Ancient Celtic Christianity and its Uses and Abuses Today

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Ancient Celtic Christianity
2.1. The early years of St. Patrick
2.2. St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland
2.3. The missions to the Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxons of England
2.4. The synod of Whitby

3. What is different about Celtic Christianity?
3.1. The structure and formation of Celtic Christianity
3.2. Distinctive Celtic teachings
3.3. Celtic Christianity’s prayer practices

4. The rediscovery of Celtic Christianity in the 19th and 20th Century

5. Celtic Christianity today
5.1. The Celtic Catholic Church
5.2. The Lindisfarne Community in Ithaca, NY
5.3. The Cambrian Episcopal Church of the Grail
5.4. The Community of Aidan and Hilda
5.5. The Celtic Orthodox Christian Church
5.6. Private Websites and Spiritual Books

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Celtic sells. If you look into a British bookstore or type in the word “Celt” or “Celtic” into an internet search machine, you will find thousands of matches. I did the test and typed the words “Celtic” and afterwards “Jesus Christ” into Google. Google came up with approximately 82.500.000 matches for “Celtic” and only 58.300.000 for “Jesus Christ”. Many of the links belong to Celtic music bands or Celtic arts, but still a big amount leads to Celtic Spirituality pages.

What is it that makes Celtic Spirituality so immensely popular today? What are people looking for when they buy Celtic Christian resource and prayer books, register with Celtic Christian web communities or seek out churches that offer “Celtic services”? And the most important question of all – Does the “Celtic Boom” have anything to do with Christianity or is it some kind of New Age mysticism?

Let us have a look at ancient Celtic Christianity and then find out to what extent so-called modern Celtic Christian still share the same ideas, traditions and practices.

2. Ancient Celtic Christianity

2.1. The early years of St. Patrick

In the fourth century A.D., Patrick, later one of the most important saints of Celtic Christianity, was born in northeast England. He belonged to the “Britons”, one of “Celtic” peoples populating the British Isles at the time. During the Roman occupation of England, his wealthy family turned culturally more Roman than Celtic. Patrick learned Latin as his first language and dressed like a Roman. His family was Christian and his grandfather even a priest, but Patrick never took any interest in faith and became only a nominal Christian.

At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by Celtic pirates from Ireland, brought there and sold as a slave. The pirates sold him to a druid called Milliuc. The following six years, Patrick was put to work herding Milliuc’s cattle.[1]

During the years of enslavement, Patrick underwent several changes. First, he experienced what theologians call the “natural revelation” when he was in the wilderness herding the cattle. He started to sense the presence of God everywhere in nature. Second, he began to understand the Irish Celtic people, their language and their culture. Third, he started to love his captors and felt they were his people.

After six years he could flee and return to England. He then trained for the priesthood in France and England and became a parish priest in England. One night when he was almost 50 years old, he had a dream about his former Irish captors. In the dream they called out to him to come to them. When he woke up the next morning, he interpreted this dream as his call to bring Christianity to the Irish Celtic people. He became history’s first missionary bishop and set out to Ireland in A.D. 432.[2]

2.2. St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland

The ancient Roman Christian leaders thought that two things were necessary for a successful mission. First, the addressed population had to be civilized enough already to become Christian. Second, once they became Christian, they had to read and write Latin and adopt the Roman way of “doing church”. Since the Irish Celtic people were regarded as “barbarians”, Patrick’s mission was widely assumed to be impossible.

The Roman Church leaders did not understand that Patrick had many advantages on his side. He spoke the Irish language and understood the people and their customs. No other religion had been brought to Ireland so far, the Irish were not suspicious of the Christian missionaries. Many of Christianity’s central features were attractive to the Irish because they fit in with their former philosophical beliefs and rituals. The Irish were fascinated by the number three for example, which made them open to the Christian’s triune God. They also liked the heroism and legends of the Christian stories.

