Celtic Christianity is Christianity as it was first received and practised by communities with Celtic backgrounds that observed certain practices divergent from those in the rest of Europe. The conversion of pagan Britain was brought about by two very different missions; one, led by Augustine of Canterbury, from Rome that landed in Kent in AD 597, and the other from the Celtic Church, led by Columba, who went from Ireland to Iona, Scotland. Priests from Iona led the Christianisation of Northumbria and later Mercia. This term is also used to indicate a modern movement espousing the goal of recovering what it believes was the distinctive spirit of the earlier group.
How separate was the Celtic church?
It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. Their members never saw themselves in opposition to the Catholic establishment based on Rome as did the Arians, Priscillianists or the Donatists in North Africa. Even at the height of the conflict between these communities and other Christian groups, they acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope and acquiesced to his specific commands.
On the other hand, these communities did see themselves as separate from their competitors, the Anglo-Saxons. An early Welsh ecclesiastical rule levied penalties for interacting with the English, and for sharing communion with them. When St Augustine attempted to meet with a delegation of seven British bishops on the borders of the domains of Ethelbert of Kent, these bishops refused to talk or even dine with his party; and when Aethelfrith of Northumbria went to battle with Solomon, son of Cynan, king of Powys, hundreds of British Christian monks are said to have assembled to pray for the Welsh king. It is noteworthy that the British failed to attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons, and that the successful Celtic missions had come from further away, from the Dalradian Scots.
Differences from the rest of Catholicism
Due to the difficulties in communications at this time, it was inevitable that variations between the local churches would arise. Although the practice by bishops, upon their ordination, of circulating a statement of their beliefs did minimize these differences somewhat, this help was lost to the congregations in the British isles and Armorica with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. When missionaries from the Mediterranean met with those local congregations that did survive, they found differences in practice, doctrine and government. These differences were addressed in synods, from the Synod of Whitby in 664 to the Synod of Cashel in 1172.
Exactly in which practices the Celtic church varied from the rest of Catholicism differ from source to source. A list of those proposed include the following:
- The method of calculating the date of Easter. The Celts celebrated Easter on the Vernal equinox. They agreed to celebrate it on "the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox".
- The method of Tonsure practiced by monks. The Celts shaved the front of their head, from ear to ear. They agreed to shave the crown of their heads.
- The Veneration of Saints. There was no difference on the issue of veneration of Saints. However delegates from Rome had the view that the "Church was nourished by the blood of the martyrs". Therefore they sent gifts of the relics of their martyrs. It was said that the Celtic Church had "neither martyrs nor authority".
- Original Sin. The prevailing view, which persisted down to Thomas Aquinas was that all were stained by the sin of Adam. The Celts claimed that some were exempt, including Joshua, John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus. This they supported from scripture. The Celts retained their opinion.
- Limbo. The prevailing view, as pronounced by Augustine of Hippo was that children who died without Baptism went to Limbo. Limbo was in Hell. The Celts rejected this view. While the rest of Christendom buried such children in unblessed ground, along with suicides, criminals and heretics; the Celts buried them right up against the walls of their churches. When a delegate from Rome quoted scripture, a Celt suggested that "the rainwater falling from the eaves of the church" would baptise them! The Celts may have prevented Limbo from being declared dogma.
- The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus The Celts held these Marian Doctrines. They follow from the doctrine that Mary was exempt from Original Sin. Decuit, potuit, fecit - "It was appropriate, it was possible, it was". The Celtic view was declared dogma in 1854
- Infant baptism The Celts held four baptism services each year. They agreed to alter this and baptise infants within eight days of their birth. Not because of a fear of Original Sin, but so as not to deny children the benefits of grace.
- 1-2-1, penitent to confessor private confession This was a Celtic invention. It was unknown outside of the Celtic Church before the sixth century. Until then, Rome required public confession.
- Authority of Bishops. In the Celtic Church authority was vesting in Abbots and Abbesses. The role of Bishop was ceremonial. Delegates from Rome complained of "persons not in holy orders with authority in the church". The Abbess Brigid had two bishops reporting to her. After Hilda yielded, the Celts accepted and simply made their Abbots, bishops.
- Role of Women In Celtic society, women had a greater role. At the Synod of Whitby, Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, to the surprise of many, argued against women holding authority in the Church!
- Witches The first synod of Patrick excommunicated any who would persecute a witch. In this respect the Celtic Church could well be unique. It did not happen in Scotland until the teaching of John Calvin was introduced. Following the only witchcraft trial in Ireland the witch-finder was tried for heresy and fled to the Antipope in Avignon.
