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Celtic Cross

Cover Photo: Dan Westfall

Holiness Spelled with a "W"

Defining the "Celtic Church"

All we really need to know about Celtic Christianity is that she’s about holiness spelled with a “w."

All we really need to know about Celtic Christianity is that she’s about holiness spelled with a “w;” exactly what contemporary Christianity seems largely to have forgotten. Christianity is about both wholeness and holiness. It is with this indictment of the Church that we begin our exploration of Celtic Christianity, for Celtic Christianity, if she does nothing else, calls the Church back to (w)holeness with the emphasis on the “h.”

In defence, some Christians claim that Celtic Christianity is infused with paganism and therefore cannot be trusted to convey “true Christianity.” However, the real problem is not that Celtic Christianity is infused with paganism, but that Celtic Christianity rattles the status quo by demanding that we look at Christianity differently! And herein lies the problem.

We have looked through the filters of “mainstream” or “evangelical” Christianity for so long that we confuse what we see with biblical Christianity. Celtic Christianity, if nothing else, demands that we remove our dogmatic filters and take a long, hard look at what we call “Christianity.” However, it seems that the filter has become fused to the eye, and we know not where one stops and the other starts. And herein lies our second problem.

Frankly, we have confused dogmatics with Christianity, and religious systems with Truth. So much so, that one has become the other. Celtic Christianity offers a “fresh” way to reexamine what we call “Christianity,” in that much of its “theology” stands in stark contrast to that of modern-day Christian thought. Celtic Christianity is a mystical faith wherein our personal experience with God determines how we live by faith. This is diametrically opposite of a dogmatic faith, wherein our doctrine determines how we experience God.

Most significantly, Celtic Christianity is about wholeness. She knows nothing about ”sacred” and “secular,” or about a “soul” that exists independent of the physical. Perhaps, most telling of all, are the words of the Celtic “theologian” John Scotus Eriugena who suggested that it is more proper to say that God “recreated himself in Creation,” rather than created Creation external to himself. The beauty of Celtic Christianity is that all of Creation is wholly charged with the divine image.

Defining the Celtic Christian Church

Celtic* Christianity, or as it is sometimes called, “the Celtic Church,” was that branch of Christianity that existed in the British Isles and, to some extent, on the European continent (mostly in the Rhine Valley, Brittany and Spanish Galicia). Christianity in these lands shared certain ritual practices differing from the rest of Christianity, as well as a common culture and linguistic heritage. On occasion we hear mention of the Old British Church, the Old Irish Church, the Gallic Church, or the Mozarabic Church in reference to a particular aspect of the Celtic Church. Such reference points out that although the so-called Celtic Church held certain forms in common, there were also considerable differences. In many ways, therefore, the term "Celtic Church" is a misnomer. The aforementioned "Churches" are really terms designating ritual. Rituals having much in common, and often lumped together as "Gallic," or "Celtic," however, even a cursory study shows considerable difference within even the groupings. The Mozarabic, for example has some Moorish elements in it, which at the very least makes it "late Celtic."

We do need to address the concept of Celtic Christianity as a “Church.” There are a couple of different ways to approach the question of the existence of such a Church. Generally, when we use the phrase "Celtic Church" we are referring to a branch of Christianity that was generally independent of either the Eastern or Roman branches of Christianity. This is not to say, however, that such a Church did not share much in common with her sister Churches. Specifically, the phrase usually refers to a period of time extending from the introduction of Christianity into the British Isles to almost the end of the twelfth century. From extant records we know that the Celtic Church sent representatives to the various councils of the pre-schismatic Church.

The term “Church” also implies that Celtic Christianity had a dogma, or theology, that was unique to it. Celtic Christianity is essentially a mystical Christianity, rather than dogmatic. It is this characteristic, which permeates the entirety of Celtic spirituality, that appeals to contemporary culture, and, I believe, is fueling our present faddish interest in things Celtic.

When we discuss Celtic Christian theology, the term “theology” takes on a different meaning from the one we usually assign to it; that of dogma. Celtic Christianity as a mystical expression has no dogmatic theology, but that is not to say that it does not have a “theology of mysticism.” Therefore, we must be careful to first define what it is that we mean; secondly, make valid comparisons based on our definition; and lastly, and perhaps most crucial, recognize that the dogma of contemporary Christianity is considerably different than the dogma of early Christianity. We must make our initial comparisons to theologies contemporary to the Celtic Church and not to those of the Church today, be it Roman, Eastern, or even Protestant. We we make the latter comparison (and we cannot help but do so), we will find many differences, some of which will become evident as we continue.

