Reconstructing Celtic Spirituality:
Searching for a Western Early Church
This paper follows on from a study undertaken of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempts to discover, re-construct or invent (these three terms apply depending upon assumptions made about the efforts) ‘original Christianity’ and relates to a current study of groups claiming to have ‘rediscovered’ the true Orthodox spiritual tradition.
A characteristic theme of contemporary Western spirituality has been a quest for a Christianity relevant both to the West and to modern society. This is in sharp contradistinction to the themes characteristic of the sixties, seventies and early eighties when the search was very much for religious alternatives to Christianity, or alternative religious traditions which provided practices of prayer and spirituality which Christianity was assumed (wrongly) to lack, what Robert Ellwood has referred to as a search for ‘alternative altars’. Thus, at a more serious level, Christians sought such curious amalgams as ‘Christian Zen’ or a Christianity enlivened by Hinduism, and, at a more popular level, people abandoned Christianity altogether to sit (either metaphorically or literally – and often financially) at the feet of gurus, teacher and Masters claiming spiritual lineages as diverse as Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism or Japanese Zen, or even, in the case of what came to be known as channelling, intergalactic intelligences from beyond this solar system.
Even within the major Christian churches there developed a tendency for Christian spirituality to be presented in an almost apologetic manner, particularly insofar as it seemed to be assumed to possess none of the practical spiritual teachings (in areas like prayer and meditation) that could be found in non-Christian traditions of the East. The image of Christian priests going East to learn to pray and meditate and understand the rudiments of the spiritual life was hardly conducive to a belief that such things could be found within Christianity.
By the early nineties, however, there had developed in the West an increasing interest in the ancient Christian traditions of prayer and spirituality. This could be seen in four streams. The first was a continuation of a quest, first really begun in the late nineteenth century, to rediscovery the real origins and meaning of Christianity. It came out of a discontent with institutionalised Christianity as it was to be found in the major churches, and an assumption that a return to Christian origins would lead to a discovery, or, rather, the rediscovery, of what Christianity was really meant to be. This quest had some scholarly proponents, but in the eighties and nineties led to a plethora of dubious, not to say downright dishonest, claims. Old works were republished, and new works appeared to ‘debunk’ the traditional claims of Christianity.
The second stream led to a search for ancient Christian spirituality in the works of the Fathers, of the early saints and of the origins of the monastic tradition. Thus the writings of the Fathers – previously obscurely published – came back into print, and became accessible not only in book and CDROM format but also on the Internet. Long out-of-print volumes were republished, and new studies of the early spiritual tradition of Christianity were published. Whole series of books came into print about what would hitherto have been regarded as the most obscure by-ways of Christian history. The Fathers and early Christian tradition can truly have been said to have been rediscovered. Interestingly, the emphasis was not only on dogmatic theology, that is, on what the early Church taught, but even more on spirituality, on traditions of asceticism, prayer and what might almost be called the technology of the Christian life. Good examples are found in works on the Desert Fathers and the ancient Christian spirituality of Egypt. Almost in parentheses, it should be noted that the influence – however occurring – of the Christian spirituality of the deserts of Egypt on that of the Celtic Church in Ireland has long been a subject of scholarly comment and speculation.
The third stream derived to some extent from the first: it also assumed that Christianity as found in the churches was not, as it were, the original product, and led to a search within ancient heresies, particularly those of the Gnostics, for the ‘true Christianity which ‘institutionalised Christianity’ (the term always used as a pejorative) had ‘suppressed’. All of this led to a search for primary heresiological materials, notably the Nag Hammadi documents – probably the major sources for the non-normative interpretation of the early church and for the deconstruction of inherited histories
The publication of Gnostic texts in popular works – most notably Elaine Pagels book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979) – gave great encouragement to those who followed this line, and a number of so-called Gnostic Churches emerged, claiming to present ‘original Christianity’. Whereas in the late nineteenth and first three-quarters of the twentieth century those who looked to the Gnostics and other heretics as the heroes striving to preserve ‘true religion’ in the face of an oppressive Christian Church were often strongly anti-Christian, they were now happy to claim to be Christian and to be the inheritors, or, rather, the revivers of the spirituality of original Christianity. While some of the neo-Gnostic churches were conspicuously heretical and hostile to anything resembling orthodox Christianity, some also adopted the forms and names of traditional Christianity, masking their real teachings and claims under the guise of Orthodoxy. In doing so they have been successful in deceiving even some Orthodox who, assuming the form to be the substance, have shared worship with them.