Patrick set out to Ireland with a dozen people and travelled from settlement to settlement to talk of Christianity, pray, read the scriptures and set up churches with the local people. Willing people were invited into the group of missionaries to worship with them and afterwards to reach out to their families and friends. The Christian communities that emerged this way were mainly indigenous, made by the Irish for the Irish. Patrick would spend several months with the newly founded community until he moved on. Meanwhile he would ordain one of the local people to be the priest of the new church and leave a textbook with basic instructions of how to run the church behind.

During his mission, Patrick founded about 700 churches and ordained about 1000 priests. Most of Ireland’s tribes became Christian within his lifetime.[3]

2.3. The missions to the Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxons of England

In A.D. 563, an Irish Celtic mission left Ireland to bring the gospel to the Picts of Scotland. The mission was led by Columba and accompanied by about one hundred bishops, priests, deacons and students. The group settled on the island of Iona at Scotland’s west coast which served as the primary base for the missions into the Scottish settlements. The Celtic Christians followed Patrick’s example and learned the language and adapted to the culture of the Picts. The mission was extraordinarily successful and within a century the Picts were turned Christian.

In the 7th century, the British Isles were invaded by Germanic people known as the “Anglo-Saxons”. In 633, another missionary team led by Aidan left Iona to bring the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons. Aidan founded a monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne. From there, missionary teams travelled south into the pagan areas. Again they tried to learn the language and to understand the culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxons were not converted to Christianity easily. It took almost a century just to convert the kings and the aristocracy.

All in all, the missions led by Patrick, Columba and Aidan founded about one thousand monastic communities across the British Isles.

At the same time, another mission was started in the south of England. It was led by the Roman librarian Augustine and 40 Roman monks. They taught the local people to do church the Roman way.

2.4. The synod of Whitby

In A.D. 664 the Roman and the Celtic missions clashed at the Synod of Whitby. The local King Oswiu was to decide which approach of doing church should become the official one. The two wings argued over seemingly superficial issues: First, the Celtic Church used a more ancient way to calculate the date of Easter and thus celebrated it on different days than the Romans. Second, the Celtic priests and monks fashioned a different hairstyle than the Romans. The real issues of course ran deeper than just hairstyle and the date for Easter. The different way of calculating the date for Easter and the different hairstyle showed that the Celtic Christians had not adopted the Roman practices. The Romans wanted their practices and cultural forms to be followed in all churches. The Celtic Christians’ position was to set up indigenous churches that truly reflected the lifestyle of the local people.

The Romans did not practice a particular kind of racism against the Celts; they were just convinced that their way was the only right way.

In the following decades, more and more monastic communities were instructed to adopt the Roman forms. The more they lost their Celtic habits, the less they engaged in missionary activities. In the end, most of the monastic communities turned into closed monasteries with monks being concerned about saving their own souls.

By the end of the first millennium, the Celtic Church as such had become history. Many of the Celtic traditions though were passed on orally and survived until today.

3. What is different about Celtic Christianity?

Ancient Celtic Christianity is different to ancient Roman Christianity and to our major denominations today in several ways.

First, the structure and formation of Celtic Christianity is different from our parish church model. Second, the Celtic Christians theological views differ from the views of the main churches today. Third, Celtic Christians had a very special way of worshipping and structuring their daily life by prayers.

3.1. The structure and formation of Celtic Christianity

Early Celtic Christianity was more a movement than an institution. Most of the buildings were provisional, there were no big churches as we are used to today. The “church” in the sense or the Celtic Irish denoted the Christian community and not a building.

