Celtic Christianity

Celtic Christianity falls into two clear categories: historical and modern revival attempts.The Celts are the peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, parts of England and Brittany. The Celtic Church was unique to these peoples, and is reputed to be one of the oldest in the Christian world.  Tradition relates that it was founded by Saint Joseph of Arimathea in 37 AD, in Britain, in a place which is now called Glastonbury.

Another disciple, Saint Aristobulos, arrived in the British Isles in 63 AD. By all accounts, the Celtic Church remained free of all temporal power and poor. Monasticism played a capital role and gave us Saints Patrick, Brigit, Columba, Brendan, Samson, Amand, Fare, Columban and many others. Many important fragments remain of the Celtic liturgy, and the Use of Sarum, despite being a Norman variant of the Roman Rite, was to some extent influenced by the Celtic tradition.

This article seems to give an interesting account of the history, doctrines and traditions of Celtic Christianity. I have done no independent study of Celtic Christianity. We learn that the Gregorian Reforms (1150–80) were largely responsible for absorbing the Celtic Christians into the Roman mainstream.

It seems an attractive aspect of “Northern Catholicism”.

In modern times, a number of communities have sprung up inspired by a more or less authentic understanding of what Celtic Christianity was like according to available sources. The one that springs to my mind is the “non-canonical”Celtic Orthodox Church.

For others, I suggest going to Google and typing in “Celtic Christianity”, “Celtic Catholic Church”, “Celtic Orthodox Church” and Celtic-just-about-anything-else. You will certainly discover a number of New Age and “inclusive” communities, which I am not recommending in any way. There are even some real kooks out there, so discern and use your brains!

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25 Responses to Celtic Christianity

  1. One should also do a study on Pelagius and Pelagianism, with of course Augustine and Augustianianism. I would recommend myself, Peter Brown’s book and bio, Augustine of Hippo. It is still the classic here!

  2. Dale says:

    Looked under the French group; their liturgy seems to be the self-invented “gallican rite” of the Russian Orthodox Church. One sincerely doubts that in the 6th century Celtic bishops were blessing with imperial byzantine Dikerion and Trikerion, which are late introductions even in the Byzantine rite. And that is only the tip of the iceberg with their liturgical mish-mash.

    • I’m not impressed by those “Gallican” and “Celtic” rites either. Msgr Gamber collected just about everything that could be found on the Gallican rite, and probably also the Stowe Missal and others. There are also interesting documents that were published by the Henry Bradshaw Society. But would they have been enough to effect a practical revival of the Celtic rite? I have no idea.

      At least with Sarum, we have full texts and rubrics, and a certain comparative guidance from the Dominican rite and pre-Vatican II usage in Normandy.

      As I said in my posting, many attempts to revive Celtic Christianity are questionable.

  3. ed pacht says:

    Though my command of French is almost nil, I was able to discern that the French group actually represents two separate things. In Switzerland there are two parishes listed, of which one is indicated as EOC (Eglise Orthodoxe Francaise), being the Orthodox Western rite group once connected with the Russian Church but later set adrift. This is the set of lovely pictures illustrating a very Byzantinized situation. Apparently this Celtic Orthodox Church is in communion with that body. The pictures of other locations are much less Byzantine. I would guess that this group is theologically pretty much orthodox. However, aside from France and Switzerland, it manages to look much like the various vagantes groups in having widely scattered clergy and not much evidence of stable congregations.

    The Australian group is in communion with the Church of Antioch of Australia, which is not an Orthodox Church, but an “Old Catholic” (vagantes) group. The connection and the pictures there make me wonder about the theology of this group.

    I’m intrigued by the “Celtic” phenomenon, but haven’t found anything that appears stable pr reliably connected.

    • William Tighe says:

      I wonder if the Australian group is connected with either one of these two bodies (both of which purport to ordain women):



      • It is possible, and the question does not concern me, as I expressed in my “disclaimer”. I have nothing to do with any of the Celtic groups. I’m just throwing ideas out for people to think about, not policing people in their preferences about where to go to church.

      • Alexander says:

        From the Australian Church of Antioch‘s website:

        The Australian Church of Antioch is an independent Catholic style Church, registered by the Government of Australia as a fully recognised religion.   Although we are of a Liberal Catholic style, we are accepting of mystic and gnostic investigation into the truths of Spiritual life, still retaining all the old traditional and beautiful rituals and with genuine Apostolic Succession of Clergy.    As stated previously—our lines were obtained in 1987 via Church of antioch U.S.A. at the hands of Archbishop Patriarch Herman Spruit, who passed on his seventeen lines of direct succession, and also bestowed upon us the right to be fully autonomous so that we are self governing and owe no alliegence to anyone but God.

        Note also this! “Pictured here is Archdruid Tim Ryan (red robe) co-ordaining a deacon (Don Priem) in the Australian Church of Antioch. Archdruid Ryan in 1987 here in Australia did bestow upon Frank Bugge and Chearle Bugge the lineage of old Celtic Christian and Druid lines.” (Edited for style.)

        Fr Chadwick, I appreciate your disclaimer, but perhaps it is necessary to edit the original post given this newfound information! I’m not aware that druids are anything other than pagans, and that any pretend combination of these renders the group not at all sensible.