The fourth stream also to some extent comes from the first. The desire to rediscover a Christian spirituality relevant to contemporary Western society led some to look to the origins of Christianity in the West and, since for many of these people ‘the West’ was defined as the British Isles, and as English-speaking nations with some, at least, British association, the quest became one for early Christianity in Celtic Britain. It should be noted that amongst those who still spoke Celtic languages the desire to preserve and maintain their ancient cultural inheritance, however much it may have been oppressed and suppressed, can never have been said to have died out, but that is not the subject of this paper.
It must be noted immediately that, in the discussion of Celtic culture and the use of the word ‘Britain’, dangerous political territory has been entered. There does not appear to be, although surely there should be, some considerable research into the politics of the use of ancient spiritual traditions in the contemporary world. At the risk of being politically incorrect, but in an attempt to make this paper more manageable, the word ‘British’ and the term ‘British Isles’ will be used to refer to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (as a whole). This will be offensive to those within those separate territories who would desire to point out that it is near impossible to refer to them all with a single word, like ‘British’. There is, they would quite correctly note, no such ‘British nation, ethnic group or culture.
However accurate this may be (and whole books have been written, not to mention wars fought, on this very question) it is not directly relevant to the topic of this paper. Those who have sought to discover, reconstruct or ‘re-invent’ Celtic Christianity have rarely, if ever, made such subtle distinctions. Although some scholarly works on Celtic Christianity (for example, Peter Beresford Ellis in his study, Celtic Inheritance (1992)) do give separate consideration to the Christian traditions of areas like Wales and Cornwall, England and the Isle of Man, and so on, popular works certainly do not do so. They are concerned with Celtic Christianity (defined as a single entity), and they identify it as having its origins in the British Isles (defined as a single territory).
At least in the popular religious imagination (and in the popular religious literature), there is a single Celtic inheritance, shrouded it might almost be said in (to use the title of one of the numerous popular works of fiction based on Celtic themes) ‘The Mists of Avalon’. In this regard, the reconstruction of Celtic Christianity (or Celtic tradition more generally) has parallels in other religious and cultural traditions. In his exploration of ‘some of the mirror-lined cultural labyrinths’ created by scholars studying Tibet, Tibetans and those fascinated (or, indeed, obsessed) by Tibet, Donald Lopez comments:
“Indeed, amid the many meanings ascribed to Tibet, it is often tempting to see Tibet as a vacuum, its emptiness attracting assorted influences and associations from the outside, whether Nepalese or Chinese artistic forms or fascistic fantasies, which have styled Tibet both as the headquarters of an anti-Aryan conspiracy (in concert with the Jews, Catholics, and Freemasons) and as the preserve, in its caves, of the esoteric wisdom of an ancient Aryan civilization, where all that was imagined to be good and true about the premodern had been preserved. In the process, Tibet¹s complexities and competing histories have been flattened into a stereotype. Stereotypes operate through adjectives, which establish chosen characteristics as if they were eternal truths. Tibet is ‘isolated’, Tibetans are ‘content’, monks are ‘spiritual’. [1998:11]
A similar study of the realm of the Celts would be fascinating, and, almost certainly, draw similar conclusions.
It is not known for certain when Christianity entered the British Isles. There is a tradition that it was carried there by St Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the Crucifixion; certainly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century extravagant claims were published for the antiquity of Christianity in Britain, usually supporting their assertions with quotes from ancient Church historians like Eusebius (AD260-340) who wrote that ‘The apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles’, or Gildas (AD516-570) who declared that Christianity came to ‘our island in the last year, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar’.