After St. Patrick’s initial mission to Ireland, a new type of church displaced the parish churches as Celtic Christianity’s dominant form of Christian community. The author of the book “The Celtic Way of Evangelism”, George Hunter III, calls this type a “monastic community”. The parish church model did not really fit the Irish life since it presupposed organized towns and villages. Ireland at the time did not have any towns or established boundaries but only temporary tribal settlements. In facing the problems that were brought up by the unorganized tribal life, Patrick’s successors adapted the idea of the monastery to Ireland. The result however was much different to what we normally understand by the term monastery.[4]

Celtic monasteries were not set up for monks and nuns to live a quiet life apart from the rest of the world. They were built with the intention to save other people’s souls and were set up at accessible places close to roads and settlements. They did include some monks and nuns but where much more diverse than traditional monasteries. They included a wide range of people: monks, nuns, priests, teachers, scholars, children, families and craftsmen. The leader was a lay abbot or lay abbess. Since the role of the women was perceived differently in Celtic Communities, a female leader was quite common.

A monastic community could comprise more than one thousand people. The people did all kinds of different tasks. Next to worshipping and study, which they all did, they taught their children, copied and illuminated old books, herded cows and sheep, made cloth, cooked for the community, cared for the sick, did artwork or simply cleaned the common rooms. Community worship happened mostly twice a day in the monastery’s chapel. The monastic communities also served as missionary stations and prepared people to go out and turn more tribes Christian. Visitors were very welcome in the monastic communities. The guest house was usually the central piece of the monastery and was spacious enough for between 20 and 50 guests.

The Celtic monastic communities produced a less individualistic and more community-oriented approach to the Christian life. Every person had the chance to live as a Christian and act out several role models in the community.

3.2. Distinctive Celtic teachings

The first prominent Celtic Christian theologian was Pelagius. He was born in the second half of the fourth century as a Celtic Briton. His early writings contained themes that would develop into some of the main characteristics of the Celtic tradition over the following centuries.

One typical mark of Pelagius’ spirituality is the belief that God can be seen in everything around us. In a letter he wrote:

“Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent… When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is

present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.”[5]

Because Pelagius saw God as present within all living things, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbour as ourselves to mean loving not only our human neighbour but all the life forms around us. Celtic Christians were very careful to love and protect nature and to only take from nature what they really needed.

Pelagius also set the life of Jesus as a goal for living. He wanted the people to live a life of “wisdom”. By that he meant principles as respecting and loving other people and doing good deeds even in return for evil. He emphasized that keeping ourselves from doing wrong is not worth anything if we do not do good things instead.

His second conviction was that all creation is essentially good and that in the newborn child the image of God can be seen. Every child is conceived and born in God and even the sexual dimension of conceiving children is God-given. This belief stood in sharp contrast to the thinking of the Roman church. They thought that humanity is essentially evil and sinful. The sinfulness is transmitted from one generation to the next. From birth we lack the image of God and it can only be given to us by the sacrament of baptism.

Pelagius did not deny the presence of evil, but he thought that it only covered up our essential goodness and could be “removed” or lifted again by prayer. Evil was more like an occupying army that had to be fought to set free the goodness planted by God. The redemption of Christ is such a freeing of the good that is in us.[6]

To the young woman Demetrias he wrote:

“First then, you ought to measure the good of human nature by reference to its Creator… If it is he who has made the world good, exceeding good, how much more excellent do you suppose that he has made humanity… fashioned in his own image and likeness… Learn to appreciate the dignity of our human nature.”[7]


[1] See New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Patrick:

[2] See George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, pp. 13-15.

[3] See George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, pp. 16 – 17.

[4] See George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 27.

[5] Robert van de Weyer (ed.), The Letters of Pelagius, p. 71.

[6] See J. Phillip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, pp. 14-15.

[7] J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, p. 15.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Ancient Celtic Christianity and its Uses and Abuses Today
University of Education Freiburg im Breisgau
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Diese Hauptseminararbeit ist im Rahmen der europäischen Kulturstudien für das Europalehramt entstanden.
Ancient, Celtic, Christianity, Uses, Abuses, Today
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Kerstin Hetmann (Author), 2006, Ancient Celtic Christianity and its Uses and Abuses Today, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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