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Does Celtic Christianity Exist?

Celtic Christianity is a term which many people are becoming more and more familiar with. But what does it really mean? And historically, did such a thing ever exist?

Understanding the terminology of those who speak of Celtic Christianity is essential. A firm grasp needs to be had of what is being talked about before any knowledge can be gained on a subject. The term ‘Celtic’ is one such example. It is something which can have many different interpretations, as J. R. R. Tolkien said in his book Angles and Britons, it is ‘a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come’. It is both an ancient and comparatively modern term when it comes to the interest of the people and spirituality of Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe. In The Gallic War, written in the first century BCE, Julius Caesar states ‘The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts; of these one is inhabited by the Belgae, a second by the Aquitani, and the third by a people called Celts in their own language and Gauls in ours’ (italics my own). During the following centuries, however, the term seems to have fallen out of use, if it was ever in common usage, in that it doesn’t appear to be used by historical writers of the first few centuries of the first millennium CE. Tacitus, for example, in The Annals of Imperial Rome written in the late first/early second century, in which he includes the famous story of Boudicca of the Celtic Iceni tribe, though he mentions Druids and the tribes and people, doesn’t use the terms ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’; nor do these terms appear in Bede’s writing of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the 8th century where he speaks of the Irish Christians and their ways and their influence into Britain. The modern resurgence of the term ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’ as it might be understood today only really began to be used from around the mid-19th century in the revival of interest which took place then. See for example The Grammatica Celtica by Johann Kaspar Zeuss, which appeared in 1853 and is a comparative look at the Celtic languages; see also Colin Renfrew. Archaeology and Language.

This term, ‘Celtic’, though somewhat ambiguous in its reference to whom it refers, can be a helpful term nonetheless, as Oliver Davies says in Celtic Spirituality:

“Celtic”, though potentially misleading, remains a useful term in its inclusivity, and is generally to be preferred to “Irish”, “Welsh”, or even “insular”, which- though entirely appropriate in many contexts- are too exclusivists…[the use of the term “Celtic”] does maintain the principle of an affinity of language, supporting some kind of affinity of culture between the Celtic-speaking areas, reinforced by extensive cultural contact based on close geographical proximity.

So the term ‘Celtic’ can be useful today to help identify a certain collection of people. Even though there may have been differences in their specifics, there are enough similarities to enable us to see a connection, both in the people and culture of the Irish, the Picts and the Brittonic, and also in their spirituality, both before and after the coming of Christianity to these lands. Although some historical authors suggest the Celtic church was not something which ever historically existed, see for example Henry Mayr-Harting in the book The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, others, such as Oliver Davies quoted above, believe that there was enough distinction in the church in Britain and Ireland from the continental counterpart, and enough connection in the Christian beliefs between the Celtic peoples, that one can state the existence of a ‘Celtic’ church, though it was in no way as uniform as its continental counterpart.

So the terms ‘Celtic Christian spirituality’ and ‘Celtic Saints’ can indeed be used to refer to the Christian faith and people of the Brittonic, Pictish and Irish church and the influence their style of Christianity had across Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe as distinct from the Christian faith established and propagated by the church expanding from Rome over the same period. It is important to understand that the Celtic church was not a distinct or entirely different church from that growing out of Rome, there were not two different churches per se, but simply that certain theologies, beliefs, understandings and expressions of the faith differed. They were both churches which grew from their backgrounds. The Roman church was created out of the autocratic military Empire from an urban environment and became the ‘state religion’, whereas the Celtic church grew more organically in a more rural, clan based community lifestyle and was separate from the ‘state’ church in some areas of thought. For more information on this see such books as Celtic Theology by Thomas O’Loughlin.

Some of the differing theologies, beliefs, understandings and expressions were significant enough that in Britain they culminated in a great Synod at Whitby in 664CE. The decision was made by the King at the Synod of Whitby that all monastic centres were to abandon the Celtic Rules, ways and expression of the Christian faith and were to adopt the Roman Rule and way. This was first implemented in the Northumbrian and other Anglian kingdoms, but gradually spread throughout the whole of Britain, Scotland and Ireland. For a fuller documented account of the Synod of Whitby see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Book 3 Chapter 25.

So ‘Celtic Christianity’ as a term for modern usage is helpful to be able to identify an aspect of our spiritual heritage that many are finding great inspiration from, and finding new, or should I say rediscovering ancient, ways of expressing the Christian faith and connecting with and encountering the Divine. In essence, for the purpose of the modern practitioner, Celtic Christianity did exist, at least in enough of a way to be able to focus our life/faith journey on, if one should so choose.

For a deeper study on Celtic Christianity, why not take the Celtic Christianity Correspondence Course offered by Waymark Ministries. To find out more about that visit the web page here.

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