The Celtic Way: From Patrick to Cuthbert

THE CLAIM IS WIDELY MADE, in school textbooks and elsewhere, that Augustine brought Christianity to British shores in 597. The truth is that Augustine’s Roman mission came to the court of a Christian queen, and was met by British bishops with several centuries of recorded Christian history behind them.

It was important to the British Reformers of the sixteenth century that the Church of England constituted a true part of the catholic and apostolic church, now reformed on the basis of the New Testament. The fact that Rome excommunicated the Anglicans did not mean that the British Church was no church, nor its gospel less than the gospel. There had been in existence in Britain a true church centuries before Rome stepped on these shores—a church marked by three distinctive qualities: missionary and evangelistic zeal, high scholarship, and great simplicity of life.

What is the Celtic Church?

The phrase The Celtic Church means that church which existed in the British Isles before the mission of Augustine from Rome in 596-97. Its precise historical beginnings cannot now be dated, but it was certainly founded by the end of the second and the beginning of the third century.

What are the facts? Disregarding as legendary all the delightful Irish, Welsh and British legends (of the Seventy who came to Britain, of the visit of Joseph of Arimathea and his companions, of Bran the Blessed and such tales), the first hard historical fact is the statement ofOrigen, the Alexandrian church father. He exultingly declared in 201 that ‘places in Britain not yet reached by Romans were subjected to Christ'. Gildas, the first British historian (c500 - c570) records the death of St Alban during the Diocletian persecution (305), as does the Venerable Bede. Most historians accept this as a reliable historical statement.

The first great council of the church was the Council of Aries (314) called to take counsel in the troublous times which followed the ‘Donatist’ schism in North Africa. The records of the Council show that three British bishops were present: the Bishop of York, the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Lincoln, together with a priest and a deacon. There must have existed already in 314 not only a church, but a working and effective organization of the British Church to be able to organizea commission of five to travel from the north of England to the south of France to discuss a threatening schism which had originated in Africa.

Again, a Council was called at Ariminum (now Rimini) in 359 to continue the work of the Nicene Council in stating belief in the Trinity. Three British bishops attended. We further know that of all the bishops of Western Christendom who attended that Council these were the only three to avail themselves of the Emperor’s offer to pay travelling expenses. No doubt this was because the British Church was poor.

In 363 we find Athanasius reckoning the British as those loyal to the Catholic Faith. Chrysoslom (c347-407), the great preacher and church father of Constantinople, and Jerome (c342-420), that unsurpassed scholar and translator of the Bible, give further testimony to the soundness of the faith in Britain.

Clearly we have already in the fourth century an organized church in Britain, with its own bishops, supporting the catholic Nicene position—and this almost three centuries before the Roman missionaries set foot in Britain. There is further archaeological evidence: a Celtic church, of uncertain date, has been unearthed in the old Roman town of Silchester. It was a church of the same type as other fourth century churches in Italy, Africa and Syria. Clearly the old Romano-British Church was predominantly Celtic, and when the Roman legions withdrew in 410, the British Church remained.

The Celtic saints

During these years Christendom was strengthened by a number of great Church Fathers, biblical scholars, historians and systematic theologians. Clement, Origen and Cyril in the East; Chrysostom in Constantinople; Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine in Africa; Irenaeus in Europe; Jerome worldwide. These men have left behind them an imperishable body of writings, preserved through controversies, wars and persecution. The British and Celtic saints, on the other hand, were distinguished as missionaries and scholars, above all by a rigorous simplicity of life of a Franciscan quality, even though more harsh and severe themselves. They have left behind them deeds rather than books, for it was to spreading the kingdom and bringing life to the church that they dedicated themselves.

First, there was Ninian (c360-c432). The son of a converted chieftain of Cumbria, he went to Rome as a young man, where he was instructed in the faith and consecrated bishop. He returned home to work for the conversion of his own people. On his return journey he was much inspired by Martin of Tours, and when he founded a church at Wigtown, he built it of stone, not wood, and dedicated it to Martin. This church, the Candida Casa (White House), as it was called, was the base from which Ninian and his monks worked to convert the Scots and the English. It continued for centuries as a seat of learning for the Welsh and Irish missionaries, and had enduring influence on Celtic monasticism.

During these years of Ninian’s great missions there arose a British monk named Pelagius who was later active in Rome from about 383 to 410. History has classed him as a heretic, but his views occasioned a flood of fine literature from Augustine and others, and in any account of Celtic Christianity he must find a place.

