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.