Milpitas Christian Church

British & Celtic Christianity

Britain had only ever subdued the region we now call England but never truly controlled Wales, Scotland, and Ireland

Romans abandon Britain

  • The Roman colonies flourished but were under threat from Celts to the north and Germanic tribes from the mainland. By the late 4th century, Rome’s attention was on its problems on the mainland–civil wars and barbarian invasions–and they steadily withdrew troops from Britain.

  • 407 - a would-be emperor withdrew the entire military garrison in Britain to mainland Europe to fight his wars. He lost. The Romans in Britain were left defenseless

  • 410 - the Romano-British appealed to Emperor Honorius to send troops for their defense, but they were told to look to their own defenses because Rome was too busy elsewhere. From this point, they were essentially self-governing and independent from Rome, although it took a while for Rome to finally accept that it would never regain the colony of Britannia

  • Soon Britain was conquered by various tribes of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. They set up 7 kingdoms in “England” while the remaining Romano-British were pushed back to Wales

  • Map of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ca. 802

  • The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted from about 500-1066

  • They were pagan, but there remained a sizable portion of the conquered population remained Christian. Gradually the Anglo-Saxons converted

  • Nonetheless, information on the early British Church is rather sparse

Catholic Christianity in Britain

  • 200 - Tertullian lists Britain among the places that Christianity has spread to

  • 314 - 3 British bishops attended the Council of Arles to discuss the Donatist controversy, so we know there were at least a few bishops by that point. British bishops possibly attended other European councils throughout the 4th century

  • The heretic monk Pelagius(354–418) was born in Britain

  • 595 - Pope Gregory I sent a mission to the kingdom of the Angles, led by the monk St. Augustine (not the same as the church father and Bishop of Hippo)

    • Augustine eventually converted King Ethelbert of Kent and became the first archbishop of Canterbury

    • However, Augustine also disliked the influence of the Irish Christians who already had a presence in Kent. He mostly disliked that they celebrated Easter on a different date

  • 655 - the last pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Penda of Mercia, is killed in battle. Now all the kings were nominally Christian

Celtic Christianity

  • There are some unverifiable references to early Christian saints in Ireland but no clear writings about them

  • By legend Saint Ninian (360, Britain—died c. 432) was the first missionary to Scotland, although very little is known about him

  • 431 - Pope Celestine sends the monk Palladius to be the first bishop of Ireland, although we do not know what sort of success he had or how many Irish Christians there were at the time. Apparently a very small minority.

Saint Patrick

  • Lived between c.401 - c.500

  • Born to respected Romano-British parents who were Christian, at age 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. Eventually, he escaped and returned to Britain–in his autobiography, the Confesio, he describes a heavenly voice directing him how to escape

  • Later he had a dream in which the Irish begged him to return and preach the gospel to them (“The Voice of the Irish”). He put it off for several years but eventually did return to Ireland. He preached up and down the length of the island, baptizing many

  • Despite persecution, he was known as a humble man of deep-feeling, who always tried to treat the Irish well, even those who remained pagan.

  • He is credited with the general conversion of all Ireland, although he himself described his missionary work being mostly in the north and west

  • His Confesio is a spiritual autobiography in the style of Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, remarkable for its spiritual self-analysis and honesty, although much shorter. He wrote it to defend himself against accusations that he had only gone to Ireland for the prestige and power of winning it

  • Legends developed around him until he became the most popular symbol of Irish religion and national identity

Irish & Scottish monasticism

  • From the time of Patrick, monasticism spread into Ireland

  • By the 6th and 7th centuries, Irish monasticism had some different features from the monasticism of continental Europe. Ireland had become much more notably Christian than Scotland and Britain

    • Irish monastic communities were mostly likely to be loosely linked rather than fully independent
  • Great enthusiasm for: asceticism (particularly hermits) and missionary work to pagans

  • Irish monasteries began sending missionaries to Britain and Europe.

  • 550 - Saint Kentigern (a.k.a. Saint Mungo) began preaching against Pelagianism in Scotland and founded a church community in modern-day Glasgow

  • 563 - St. Columba left Ireland to found a monastery on the island of Iona of the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. Iona became a center for missionary work to Scotland and England.