In recent years, modern reprints have appeared of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries works of what may most accurately described as quasi-scholarship ‘demonstrating’ the Apostolic origins of Christianity in the British Isles: the writings of the Reverend Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of the Anglican Church at Glastonbury in the first quarter of this century, have reappeared and become popular. Lewis’ titles include: St Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury (1922), St Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, or The Apostolic Church of Britain (1923) and Glastonbury. Her Saints AD37-1539 (1925). Lewis presented many of the ‘ancient traditions’ of Christian origins in Britain, including the claim that St Joseph of Arimathea went to Britain as a metal merchant seeking tin, and that on his journey he was accompanied by the boy Jesus.
Most probably, Christian missionaries arrived in the British Isles in the late first or early second centuries; Origen and Tertullian refer to Christianity in Britain around the year 200AD, and Constantius of Lyons, writing about 480AD, refers to a martyr named Alban who died in the Decian persecution (250AD) and Gildas refers to two other martyrs, contemporaries of Alban, Aaron and Julius. In 314 five Britons participated in the Council of Arles. Athanasius wrote that British bishops accepted the decrees of Nicaea (325AD) (although there is no reason to believe that British Bishops attended the Council) and supported him at the Council of Sardica (343AD).
Roman Britain was separated from the empire in 406, and invasions by Anglo-Saxons in the mid-fifth century drove the British to the west, and when Roman missionaries, led by Augustine, arrived in Canterbury in 598, they found only a ruined church. In 664AD at a Synod at Whitby, King Oswy of Northumbria agreed to impose Roman rather than Celtic customs on the Church. Many popular histories suggest that this was the end of Celtic Christianity in Britain. Of course, this was not the case. Centuries passed before the Celtic Christians were gradually absorbed within the Roman Church and its traditions. From Ireland, far from the early impact of the Anglo-Saxon invaders or the decisions of Whitby, thousands of missionaries travelled not only to Scotland, Wales and England, but on to Europe as far East as Kiev and north to Iceland.
Peter Berresford Ellis noted:
“The Celtic Church – I shall use that popular term for this entity because any other term would be too cumbersome – could be designated as a singular cultural entity within the greater Christian movement, delineated by its practices, philosophies, social concepts and art forms. These individualistic practices – and its observances and customs in respect of Easter – its asceticism, monastic extremism and, indeed, fanaticism, its attitudes to social order, views on land tenure, contrary philosophies towards feudal and hereditary rights, brought it into early conflict with Rome. Absorption was inevitable; inevitable because of its very individualism, its lack of cohesion and centralism. But that absorption took many centuries. Even as late as the 14th century AD in Scotland there were still bodies of Celtic monks (Culdees) clinging to the old ways.” [1992:1]
In recent years there have been numerous attempts at and claims of a rediscovery of the spirituality of the ancient Christian tradition of Britain. Many of these have been manifestly spurious, based less on scholarship than on wishful thinking, and strongly contaminated by revivals of ancient heresies in (so-called) ‘New Age’ guise.
But all have been indicative of two currents in contemporary Christian spirituality: a search for an ancient Western tradition and a quest for an early Church spirituality which is relevant to English-speaking Western culture. Is there a Celtic spirituality which can be reconstructed ? If such a spiritual tradition can be re-discovered, does it hold the potential to be relevant in contemporary Western culture in a way that other, existing traditions may not be ?
This paper does not evaluate attempts at a rediscovery of Celtic Christianity, although, of necessity, some passing comments must be made on the possibility of such a rediscovery and the success or failure of some recent attempts. Nor does it seek to reach conclusions about the relevance of such a rediscovery (assuming it to be possible) to contemporary Christian spirituality. Rather, it seeks to explore why this search for Celtic spirituality has occurred. Given that contemporary representatives of Christian traditions deriving from the early centuries and having their origins from Rome to Antioch to Alexandria exist throughout the West, why has the quest been for a ‘lost tradition’ rather than an exploration of living traditions ?
This paper does not attempt to consider the so-called ‘Celtic Revival’, with its modern origins in the late nineteenth century, as a whole; entire books have been written on that subject. Nor does it endeavour to approach those most difficult of questions: was there a pan-Celtic Christianity ? and, if
so, what was it ? Essentially, these are not questions to which most of those who seek Celtic Christianity in the modern world apply their minds; it is assumed both that such a tradition existed, and that it can be known. Moreover, it is assumed with equal fervour that, when found, it will be relevant to contemporary Western Christians in a way that other Christian traditions are not.
A survey of book catalogues over the past ten years shows clearly that the interest in Celtic Christianity (and in things Celtic generally) has grown exponentially. Catalogues in the area of Christian publishing now include numbers of works on what is described as ‘Celtic spirituality’. Mainstream Christian bookshops frequently set aside shelves for such works. There are Celtic prayerbooks, volumes of the lives of the Celtic saints, texts on Celtic spirituality. Christian music publishers are increasingly issuing CDs of what is described as ‘Celtic spiritual music’ (now tending to rival in quantity the recent popular enthusiasm for Gregorian chant). A survey of the ‘New Age’ publishing field reveals an equal, if not greater, focus on things allegedly Celtic: everything from the Celtic Tarot cards to Celtic runes, Celtic ritual magic, Celtic witchcraft, Celtic astrology and beyond. And to undertake an Internet search on ‘Celtic’ requires enormous time and computer memory capacity, so vast is the amount of material available.
Within the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches in the British Isles, North America and Australia there has also been a resurgence of interest in ancient Celtic spirituality. Ancient centres of devotion to Celtic saints, many of them almost entirely unknown beyond their names, have undergone revival; volumes of their lives, souvenirs of their shrines and icons in traditional Orthodox style are now reasonably readily available. The names of blessed men and women – like the saints Caw, Ninian, Fingar, Ciaran, Iltyd, Dyfrig, Pabo, Cadoc, Gildas, Non and Nectan – long forgotten are now less unfamiliar and, of course, the names of their more famous peers – like the saints Alban, Patrick, Columba and Brendan – have become yet better known.
It is as if all those pilgrims who rushed to the ‘Mystic East’ have now returned in a search for the ‘Mystic West’.
What is it that has motivated those who have sought to rediscover ancient Celtic spirituality and to find what might be seen as the early British Church ?
1. A quest for an ancient tradition
The desire to rediscover Christianity of the first centuries has been growing in the latter half of the twentieth century. The Church of the Fathers, hardly a subject of widespread concern in the past, has now become of great interest. Once again, publishers’ catalogues and the Internet provide impressive evidence of this, as do the shelves of bookshops across all Christian traditions. As the mainstream churches have met the need (as they see it) to be relevant to society at the end of twentieth century, there has been a substantial movement towards those traditions which, on a superficial assessment, might be seen to be sublimely irrelevant to this age. There is a popular assumption that antiquity represents authenticity, and that the more ancient a spiritual tradition the more authentically spiritual it must be.
The search for the ancient and authentic Christian tradition of the British Isles is not, of course, a phenomenon only of the late twentieth century. The claim of a living continuity with what is sometimes described as ‘pre-Roman Catholic Christianity’ emerged at the time of the Reformation (a word loaded with partisan meaning) in England in the sixteenth century. It was as possible for the Anglican reformers to lay claim to be restoring a hitherto corrupted tradition as it was for the Catholics to claim that the hitherto continued perpetuation of the original lineage of Christianity in Britain was being corrupted. Both had an interest in representing themselves as the successors of the Celtic Church.
Likewise, during the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, there were those who sought to confirm the antiquity and thus authenticity of the Anglican Church by demonstrating its continuity from the time of the Celtic Church.