Pelagius was typical of the British Church at that time: rigorously moral, highly scholarly and, if not a missionary, certainly a man with a message. To put it perhaps too simply, he taught that mankind was virtually the author of his own salvation. What troubled Pelagius was the shocking morality of the limes, as the ancient Roman Empire was crumbling to ruins. He himself had a high moral integrity and believed that men and women were free, or at least had the potential, to do what was right, and were under no necessity to sin. Mankind needed only the good example of Jesus Christ to see the good and to follow it. Pelagius understood grace as the revelation of God, given in the Law and in Christ, and this work of God was meant to assist and facilitate humanity to see the good and to do it. He preached and taught his views and expounded the Bible to support them. He travelled to Africa to face the great Augustine of Hippo, and to Palestine to justify his views. He received considerable support throughout Christendom. Eventually, Augustine answered him by arguing that we are by nature in bondage to our own sin. He held a high doctrine of the free and unmerited grace and mercy of God without which mankind is lost. Jerome, with his usual abusive vulgarity, described Pelagius as ‘that big fat dog of Albion', ‘a great red-faced lump', ‘a lout', ‘too full of Scotch porridge’ and the like, and took up his pen to condemn his theology. Pelagius was condemned at Ephesus in 431 and at Orange in 529.

Pelagius shattered the reputation of the British Church for simple-hearted orthodoxy, and to this day the term Pelagianism (or Semi-Pelagianism) has been used throughout Christendom to represent the man-centred, moralistic approach of self-help rather than the God-centred reliance on grace. Two bishops came over from Gaul, Germanus and Lupus, ‘to uphold in Britain the belief in divine grace', men who ‘took pains to keep the Roman island Catholic'. There was a debate with the British at St Albans (429), about which a contemporary historian wrote, ‘On one side was divine authority, on the other was human assurance'. The great Germanus is remembered as having won the debate, though he had to return again in 447, and expel the Pelagians to the Continent where they might unlearn their misbelieve Men of Ireland.

Men of Ireland

Meanwhile, Palladius, a British monk, who had been responsible for the mission of Germanus to Britain, went to Ireland as a missioner. He seems to have met with little success and eventually left for Scotland. In 431, Patrick was sent to support him, and on the death of Germanus was consecrated bishop (432). A Briton, who as a boy had been taken into slavery in Ireland, he displayed mighty courage when he engineered an escape to France. There he studied deeply, and found his life’s mission, namely to return to Ireland, to evangelize the land which had once so cruelly enslaved and wronged him.

Patrick was the ideal man for Ireland. He had the courage to face his former slave-master, who is said to have committed suicide at the sight of the returned Patrick. He tackled the Druids; he tackled the Royal Family. He converted several members of the royally. Everywhere he established churches, founded religious communities, preached the gospel. By the year 444 he had founded the Cathedral Church of Armagh, which soon became the educational and administrative centre of the Irish Church.

Patrick organized the scattered communities which Palladius had left in the north, did much to convert the pagan west and brought Ireland into closer relations with the Western Church. He encouraged the study of Latin, and did much to raise the standards of scholarship. He reflected to the highest degree the qualities which were to mark the Celtic Church: high learning, a fine artistic sense, warm-hearted enthusiasm, a disciplined asceticism, and a consuming sense of mission. The life which Patrick brought to the Irish Church lives on to this day.

In the century after Patrick, Columba (c521-97), an Irish nobleman, was filled with remorse at causing a battle where many men were slain. He vowed, at the age of thirty-two, to win for Christ as many pagans as Christians whose death he had caused. Impelled by that invincible missionary zeal of the Celtic saint, he set off with twelve disciples for lona, off the south-west coast of Scotland, where he established a monastery. This was the base for his own work, but it also proved of enormous influence not only in Christianizing Scotland and Britain but also in evangelizing as far afield as Germany, France, Italy, even Africa. There he lived for his remaining thirty-four years, evangelizing the mainland and establishing monasteries in the neighbouring islands. He out-debated the Druids, and converted the kings of the Picts and of the Scots. He outgrew his fiery Irish temper to earn the lovely name of ‘the Dove’ for his gentleness, and became known everywhere for his love of nature and for his love of God and man. A month after his death Augustine landed in Kent.

Columba is important to remember as a great life-bringer. He was passionate by nature, fierce in his hatred of the wrong, fierce in his love, fierce in his work and self-sacrifice for Jesus Christ. He could be vindictive, yet could burn with the tenderest love. He had compassion forthe erring, and also for dumb creation and for nature. He was a man of deep spiritual insight who cast the divine fire abroad on every side ‘without troubling himself about the conflagration'. When overtures were made from Gaul to persuade the Celtic Church to adopt the Roman calendar for fixing Easter, Columba in a most learned reply begged to be excused attending any such synod in Gaul. He deprecated intolerance, and rather movingly asked for ‘leave to dwell silently in these woods beside the bones of his seventeen departed brethren’ and ‘to pray that Gaul might find room for all of whatever race, who were on the road to the heavenly kingdom'. His tenacity could not be broken. A true Celt, he had no stomach for conferences and organization: he just wanted to get on with the task of preaching.