    • Columbais the chief figure in early Scottish Christianity

    • 3 hymns can be traced to him with some certainty

  • When the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria fell into disarray and the early church there was scattered, the new king brought in Aiden, a monk from Iona, to re-introduce Christianity to his people.

  • Aiden founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, which became an immensely important center of learning and missionary work. They produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, a gorgeously illuminated copy of the four gospels similar to the Book of Kells

A unique identity

  • From this Irish influence, Celtic Christianity developed some unique features

  • The leaders of the Celtic Church were the abbotts of monasteries rather than bishops in cities

  • They did some rites and liturgy different from the Roman Catholics and they insisted on a different date for Easter

  • Irish Christianity invented the practice of private confession to a priest

  • “Be Thou My Vision” is a translation of a Celtic prayer meant to oppose the influence of the Druids

  • As Celtic Christianity spread south it began to clash with the resurgent Catholic influence in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Scotch-Irish monks even shaved their heads in a different style from the Catholic monks to assert their independence

Irish Learning

  • The missionaries were succeeded by scholars and the monasteries became centers of education and religious art

  • Irish monasteries preserved many ancient and classical writings, including those of church fathers, at a time when the continental places of learning were being pillaged and abandoned due to invasions and wars

  • Irish scribes developed the Insular script, which spread to Britain and the continent. It’s easier to read than what was used previously

  • The Irish developed the art of illumination, with the Book of Kells being the most celebrated example

  • Irish Christianity proved a major force in the survival of the Irish Gaelic language down to the modern day

Conflict with Roman Catholics

  • An example of the tension between Celtic and Roman Christians is seen in the kingdom of Northumbria, where the king followed the Celtic tradition and his wife the Roman. So while one of them fasted for Easter, the other was feasting.

  • 663 - Synod of Whitby was convened to settle the matter in Northumbria

    • The Scotch-Irish insisted on the traditions they’d received from St. Columba, while the Romans insisted that the traditions of St. Peter were superior
    • The king asked the Scotch-Irish if St. Peter did indeed hold the keys of the kingdom, and they agreed that he did. So the king declared that he had better follow St. Peter or else the apostle might lock him out of heaven!
  • Gradually other kingdoms in Britain also decided in favor of the Roman rite over the Celtic. Rome simply had more prestige and power behind it.

Modern Celtic Christianity

  • The legacy of the early Irish and Scottish Christians gets used in primarily three ways:

    1. early English Reformers revived interest in them as a way of proving that the British had Christianity before the Roman Catholics got there, and tried to emphasize aspects of Celtic Christianity that seemed proto-Protestant

    2. 18-19th century Romantics in Britain romanticized the ancient Celts as being more spiritually in-tune with nature and art, and that carried over to perceptions about Celtic Christianity

    3. the 20th-21st centuries saw a modern movement to “recapture” the lost spirituality and romance of Celtic Christianity

  • The modern movement tries to return to the roots of Celtic Christianity before Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestant Reformers overwhelmed it. There’s a huge variety among those who consider themselves “Celtic Christians” today

    • From what I can tell the movement is less about theology and more about how these Christians want to outwardly express their faith and their church. They tend to favor Celtic art and music, Celtic saints, a strong emphasis on family and gentle hospitality, a somewhat more mystical approach to seeing the world (i.e. being ready to see spiritual forces at work), and various other practices or beliefs that they claim the earliest British and Celtic Christians followed

    • There is little evidence to support many of their claims, because we simply don’t have many writings from the ancient and medieval Celtic Christians, so there’s a lot of speculation about them

    • The movement tends to be anti-Catholic but otherwise spreads across many Protestant denominations

    • At its best, it remains theologically orthodox while embracing the beauty and warmth of much traditional Irish and Scottish culture

    • At its worst, it can embrace certain pagan ideas (like tying spiritual power to certain geographical areas) and distort the gospel. Sometimes it sounds like just another New Age movement with Christian overtones


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