2. A quest for a culturally relevant tradition
Whereas in past decades it was almost assumed that the more foreign and exotic a spiritual tradition was, the more appealing it must be, there has recently been an upsurge of interest in that which is assumed to be neither foreign nor exotic. Of course, this is a naive and ill-informed assumption insofar as Celtic tradition is concerned. One effect of multiculturalism in countries like Australia has been to create in those from the dominant culture a sense (albeit rarely spoken) of cultural deprivation: if we can see and hear (and even taste and smell) the cultural traditions of other people, where do we find our own culture ? what does it look like, sound like, taste like ? This, in Christianity, has led to a search for a Christian tradition which is not ‘foreign’. This is not to argue that Christianity is or should be essentially a British phenomena; that ‘God is an Englishman’ may have been an article of faith for the more extreme British Imperialists, but the case for an intrinsically British Christianity is, to say the least, extraordinarily weak. But it is to suggest that those who may feel alienated by Christian traditions which are conspicuously foreign to their own cultural experience are likely to look for one which is less so.
3. A quest for the romantic
It is hardly to be wondered that many contemporary popular works on Celtic Christianity are illustrated either with designs from or in the striking style of Celtic calligraphy, or with reproductions of pre-Raphaelite paintings. The art reflects a sense of the romantic, the mythical, the numinous. Equally popular is the inclusion of references to the Druids and to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, not to mention the Holy Grail.
Of course, it is equally true that many Westerners who are drawn to Orthodoxy find (at least initially, but in some cases permanently) that the attraction is to the exotic, the mysterious (by which they sometimes means the incomprehensible), the light and the colour.
There is more than a faint hint of nostalgia in the popular quest to rediscover Celtic spirituality. The Oxford English Dictionary definition applies with particular accuracy: A form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one’s country or home …. regretful or wistful memory of an earlier time; sentimental yearning for [some period of] the past.
Both romanticism and nostalgia combine in the frequent quotation of William Blake¹s poem, Jerusalem, often mis-named ‘The Glastonbury Hymn’:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green ?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen ?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills ?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills ?
Blake concludes with a suitably utopian and idealistic vision:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till I have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
5. A quest for the spiritual (as against the organisational and social)
Institutional Christianity is, so the media repeatedly declares, in decline. It seems that the more relevant churches become to contemporary society, the more irrelevant they become to the contemporary quest for spirituality. The assumption that the Celtic Christian tradition was non- or even anti-institutional, unworldly, unconcerned about organizations and politics and canon law gives it an enormous appeal.
6. A quest for a practical tradition – praxis as against theoria
One of the factors leading pilgrims to rush to the feet of Oriental teachers in the sixties and seventies was a desire for some form of what might be described as ‘religious technology’. Most had been brought up in a society which assumed Christianity to involve not only vague beliefs, by even vaguer practices. Attending church, prayer (usually presented as no more than a verbal petition directed ‘out there’) and a basic code of moral behaviour were the essential requirements. Eastern teachers offered the promise of meditation, contemplation, prayer which involved a sense of communion with the Divine, life-changing spiritual practices and commitments which entered into the very basis of daily life. Ironically, as Western Christianity generally made it more and more easy to be a Christian by eliminating the traditional demands (on the assumption that people would leave if things were too hard), more and more people sought out traditions which imposed strict obligations and made heavy demands.
The search for a Western Christian practice is evidenced not only by the quest for the Celtic tradition, but equally by the amount of material now being published in early Christian traditions of prayer and spirituality. The number of books being published, not to mention courses being offered, on the practice of Christian spirituality has increased significantly in the past ten years.
7. A response to Orthodox ethnocentrism
The very existence of ethnically-specific Christian traditions presupposes that, somehow, there must be churches for specific ethnic groups. For those who would follow a Western tradition, of course, this creates difficulties. If one is not Greek, or Serbian, or Syrian, or Copt or Ethiopian, where is the Church to join ? If those whose ancestors were Greek, for example, are expected to be Greek Orthodox, where are people to go whose ancestors were, say, British ?
