After the Romans invaded Britain and settled here, some were Christians who witnessed to their faith. Then other missionaries came from Gaul in the second and third centuries. St Martin of Tours (316-397) set up monasteries through his missionaries to Britain. They were independent, unlike the Roman monasteries. St Ninian converted the southern Picts in Scotland in about 397 AD. This is how Celtic Christianity originated. St Patrick was the most famous Celtic saint in the fifth century. St Columba travelled from Ireland to Iona in 565 and missionaries such as St Aidan went out from there. He went to Northumbria to be Bishop of Lindisfarne. We still have beautiful illuminated manuscripts and extensively carved stone crosses from our Celtic forbears.
When St Augustine came as a missionary from Rome in 597 AD he brought a very different brand of Christianity. Eventually, his version of Roman Christianity dominated Britain and Celtic Christianity was marginalised.
Unfortunately, today some people are trying to claim that the Celts held pagan views. The pagan Celts did, but not the Christian Celts. And there are, sadly, some Christians who go to extremes when they discover new biblical emphases. Here are some Celtic Christian emphases:
They emphasised the Bible, the cross and redemption.
Their prayers stressed the Trinity far more than the later Roman liturgies.
They also exulted in God’s creation. Although, like St Francis of Assisi, they might poetically use the terms “our brother the sun”; “our sister the moon”; “our brother the wind”; “our sister water”; “our brother fire”; “ our mother the earth”; “our sister the death of the body” they certainly didn’t believe in the Earth as a living being, or as Gaia the earth-goddess. Rather they were affirming their closeness to creation. (The hymn, “All creatures of our God and King” has something of this Celtic influence). Celtic Christian prayers tend to be beautifully poetic, meditating on the wonder of Creation.
They stressed the immanence (closeness) of God more than Roman Christianity. So they didn’t make the Roman distinction between the sacred and the secular. The whole of life was sacred to the Celtic Christians. They said blessings over lighting the fire, milking the cow and all the ordinary activities of life. They prayed often for the protection of the Lord. The hymn “St Patrick’s Breastplate” is a good example of this Celtic, Trinitarian prayer for protection. However the Celts also taught the awesome transcendence (exaltation) of Christ. Celtic prayers can emphasise a proper mysticism: a sense of awe and mystery at the majesty of God.
So Celtic Christianity stresses Biblical emphases some of which for centuries have been soft-pedalled by our Western Roman Christianity. As Protestants we are reformed Romans, still very much influence by Roman thinking.
If we explore Celtic Christian spirituality, some of it will surprise us, or even disturb us, but it is good to be open to new approaches.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction