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Celtic Christianity 2

The rest of my notes for this Sunday’s foray into Celtic Christianity. Céad Míle Fáilte!

The Catholicity of Celtic Christianity

In many particulars, Celtic Christianity was not unique or (from a Roman point of view) objectionable. In particular, two important elements of “Celtic Christianity” should be noted.

(1) Orthodox, Trinitarian theology. The Celtic Christian movement was theologically orthodox, with a heavy emphasis on the Trinity. They loved and venerated the Virgin Mary and emphasized the Incarnation of Christ. British bishops attended various church of the 4th and 5th centuries.

(2) Liturgical Worship. Although their particular forms varied from Roman norms (and from each other), Celtic Christians worshiped liturgically, in Latin, with all the ceremony one would have associated with the Roman or Eastern churches of the same period. Celtic monks prayed the liturgy of the Hours, maintained a liturgical calendar replete with saints days and other observances. They even had a Rosary apparently very similar to that used by the Eastern Orthodox.

Distinctive Features of Celtic Christianity

What, then, sets Celtic Christianity apart? Since 9 is considered a spiritually significant number in Celtic cultures, let me suggest nine points of distinction—although the first five go a long way toward explaining the rest.

(1) Monastic impulse. Owing to their strong influence from the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria, Celtic Christianity embraced strict asceticism. They were known for their austere lifestyle and penitential extremes, which were often self-inflicted.

(2) Decentralization. Celtic Christianity apparently lacked strong, centralized institutions. Therefore, we can’t really talk about “the Celtic Church” as if it were a monolithic entity. It was more of a movement than an institution. Geographic isolation led to liturgical diversity, seen, for example, in its persistence in celebrating Lent and Pascha according to their own ancient calendrical system.

(3) Continuity with the Pre-Christian Past. The Celtic missionaries “baptized” many pagan practices. They engaged people who already had a religion, and affirmed and built on every indigenous feature they could. Celtic priests had a distinctive tonsure that imitated that of the druids and at least in some locales carried a distinctive rod or staff, again in imitation of the druids.

(4) Creation Spirituality. Celtic Christianity lived in some ways closer to nature and its creatures than more urbanized forms of Christianity to the south. “Immanence” was emphasized over “transcendence.”

(5) Optimistic Doctrine of Human Nature. Celtic Christianity affirmed an essential goodness of human nature. It’s up for grabs how thoroughly “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian” Celtic Christianity was. They may have been closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than Pelagianism, but that is a debate for another day. I wish I could find the source of this aphorisim: “If Latin babies are born blind and Pelagian babies are born with 20/20 vision, then Greek babies are born in need of spectacles.”

(6) Openness to the “Excluded Middle.” Celtic Christianity engaged the “middle-level” issues that most drive our lives: the unknowns of the past, crises of the present, and uncertainties of the near future that pre-industrial peoples navigated by reference to spells, omens, spirits, ghosts, etc. Celtic Christians apparently invented a multitude of brief daily rituals and prayers for everyday life: milking a cow, kindling a fire, etc.

(7) Emphasis on Education. Owing to the cultural heritage of pagan bards, Celtic Christians valued great stories, art, and poetry. They used analogies and poetry as vehicles for evangelization, not just logical proofs and reasoning. They educated many noted Christian scholars and elevated book illumination to a high art form.

(8) Trajectory toward Gender Equality. Celtic culture did not have full gender equality, no matter how much some might wish this were so. They did, however, express leanings in that direction. Women had more equal footing in ancient Irish law, thus had more equal say in church government.

(9) Missionary Impulse. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the Irish church was the most important source of Christian missionaries in western Europe.



  1. It is so easy to criticise Celtic Christianity, but you miss every essential point. 1. Not everybody was a monk; how else would the population of Ireland have continued to grow? Unlike the East, which after a time did not allow missions without first building a large church, the simpler monastic model was capable of teaching first, and then building. 2. Although decentralized, those monasteries were not little. Bangor had about 900 monks. One monastery could have allegiance of half of Ireland. The model you object to is that people were allegiant to their Abbot-Bishop, not Parish-Bishop; i.e., they were based on lines of Communion, not based on property boundaries. 3. There was no wholesale continuity with pre-Christians; perhaps more repudiation than the Romans who included Saturnalia and the Februarian Lustrations in their calendars. Celtic new year became a second All-Saint’s day (with the All-Saints one week after Pentecost retained), but this was a teaching moment to honor the Saints. Otherwise, all other “Druid” practices were gone, and the Druid center of Tara destroyed by Divine intervention. The “Tonsure” which you (and Wilfred of York) objected to was in fact, if you look at any Byzantine icons, the more ancient Byzantine (and early Christian) tonsure of the front part of the hair (ear to ear, a little shaved). The “Calendar” which Wilfred objected to was the Calendar of St. Peter, brought by St. Patrick, which had been used in Rome until some Alexandrians changed the calendar, Rome adopted the Alexandrian calendar, and then enforced it everywhere (and led to St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne’s objections). 4 and 5. The Irish were very devoted to “transcendence.” Nowhere, in all the documents we have read in Latin, Irish, or anything else, did they forget about God’s grace, or think that the human being was in some way capable of reaching to heaven by God’s grace. Pelagius, although having the name “Britto,” taught in Africa, where Augustine rightly objected to him in many ways. But St. Patrick rooted out every Pelagian, not allowing them to serve or continue, and the entire heresy died there, and was codified in an Ecumenical Council (because it is essentially the same heresy as Nestorianism, and was written about in John Cassian’s books, “On the Incarnation Against Nestorius,” which was read into an Ecumenical Council. The objection to the Irish objection to Augustine’s radical “original guilt” and “predestination to damnation” is the same objection as the Eastern Orthodox, and completely explained in the Feast of the Holy Innocents December 28th, which allows infants created by God to be named Holy Martyrs, witnesses to the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This Feast day is celebrated in every church, Eastern or Western, to this day. The Irish did believe in original sin; in every prayer the same penitential attitudes, perhaps more so, appear in Irish prayers. 6. What middle? If we are to be forgiven for our debts, as our Lord’s Prayer suggests, we must be able to examine every moment of our lives. 7. See St. Basil the Great (Eastern Saint, Feast day January 1st), who wrote a treatise on what to do with a pagan education. Can there be any sane person who is against education? The illiteracy and lawlessness of Europe after the barbarians took over is a testimony of why so many Irish missions came to teach both Christianity and also literacy in continental Europe: with no law to refer to, any sort of abuse was practiced. When Roman law, not even a Christian law, was rediscovered in Europe, then Europe was able to begin to function as a society. Poetry and music can also provide hymns; these reach more people and teach more than sermons, note the many favorite Christmas Carols. 8 and 9. Education was afforded to all, and it is the Irish literary tradition, not the Roman tradition of illiteracy keeping all knowledge to a few, that Europe inherits. To the Father Unbegotten, the the Son Only-Begotten, and to the Holy Spirit from Father proceeding.


  2. Deaconess Elizabeth, I’m afraid I don’t follow you at all. I’m not intending to criticize Celtic Christianity in the least. I don’t think I ever implied that ALL Celtic Christians were monks, nor objected to the Celtic mode of tonsure, nor condemned the Celtic objection to the Augustinian view of original sin, etc., etc. Have I done that poor a job of presenting a generally appreciative survey of Celtic Christianity that you have taken personal offense at it as if it were an attack? If so, I am deeply sorry.


  3. Volpeculus says:

    What do you think of Anglican claims to being distant successors to Celtic Christianity? (Note: I’m Anglican, and not attempting to start a flame war. 🙂 )


  4. Welcome, Volpeculus! I expect the key word is “distant.” For certain values of “distant,” I’m sure the case could be made that Anglicanism has a right to claim some sort of Celtic Christian heritage. I think the Synod of Whitby would indicated, however, that this is not the predominant component.

    You might also want to check out this post: I’m Not Crossing the Tiber, but My Toes Are in the Thames.


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