John Bell at Re-Imagine Church in Birmingham
What is the origin of Celtic Christianity?
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It appears that the gospel had reached our islands before the Romans turned up, but it’s unclear how. In fact, up to a dozen different suggestions have been made, from personal visits by Jesus, Andrew, Joseph of Arimathea or Paul, to missionary endeavours by, among others, the Galatians and the Coptic Church in Egypt, to the more mundane (and probably correct) activities of merchants and soldiers. The fact is that, by the time Augustine (another one!) arrived on these shores in the 6th Century AD and was proclaimed the first Archbishop of Canterbury, there was already an indigenous form of the faith known as Celtic Christianity.
When I learnt this my heart sank a little. Wasn’t Celtic Christianity a bit flaky, a touch of the New Age, heavy on mysticism and sacred spaces? It seems that modern interpretations owe as much to the traditions and views of the intervening years as they do to the actual events in the early Church years. Further investigation revealed that early Celtic Christianity was marked by its fierce independence, its missionary zeal, its centres of education, its reliance on the Bible rather than traditions of men and its own way of calculating the date of Easter! All of these are significant pointers to a faith a lot purer and Biblical than that constructed by the Greek Church Fathers.
There’s a tiny island called Iona, off the coast of Scotland, a popular tourist destination, particularly for those of a religious bent. The trouble is that your religion is going to have to be rather bent in order to appreciate the spirituality currently on offer there. It features what is known as the Iona Community, diplomatically known as an ecumenical establishment, where you can explore alternative creation ... and recreation, Celtic and male spirituality and Palestinian liberation issues. All good examples of reconstructed Celtic Christianity.
Which is all a bit of a shame, as Iona was one of the first places in the whole of these British Isles to really experience authentic Biblical Christianity, which spread throughout Scotland. One man brought this Gospel, this Good News untainted by the Greek additions, to Iona. He was an Irishman called Columba, who arrived in AD 563, after a dispute over a manuscript, which led to a kerfuffle. It was said that his arrival on the island was a personal act of penance for the blood that was shed in the dispute.
Columba established a Christian community on Iona that was very different from what was becoming the norm in Europe in the 6th Century AD, as it entered the Dark Ages. He had already planted forty one similar communities in Ireland, but none of them would have such far-reaching influence as this one on Iona.
Here was real community, under the benevolent direction of the Abbot, of whom Columba was the first. Members of this community were allowed to marry, unlike their counterparts on mainland Europe, who were constricted by the Platonism that had infected their faith. They were extremely Bible literate and were taught to memorise whole passages of Scripture. They also only baptised those who professed faith and celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus according to the Hebrew calendar.
From this base a relentless period of evangelism was launched, leading to the creating of around sixty similar communities in Scotland before Columba’s death. Much has been written about Columba, most of it by his biographer, the ninth Abbot of Iona, who wrote many years later. Such was the obvious hero-worship, that it may be difficult to separate truth from legend, so you have to take some of the following with a pinch of salt, mindful that Columba must have been extremely remarkable just on the basis of his achievements.
He was profoundly persuasive and a charismatic leader, who slept with a rock for a pillow, had a healing and deliverance ministry, was as bold as Elijah in his confrontations with the Druids and was at one with nature, even rebuking the Loch Ness monster on one occasion (the monster hasn’t been the same since!)
But the arrival of Augustine to these shores, within a year of Columba’s death, was to signal the beginning of the end of this independent expression of the Christian faith and Britain was eventually sucked into the paganised Roman Catholic system.
So what happened to the pure faith of the apostles in the meantime? There surely had to be a surviving remnant somewhere?