The Celtic cross, in which a symmetrical cross is superimposed on a circle, is a characteristic and distinctive Celtic Christian symbol. Use of this continued well past any separate organisation of Celtic Christianity, and has indeed never ceased to be common in the Celtic countries and among their emigré communities.
The Easter problem
The Easter problem -- that is, the proper method to be used to calculate the date Easter will fall on in a given year -- is a long and tedious story that extends beyond the topic of Celtic Christianity. As it applies to this topic, the Celtic peoples had lost contact with Rome when Victorius of Aquitania created the tables that were adopted as approved practice in 457. But as they learned of the current practice, the various communities of the Celtic church gradually returned into harmony with the predominant practice: southern Ireland agreed to this at a Synod in 632; northern Ireland at the Council of Birr around 697; the Northumbrian Church at the Council of Whitby in 664; the island of Iona celebrated Easter on the Roman date in 716; and Wales in 768. Various other churches founded or influenced by clerics trained in Ireland or Wales came to celebrate Easter on the Roman date at later times.
Saints of the Celtic church
Christianity was present in Britain from earliest times and was certainly practiced at the abbeys of Glastonbury and Whithorn (now in Galloway) at the turn of the 5th century. Its expansion to become the accepted religion of the Britons was due primarily to a succession of princes who became monastic priests during the fifth and sixth centuries, founding many abbeys and churches, and becoming honoured as "saints" after their death. Christianity was also present in Ireland and there was significant social intercourse between the churches of the two islands. The most famous Irish saints to preach extensively in Britain were Saint Brigit (variously spelt Bride, Brigid, Bryd) (439 - 524) and Saint Columba (Colum Kille) (520 - 593).
The earliest clearly British Christian leader recorded after the departure of the Roman legions from the island was Saint Dyfrig (Latin, Dubricius). He is said to have been a son of Eurddyl and her husband King Pabai or Pepiau of Ercych (now Herefordshire). He founded monasteries at Henllan ("Old Church"), now Hentland-on-Wye, 7 kilometers northwest of Ross-on-Wye; at Mochros, now Moccas, in the Wye Valley 16 kilometers west of Hereford; at Ynys Pyr (English, "Caldey Island"), off Tenby in the Dyfed county of Pembrokeshire; and possibly churches in Porlock and near Luscombe on the Exmoor coast of Somerset. He was a bishop, but it appears that he was so for the purpose of ordaining priests, not as administrative head of the church over a geographical area. There is a legend that he solemnised the marriage of King Arthur and Guinevere.
Dyfrig taught Saint Illtud (c. 425 to c. 505), the founder of the great school/seminary/abbey of Llan Illtyd Fawr (English, "Llantwit Major") in the west of South Glamorgan. Illtud was considered the most learned person in Britain, expert alike in Maths, Grammar, Philosophy, Rhetoric and Scripture. He was “by descent a Druid and a fore knower of future events”, the writer implying that there was a Druid caste. One of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Welsh Triads, refers to him as one of the "three knights of the Court of Arthur who kept the Holy Grail". In an age when any schooling was available only to a very few privileged people, perhaps Illtud's seminary was the closest approximation in existence to an institution of higher education. Among Illtud's pupils were Saints Pol Aurelian (in Latin, Paulinus Aurelianus), Samson, Gildas and Dewi (English, David).
Pol, son of a British chieftain and one of the seven founder saints of Brittany, founded churches near Llandovery in the Dyfed county of Carmarthenshire, and before 518 had founded an abbey at Yr Henllwyn ("Old Bush") called Ty Gwyn ("White Church"). He later founded monasteries in Brittany and was first bishop of the city of Saint-Pol-de-Leon . His sister was St. Sidwell of Exeter.
Samson was born in Dyfed. He was a first cousin of Illtud and a great-grandson of King Tewdrig (Tudor) of Morganwg (Glamorgan). He studied as a boy at Llan Illtyd Vawr and was then sent to Ynys Pyr, presently becoming its abbot. Some time after 545 he temporarily took over the abbacy of Llan Illtud Fawr from Illtud. When Illtud resumed charge of his abbey, Samson travelled first to Cornwall and then to Brittany, founding churches in both places and an abbey at Dol, where he died c.565. He is also celebrated as the evangeliser of Guernsey.