Here we see in miniature the striking contrast between the Celtic and the Roman type of Christianity. Irish Christianity was ascetic and monastic. The Irish knew nothing of orderly diocesan bishops; the seat of authority in Ireland was the scholarly and disciplined monastery, ruled by its abbot. Bishops were under the abbot, though in ecclesiastical rank above him. The important thing was not the rank they occupied but the work they did.

It was from this Celtic monastery in lona that the leaders of the Northern Church in England were to come. It was by the Celtic missionaries from lona who settled at Lindisfarne, off Northumberland, that the greater part of England was won for Christ. A long line of devoted missionaries gave themselves to the conversion of England, and the next hundred years proved to be the finest century in the long history of the Church of England.

Invasions, and a mission

Before we examine that movement, we shall have to take note of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, beginning 449, but lasting for many centuries if we include the later invasions of the Vikings. These German tribes had hardly ever come in touch with Roman culture and civilization, nor even with Christianity. These Teutonic hordes came as invaders and carried on a war of extermination. The few remaining Celts were swept back into the mountain fastnesses. The Celts hated them and would have no dealings with them: they even refused them Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons continued their heathenism. It was a kind of nature-worship, with worship of the sun and moon. They believed in pixies, fairies and water-sprites, as well as in occult magic. It was later and indirectly, through its earlier saints, Patrick and Columba. that the great flood of missionaries from lona and Lindisfarne was to reclaim this lost ground and win over the larger part of England to faith in Christ.

The other stream came from Rome in the person of Augustine, and though the Roman mission evangelized Essex only, in effect it came to dominate the British church owing to the powerful Romanizing tendency of Wilfrid and the authority of the Roman see. The pope made Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and, in effect, this meant the establishment of the Church of England. Plans for its organization were formulated at Rome and sent to Canterbury to be carried out. The Celtic saints had no interest in organization.

The Church in Kent grew, and though Augustine wanted to come to terms with the British bishops, his proud and prelatical manner made the native bishops dislike and suspect him. He was much the inferior of the Celtic bishops, intellectually and spiritually. There were several differences between them, such as the calculating of Easter, the shape of the tonsure, the ritual in baptism—trifling externals indeed.

The great difference was that the British bishops refused to recognize any supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, and therefore Augustine’s claim to be their Archbishop. Though Augustine continued to work in Essex, this estranged state of affairs persisted until his death in 604. There followed an appalling pagan reaction owing to the death of two Christian kings At this time, the greatest king in England, Edwin of Northumbria, had married the princess of Kent, and one of the terms for such marriage with a pagan was that she should be allowed to bringa Christian chaplain with her. She brought Paulinus to York, now a bishop. Edwin was baptized on Easter Day, 627. The heathen king of Mercia (Penda), supported by Cadwallon of Wales, attacked Edwin. On the battlefield of Hatfield, near Sheffield, in 633, Edwin’s army was overthrown and Edwin himself slain. Norlhumbria was devastated, and fora whole year Cadwallon and his men pillaged, burned and desecrated the whole land, massacring men, women and children. Paulinus fled back to Kent. Apostacy and paganism reigned everywhere.

In a most exciting and dramatic turn of events, two surviving sons of the dead king, Oswald and Oswy, had fled north to lona, where they received new heart and new hope, and before ‘the fateful year’ of pillage was over, Oswald met and defeated Cadwallon at Heavenfield in 634. A cross marks the spot on those lonely wastes, west of Hexham. The men knelt down in prayer before the battle ‘having undertaken a righteous war for the salvation of our race'. Oswald was now king of Northumbria, and in his desire to restore the Christian faith his mind naturally turned to lona, where the Celtic monks had befriended him, for the Roman Paulinus had fled the field. The first monk was a total failure, and when a monk called Aidan told the assembled monastery why the mission had been a failure, they resolved to send Aidan. Of all the fiery and effective Celtic missionaries, this was the gentlest, the sweetest and the most Christ-like. Holiness and gentleness, simplicity and sympathy, radiated from his presence. He preached the word of life, and he lived by his own teaching.

King and preacher in partnership

Aidan at once showed a love of Celtic ways as distinct from Roman when he took over office. He did not establish himself in the capital, in the ancient seal of York. The Celts never put practical and administrative convenience first. He chose Lindisfarne, that Holy Island standing off the mists of the Northumbrian coast, an exact parallel to lona. No sacred spot in Britain compares with Holy Island. As one stands in those hallowed grounds among the silent ruins, one senses, as in lona, the holy atmosphere for thought and prayer which inspired these Celtic saints. To the south, just visible, stood the great castle of Hamburgh, the home of his king, protector and friend.

On starting out as a bishop he neither sought nor received any sanction from Rome or Canterbury. He regarded himself as a Celtic missionary sent by his church at the request of the king. He never admitted the principle that a bishop’s jurisdiction must be derived from Rome, or that a Pope had any right to appoint an English archbishop supreme over ‘all the bishops of Britain'. Yet Rome acknowledged him as a canonized bishop. With Aidan began another mission to Britain. CH

By James Atkinson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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