When we look at the theology of the Celtic Church and compare it to the theology of her sister Churches, we will find that few theological differences existed, and what differences did exist had more to do with differences in individual interpretation, in which one became the accepted norm, such as with controversy between the British theologian Pelagius, with his emphasis on free will, and St. Augustine of Hippo, with his emphasis on Grace. While considered a heretic in the Roman Church, Pelagius is known as St. Morgan in the Eastern Church, and his theology was never condemned as heretical by any unified Church synod. The theology of John Scotus Eriugena is another example. Although his theology is considered by some to be heretical, he shares much with the later “orthodox” St. Francis. The problem was simply that the Roman Church failed to realize the mystical nature of Celtic Christianity. Which, by the way, a failure many perpetuate today.

Apart from the “problem” with Pelagius, the real areas of difference were in polity. The Roman faction at the Synod of Whitby (which officially brought to an end the Celtic Church in Britain in 664) unfortunately confused differing polity with theology.

Nevertheless, do not differing polities and emphasis imply the existence of a “Church”? Perhaps the problem is in how we define the word “Church.” More often than not, the use of the word “Church” refers to an organized body of Christians, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, or the Presbyterian Church. On occasion we use it in the sense of a larger body of believers organized according to a particular perspective, such as the Catholic, Orthodox (or Eastern), and Protestant Churches. In this latter sense, we could conceivably group Celtic Christians together as a “Church,” if we remember that they were not formally organized in such a way. In this sense, it might be more proper to say the “Irish Church,” or the “British Church,” as evidence seems to suggest a rudimentary form of ecclesiastical structure with these groups, even when the Irish or British monks labored away from home. Be that as it may, I find no evidence in my research to suggest that Celtic Christians, however they were organized, thought of themselves as a Church apart from other forms of Christianity.

"Church" is most properly defined as the Body of Believers, and the Celtic Church had a profound sense of belonging to a larger family, the family of God – that Church above all ecclesiastical structure – the Church Universal. The Celtic Christian was deeply concerned about finding his or her personal place in the corporate Body of Christ: not in the sense of what they may gain from it, but how they might bless the Church Universal, which for the Celtic Christian encompasses Creation herself.

Theology may indeed give rise to a system of faith, dogma, but at its very heart, theology is not a system but a way of personally understanding one's place in the Church Universal. Don't, however, confuse, "personal" with "individualistic," especially in thinking about Celtic Christianity. Celtic Christianity is at its heart, corporate. And this being the case, we need to be ever careful to remember this when we explore Celtic Christianity either as a “Church,” or her “theology of mysticism.” [The question of ecclesiastical organization later on will be saved doe a later essay.]

Whatever decision we make about the validity of the phrase “Celtic Church,” I want to emphasize, once again, that as far as Celtic Christians were concerned, they were part of the Church Universal and they saw their belief in keeping with the faith of the First Church. An idea that perhaps is rooted in how Christianity first came to the Celtic lands. There is not much debate about the influence of both the Eastern and Western forms of Christianity on the Continental Celts. In terms of the British Isles, we find ourselves becoming speculative. As we progress through our exploration of Celtic Christianity, (in later essays) the influences will become more evident.

Some Tentative Speculation

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, shortly after the Crucifixion, arrived in Glastonbury bearing with him the chalice of Jesus' Last Supper. We are all familiar with the legends that have sprung up around this idea. While most of them are rather dubious, it does point to the fact that the British Isles were on the tin trades routes. Joseph, according to tradition, was a tin trader. This being the case, it is a possibility that Christianity came first to Britain from Antioch, rather than Rome. There are those, of course, who make the argument that Christian Roman soldiers introduced Christianity into the British Isles. Whatever the truth of the matter, and there is probably some truth in both claims, much of the argument is politically motivated. And of course there are those who recreate a nostalgic church, blissfully ignoring anything negative. It seems that everyone wants to claim the Celtic Church as his or her own creation. Isn't amazing what a fad will do, considering that not all too long ago, only a few scholars cared?

Some scholars claim that St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatian Church was addressed to Celtic Galatian Christians (in Anatolia). It can be demonstrated that Celts in Anatolia traded with the Celts in Britain long before the coming of Christianity. Could it not be possible that it was the Celtic Galatians that first brought Christianity to the land? I think that the question deserves more research. It is intriguing.

What about the Galatian Church being Celtic? I do like the notion, but it has to be admitted that such inclusion is merely speculative. The connection is made because the word “Galatian” comes from the Greek Galate, which was the Greeks name for the Celts. What we do know about the Galatian Church comes primarily from the fourth century St. Jerome and seems far more Eastern Church than other "Celtic." Whether the church at Galatia held "Celtic" forms in common with Celtic Christians elsewhere is highly debatable, but if even a little bit true, it would make the basis for an interesting rereading of the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatian Church. Jerome does tell us that in his time the Celtic language was still being spoken in Galatia. Other writers of the period also comment on the "Celtic nature" of the Galatians. Of course, there are those biblical scholars who claim that Paul's epistle was not even written to the ethnic Galatians of Galatia, but to Greek, Roman and Jewish Christians who lived in eastern Galatia.

* The term “Celt” is a cultural designation, not an ethical one. The Celtic peoples were of several different ethnic strains.

© 2016, Frank A. Mills