If some, at least, of those who have sought to find traditional Christian spirituality in Orthodoxy have been repelled by the inference (if not the actual declaration) that they are somehow genetically incapable of true spirituality, then the quest for a tradition within their own ‘race’ is understandable. If there was a great and ancient spiritual tradition amongst the peoples from whom they are descended (albeit one which has long been lost) then it is likely to be to that tradition that they will turn.
The popularity of references to concepts such as Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ and even to ‘race memory’ provides some exaggerated support for the quest for the ‘ethnically relevant’ spiritual tradition.
The quest for Celtic tradition has, predictably, involved elements of ethnocentrism, and, indeed, racism, and has sometimes been enmeshed with the strange ideology of British Israelitism.
8. A reaction against condemnations of ‘the West’
Christian Churches, particularly those not based on the West (and I would here have to locate Rome somewhere else!) have a strong inclination to condemn what is seen as the decadence, the materialism, the depravity and the general sinfulness of Western society and culture. Whether such condemnations are objectively justified is less relevant here than is the effect of such condemnations on those who live in (and probably enjoy) the societies and cultures concerned. If the West is condemned, how shall it be defended ? Perhaps finding an ancient spiritual tradition – at least as old and venerable as those whose representatives sound the condemnations – is as good a way as any.
9. A search for ‘our heritage’
The quest for individual and communal origins began to acquire great popularity in the seventies, and has continued since then. Romanticised in Alex Haley’s book, Roots, and put into practical effect by all sorts of people discovering their origins, undertaking genealogical research and adopting whatever they regarded as the appropriate traditions of religion, clothing and hairstyle, the search for ‘our heritage’ has continued to be powerful. As peoples from many ethnic and cultural traditions are encouraged to honour and to put into practice their cultural heritage, it may well be that those who are from the dominant culture will feel unsure of what it is they have to offer. The image of a multi-cultural day at a primary school may well be one on which those of British descent feel they can only sit on the sidelines and observe the ‘rich cultural heritage’ of others. How important, then, to rediscover the Celtic tradition.
The strong desire of those of British origin to find something which might be described as their traditional religious heritage can be seen in the popularity amongst tourists of Christian sites in the British Isles. The romantic attraction of Glastonbury with its (probably mistaken) associations with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Grail, and perhaps
more importantly, St Joseph of Arimathea, draws huge numbers of tourists, and substantial numbers of pilgrims, every year.
10. A quest for ‘the pure’
There is an element of utopianism in the quest for Celtic spirituality, an assumption that, somehow, the original Celtic tradition was devoid of all the faults that can be found in other forms of Christianity. Thus, Shirley Tolson can declare that Celtic Christianity
“was based on a church founded without martyrs, and one that neither inflicted suffering nor encouraged bitter theological disputes. It was marked by compassion and moderation in all its dealings. Above all, it was a religion of country people….” (1987:1)
And she concludes:
“At Whitby we traded that for a city-based religion, and in the cities people are amassed in crowds, to be manipulated, no matter how benevolently. Now that we are realising the deadly dangers of our mass technological society, it it time, I think, to turn back and consider the humanity of the men and women of the Celtic Church”. [1987:11]
And as Joseph Kelly notes:
“[Celtic] Christianity has been of special interest to those who have interpreted it as a form of nonecclesiastical or at least noninstitutional religion. Early partisans saw the Celts as proto-Protestants, rejecting the works and pomp of Rome, but modern devotees concentrate more on supposed celtic individualism, harmony with the natural world, and a constant awareness of the supernatural and mysterious.” (in Ferguson (Ed):1990:189]
Thus, Celtic spirituality comes to represent heroic individualism (in response, for example, to the politically motivated drive to conformity represented by Rome, as seen at – in the popular interpretations, if not the historical reality – the Synod of Whitby). It is equally seen to represent an un- or even anti-dogmatic Christian spirituality, distinct from the conformist dogmatism of the major Christian churches.
