Early History of the Celtic Church
Celtic Christianity is a term given to the Christian Church of the Celtic peoples occupying the British Isles, spanning what we now know as England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Many scholars believe that Celtic Christianity in the British Isles had its roots in Asia Minor and not Roman Christianity. Celtic Christianity around 400 AD was roughly divided into three branches; Gallic (French) Celtic Christianity, Galatian Celtic Christianity, and British Celtic Christianity. According to historians, British Celtic Christianity was heavily influenced by Galatian Celtic Christianity which was a product of the missionary labors of the Apostle Paul.
Given this rich apostolic heritage, Celtic Christianity had preserved much of the purity of apostolic doctrine. Some of their most fundamental beliefs were;
- The absolute authority of the Bible over tradition, the rulings of councils and the opinions of men,
- The home and the family being the center and strength of the church, thus nullifying the practice of celibacy among clergy,
- The Ten Commandments as still binding upon the people of God and therefore the observance of the Bible Sabbath.
The church had a strong system of government and a deeply spiritual clergy who were well respected by the people for their genuine faith and piety. By 400 AD the church, though poor, had about 30-40 bishops and a significant number of pastors in its ranks. In 408 AD, Alaric and his Visigoth army besieged Rome and sacked it in 410 AD, thus setting in motion the ultimate and inevitable fall of the Western Roman Empire. In order to defend the provinces that lay closer to the nerve center of the Empire, Honorius, the Emperor at the time, recalled Imperial legions stationed in the Islands of Britannia, the Roman province south of Hadrian’s wall.
The evacuation of the Roman troops left the Celtic people of Britannia defenseless and faced with the imminent threat of invasion they rallied together and managed to fend off their most immediate threats. This process not only rallied the people together but brought with it a newfound sense of national identity and freedom leading them to proclaim independence from the Roman Empire by expelling the Roman magistrates, appointed by the emperor to administer the forms of government.
Honorius quickly and astutely gave up the territory without a fight and what ensued was the setting up of an independent form of government. The government was led by the clergy of the Celtic church, the synod of the church being used as a national legislative assembly, presided over by the Celtic bishops and attended by the princes of the kingdom who were delegates. The synod then became a place where conflicts were resolved, alliances formed and policy formulated thus, ostensibly, giving the Celtic church a tremendous amount of influence over the people and the ruling nobility. In addition to this composition of the legislative assembly, there was appointed a moderator, to help resolve issues in the event of a stalemate, this position was occupied by a Director or a Pendragon.
This influence was not exacted by force or tyranny but it was exerted upon the people as a direct result of the godly and pious lives of the leadership of the church, thus cementing in the minds of the people, not only the truth of what they preached but also of its power to fit these men to be spiritual and civil leaders among the people. The balance of power between church and state is always a precarious position to navigate and we do not know very much about how this balance was navigated equitably but we do know that unlike the monks and priests of the Roman church, the clergy of Celtic Christendom more closely resembled the likeness of Christ. The legislative state of affairs continued from 409-449 AD
and was only dissolved with the invasion of the fierce and warlike Saxons who brought with them their own system of government and their own religion. When you compare the timelines used by historians like Bede (Ecclesiastical History of the English) and Gibbon (Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) it paints a fascinating picture of the progress, influence, and subjugation of Celtic Christianity in the British Isles. Both Gibbon and Bede mark the arrival of the Angles and Saxons around the 450-500 AD mark with other historians generally corroborating these dates. The general consensus among scholars seems to be that the Saxons conquered Britain gradually, over a period of time, rather than en masse in a single blow.
Added to this is the information pieced together from more contemporary historians like Wilkerson (Truth Triumphant) in his description of the various Celtic missionaries actively serving the interests during this time. Given all this, the story of the Celtic church in the early Christian era seems to be one of great influence, great simplicity, and great power.
The setting up of the post-Roman system of government would have put the church and its leaders at the epicenter of social, political and spiritual life. We know from Bede that Dinooth who was the head of the training center at Bangor was the director of the church in England and Wales which means he was most likely the Director or Pendragon who presided over the ecclesiastical and legislative synods. Given the fact that the Saxon invasions would have been taking place during his lifetime it is safe to assume that much of the legislative authority would have been stripped from these assemblies but that they would have retained all their ecclesiastical power and influence over much of the people.
Though the invasion of the Saxons brought with it the rise of Paganism, we know that the church was not wholly extinguished and men like Aidan, Columba, Columbanus, and others rose to the challenge of evangelizing their pagan Saxon brethren. However, the winds of change were blowing across the channel with the conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks to Roman Catholicism, causing a shift in the monopoly of power on the European Continent. The only power left unsubdued were the Saxons, but this was remedied by a few well-timed marriages. Bertha, Princess of the Franks was married off to Ethelbert of Kent and she opened the doors of the Heptarchy to Augustine and his conquering band of spiritual worthies in 597 AD.
Augustine immediately set about establishing a strong Catholic presence in the court of Ethelbert and used it as a launching pad to spread Catholicism through the heptarchy. What could not be established by the means of simple evangelisation, Pope Gregory I accomplished through the medium of marital bliss. Paulinus, Bishop of Kent was then despatched to Evangelise Edwin of Bernicia, who would later coalesce the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira under the banner of Northumbria. In this fashion, the game of spiritual cat and mouse was played between the feline artifice and aggression of Rome and the more humble and decidedly persecuted missionaries of Celtic Christendom.
The climax came at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD when Oswy convened the heads of the Celtic and Roman churches to settle the dispute surrounding the date for the celebration of Easter. At the council, the Celtic church, led by Coleman, acquiesced to adopting the Papal date, triggering a chain of events that would lead to the Celtic church being absorbed into the ranks of the Papacy. Soon after the Synod at Whitby, Coleman and other Celtic leaders retreated to Iona and Pope Vitalian installed Theodore of Tarsus as Archbishop of Canterbury thus cementing the victory.The forward march of Catholicism through England was soon halted by the invasion of the Danes who brought with them a fresh wave of Paganism through the British Isles.
The history of the Celtic church offers a fascinating glimpse into the power of true Bible religion and its impact on the social, moral and political fabric of a nation. It is a precursor to the great revolutionary power of the reformation that was to sweep through Europe, bringing with it the same kind of thought leadership and influence.
In contrast the history of the Papacy is an equally fascinating narration of how political intrigue and religious influence can coalesce into a unified machine that has the power to conquer the world, not through force of arms, though that method was used continuously, but rather through the medium of psychological persuasion, after all hell, was one of the most compelling arguments in favour of conversion that the Papacy ever invented and it worked marvelously.
If history repeats itself, and it does, the most compelling takeaway from this particular episode would be the distinction between true and false Christianity and the forces that drove both movements relentlessly forward. Students take note, you may need to use these facts to discern truth from error sooner than you think.