishop in Rome, and to every sincere and Godly Christian, so far as to love everyone according to his degree, in perfect charity, and to assist them all by word and in deed in becoming the children of God. But as for any other obedience, we know of none that he, whom you term the Pope, or Bishop of Bishops, can demand. The deference we have mentioned we are ready to pay to him as to every other Christian, but in all other respects our obedience is due to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Cærleon, who is alone under God our ruler to keep us right in the way of salvation’.
Although our understanding of Christianity and organised faith in these early years is hazy and open to interpretation, we do have the evidence of some written work that is contemporary. Of all the classic writings that have been handed down to us one of the most important is the Confession of St. Patrick. This reveals a mind steeped in the Scriptures, affecting his every thought and action even to the mundane tasks of everyday life. It also reinforces our view that these early Christians on the fringes of Britain and Ireland were very much in touch with the natural world in which they lived.
" ... after I had come to Ireland I daily used to feed cattle, and I prayed frequently during the day; the love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more, and the faith became stronger, and the spirit was stirred; so that in one day I said about a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I used to remain in the woods and in the mountains ... "
This love of the natural world has often been emphasised at the expense of a more complete and rounded theology, indeed has been used as a reason to dismiss this era as one owing more to paganism than Christianity, but we only have to look at those beautiful illuminated manuscripts and Gospels which have survived the centuries to see the importance of Scripture in the lives of these early saints. A clear doctrine of the Trinity emerges in much of the Celtic poetry and prose that survives, and the cross is central, as can be seen by the High crosses of Ireland.
If anyone should doubt the balanced faith of early leaders then read these words from ‘St. Patrick's Breastplate’ – which though attributed to the Saint was probably written by one of his followers
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 and stranger….
And at the poem’s climax
… I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The three in one, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature has creation;
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word,
Praise to the Lord of my salvation
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Inevitably I have omitted much that could be said about these early Christians in Britain and Ireland, and should you wish to read a more detailed account then several well-researched books have been written on the subject.
I leave the last word to Michael Mitton, who has famously explored the Celtic roots of Christianity and writes in his book ‘Restoring the Woven Cord’ about discovering the Celtic tradition after a trip to 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.’
See also The 'Confessio' of St Patrick