Gildas, c.491 to c.570 was educated by Saint Illtyd and like his mentor acquired renown as a scholar. He was called "Gildas Sapiens" (English "the Wise"). He became a bell-maker by trade. He made a pilgrimage to Rome in 520, spent seven years at the Abbey of Rhuys in Brittany, then a year in charge of the Abbey of Llancarfan while the Abbot, Saint Cadoc was away. After 528 he moved to Street (near Glastonbury) and built himself a lan (hermitage comprising a church and enclosure). He later (c.544) returned to Rhuys, where he remained until he died, apart from a visit to Ireland dated by the Annales Cambriae to 565.
Saint David, c.512 to 587, was a son of a king of Ceredigion -- presumably King Gwyddno. He was educated at Ty Gwyn. He became its abbot before 528 while still a youth. Later he moved this abbey to Glyn Rhosyn, where it became the city and cathedral of St. David’s in Pembrokeshire. He devised and operated an austere Monastic Rule. He is credited with founding churches over a large area of south and mid Wales, in Kernyw, and in Brittany. He also attended the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi.
A prominent Christian leader, contemporary with and in some respects rival to David, was Saint Cadoc , a son of Gwladys and her husband King Gwynllyw of Gwynllywg (E. Glywysing ), a grandson both of King Brychan of Powys and of King Glywys of Glwysing (Gloucestershire), and a nephew of Saint Keyne the hermit who lived first at Keynsham (Somerset) and later at St. Michael's Mount (Cornwall). Cadoc was apparently educated by Pol. He built himself a hermitage at Llancarfan (now in the south of Glamorgan) that soon grew into a monastery, and later one at Llanspyddid (3km W of Brecon). He is also credited with founding churches in Dyfed, Cornwall and Brittany. About 528, after his father's death, he built a stone monastery in Scotland below “Mount Bannauc” (generally taken to be the hill SW of Stirling down which the Bannockburn flows). It has been suggested that the monastery was where the town of St. Ninians now stands, 2 kilometers south of Stirling. Cadoc went on pilgrimages to both Jerusalem and Rome and was distressed that the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi was held during one of these absences. He came into conflicts with kings Arthur, Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and Rhain of Brycheiniog. He was killed in 580 at 'Beneventum'. Beneventum is not firmly identified. One scholar has suggested it is the Roman burgh of Bannaventa (5 kilometers east of Daventry in Northamptonshire), proposing the hypothesis that it was overrun by Saxons at this time as an explanation both for both the killing of Cadoc and for the prohibition on Britons entering the town to recover his body. Cadoc, with Illtud, is one of the three knights said to have become keepers of the Holy Grail.
A brother of this King Gwynllyw was Saint Petroc. Petroc was educated in Ireland where he perhaps learned esoteric Druid wisdom as well as Christianity. He spent most of his adult life based at Padstow in Cornwall, and founded churches in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset (all then part of Dumnonia / Kernyw) including North and South Petherton (places named after him in west and south Somerset respectively). He converted King Constantine of Dumnonia (in 586) and died in 590. With Saint Piran he is among the best-known of the Cornish saints.
The principal contemporary leader of the church in the north of Romanised Britain was Saint Kentigern / Mungo, a son of King Urien Rheged (ruled c. 560 to c. 590), the founder of Glasgow Cathedral and its first bishop.
Although its impact continued, Celtic Christianity officially ended in 1172 when the Synod of Cashel ended the Celtic Christian system and brought them under Rome.
Celtic Christianity today
The phrase Celtic Christianity has come into current used to describe a modern revival of what is believed to be a more spiritually free form of Christianity abandoned after the Synod of Whitby enforced Roman Catholicism as the standard form of Christianity in the British Isles. (See Culdee.) Many believe that this older worship more closely resembled Eastern Orthodoxy. It is also considered very close to Anglicanism in many respects. Some wags have joked that the amazing thing about Celtic Christianity is that it always somehow manages to perfectly match the expectations of anyone who investigates it.
Celtic Christianity is at present undergoing something of a revival: in the North of England at the Community of St. Aidan and St. Hilda on Lindisfarne, and in Scotland at the Iona Community. It currently embraces both Charismatic and Evangelical Christians, as well as some pagan elements. Celtic Christianity has become increasingly popular in the United States, and an annual conference on the subject is held every year.
Its main features are claimed to be:
- Love of nature
- Lack of dogmatism
- Friendship to and tolerance for other religions.
However, it is difficult to document that these particular features were unique to "Celtic Christianity" lands or that they even predominated there in earlier centuries.