11. A tendency to eclecticism
Because relatively little is known of Celtic Christianity, it lends itself to re-invention, re-construction and transformation. In popular spiritual quests, eclecticism is often seen as a great virtue, and elements from different (even conflicting) traditions are brought together. This is, sadly, a characteristic of some of what might best be called ‘New Age Celtic Christianity’. Thus, to take one example, Toulson (1987), while trying to re-construct what she calls ‘the Christianity we lost’ draws on material from sources as diverse as Hinduism and the Gnostics, Robert Graves (for his theory of ‘the white goddess’), the story of the magician Merlin from the court of the legendary King Arthur, and Gautama Buddha.
Eclecticism in spiritual tradition provides the inestimable advantage of relative freedom from discipline; those aspects of the tradition which are not attractive can be done without, and appealing elements from other traditions can readily be grafted on.
Almost any general bookshop in the English-speaking world will have something on Celtic Christianity in stock: not scholarly studies, but popular, easily accessible and readily comprehensible works.
Was there a distinctive Celtic Christianity ? ‘Distinctive’ in the sense of being substantially different from that, say, of the rest of Western Europe? The scholarly answer appears to be in the negative. But the question ‘Was there a distinctive Celtic Christianity ? is different to ‘Was there a distinctive Celtic spirituality ?’. One might argue that the Christianity, for example, of all the Oriental Orthodox Churches is the same Christianity: Armenian Christianity is not a different Christianity to Coptic Christianity. But it would surely be a mistake to suggest that the spirituality (not to mention the forms of liturgy and prayer) through which that common Christianity is expressed in those so visibly different traditions were not significantly different.
There is abundant evidence to demonstrate the existence of Celtic Christianity: prayer texts, liturgical forms (many of them variations on the Gallican Liturgy), architecture, information about church government, accounts of the monastic life and the calendar.
Material evidence of impressive form shows further the reality of a Celtic spirituality: the Book of Kells (probably 8th century), the Stowe Missal (dated from the 6th to the 10th century), the Bangor Antiphonary (dated between AD680 and AD691), the Ardagh Chalice (seventh to eight century), the Gallarus Oratory (probably 8th century) and much more.
There clearly was a Celtic tradition of spirituality (or, perhaps more accurately, traditions of Celtic spirituality under which lay certain common forms and themes). The question of the extent to which this can now be rediscovered remains unclear as far as scholars are concerned, but a matter of relative ease for those who, in modern times, have claimed to rediscover that tradition.
It has been the quest for the Celtic tradition of spirituality which has been the motivation for what might be described as the substantial, as opposed to the shallow, quests for a revival of the Celtic tradition. One has only to consider such a monumental study as Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun. A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996) to discover something of the richness of what is known of the traditional ritual calendar (both the Christian and the underlying pre-Christian) that is the basis for the British religious heritage.
Peter Berresford Ellis in his study, The Celtic Inheritance (1992), concludes with these pessimistic words:
“The real heritage of the Celtic Church which [the ancestors of the present Celtic communities] evolved and stubbornly defended through the early centuries of the Christian epoch has not been passed on.” (156)
The quest for an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition, and attempts to resurrect, revive or reconstruct (or even to re-invent) it in modern times is indicate of a deep longing within English-speaking Western culture for a form of Christianity which is seen to have its roots in British history and to have meaning within that cultural context, a Christianity which is seen to transcend the many barriers – from excessive ‘relevance’ and compromise with the world, to excessive ‘foreignness’ – which apparently make most of the existing mainstream traditions unattractive.
That so little (relatively) is known of Celtic Christianity, its traditions of prayer and spirituality, ensures that it is a fertile field within which all manner of interesting – if sometimes noxious – plants may be cultivated. But the quest for an ancient Western Christian tradition, one which relates to all that is easily identified as Western culture, suggests both a yearning and a failure. The yearning is that of those who seek to feel spiritually ‘at home’. The failure is that of those churches who hold the traditions of early Christianity imprisoned in ethnically-defined constraints which make them essentially inaccessible to those who would follow the traditions of Christian spirituality without the necessity for some form of ethnic or cultural reconstruction.
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FATHER GREGORY TILLETT