    • Indeed, I don’t see a lot of difference myself between the many little so-called “Catholic” and Orthodox groups, and at least some of the Protestant groups? Indeed the Church has really always had little historical Christian bodies and “splinters”. We can even see this in the Apostolic Church to degree. (1 Cor. 1:12, etc.) As Paul calls some even “false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26 ; Gal. 2:4), but Paul also called such “secretly brought in”. So we are really pressed back into the truth, that “the Lord [alone] knows them who are His.” (2 Tim. 2:19) But of course the Visible Church is very important, as we see too in 2 Tim. 2:20-21! Indeed the Visible Church is always marked by this battle, (Jude 1: 3-4), note verse 4, “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (NRSV) Btw, we can see this also even in or at Qumran – with humanity divided into “children of light” and “children of darkness”, humanity itself has already been divided into camps or groups of “saved” and “condemned”. This goes back even to the apocalyptic groups, etc., like Qumran.

      The point is, the True Visible Church is always in a battle, and this is always “theological”, in the Doctrine of God, and Salvation itself! The Church is not here to “settle” into this world or “age”, but it is always a Pilgrim body and voice!

    • I detect confusion between the ECOF (Eglise Catholique-Orthodoxe de France) and the Celtic Orthodox Church.

      The ECOF was founded by a Liberal Catholic bishop called Winnaert in 1937. They got in with the Russian ROCOR Synod and that union did not last, though Bishop Jean de St Denys was consecrated by them. Bishop Jean was replaced by Bishop Germain Hardy who was consecrated by the Romanian Patriarchate in 1972, and subsequently expelled for using a “Gallican” rite and continuing with “theosophical” themes. Here is their website in French.

      The Celtic Orthodox Church originates with the story of Jules Ferrette. The British Orthodox Church eventually got accepted into the Coptic Patriarchate under Pope Shenouda III, and the Celtic Orthodox Church, claiming the same ancestry, continues to this day. I see no reason to doubt their respectability or sincerity. They have a monastery in Brittany and a website.

      There may be some similarities between these two bodies, but they are not the same. The latter belongs to a communion of Churches called Communion des Eglises Orthodoxes Occidentales. Some of their clergy had left Bishop Germain’s ECOF for reasons I am not inclined to discuss here.

      My own reflection is that independent Orthodoxy has something more going for it than most “independent Catholic” bodies. But it’s not my cup of tea!

    • Alexander says:

      In the faq of the Australian group, they very clearly say they ordain women:

      Q. What is the role of women in the Celtic Church?
      A. The Celtic Church completely accepts the ordaining of suitable female candidates. It was never influenced by Roman social codes that considered women to be property and drew upon the fact that there were many female followers of Jesus; that women served in the role of priests in administering the first house churches and that the New Testament mentions a female deacon, Phoebe. Pauls letters address many of these women leaders. The Celtic Church was the first church to have female saints in Ita, who served at Killeedy and Brigid who was ordained as a bishop in the Irish Church.

      They also have another, erm, interesting answer (my bold):

      Q. What makes the Celtic expression of Faith different from mainstream church denominations?
      A. A number of things. Because we come from the Johannine Branch of Christianity, as opposed to the Pauline Branch that Rome and the Protestant Churches came from, we have kept the traditions of the early church including some Jewish practices. Our separate lineage has also kept us from absorbing too much of other cultural practices and overlay like the Pauline churches have.

      In the following discussion, they do however quote from Luke’s account of the Gospel, which must surely be taken to be “Pauline”, if we somehow want to divide Christianity up like that. (For that matter, they quote elsewhere from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. I don’t know at all what they’re getting at. I think it’s just a way to say “we’re not orthodox”, without saying that.)

  4. Btw, just for those that care, Pelagius was called and denounced as a heretic at the Council of Carthage (418). And the papacy or the pope then condemned Pelagianism, and the Pelagians were sent packing (expelled) from Rome. It seems Augustine won that day! And just a note, Karl Barth said that the Brits or really Britain, were incurably Pelagian. As too F.F. Bruce called it the “English” sin!

    Of course this divide is certainly not within the East, and Orthodoxy. But, those that don’t see this great divide, (East/West).. are just not historically aware. But again, these are not “theological” days certainly; now almost everything is touched by postmodernity. I used to think the East were not touched here, at least as much as the West, but I was so very wrong! It has touched us all, and heavily!

  5. Neil S Hailstone says:

    And Kernow (Cornwall) Father.

  6. Rev Dr Steve Wayles says:

    A reminder that Pelagius was declared heretical only after 3 trials. The books need to be reopened. 1. He did not (as accused) teach that people were “saved by their works”. His writings insist like the letters of James and John – that one cannot claim to have faith – without demonstrating that faith in their life of discipleship. 2. He was not (as accused) a pantheist – but one who proclaimed that God (including Christ and Spirit) is all and in all – as taught by Paul. Or by later Saints like one for portions of whose Summa we use the shorthand ‘There’s not a spot where God is not.” Pelagius believed that God “authored 2 books”- the Creation and the Bible, both of which reveal God. 3. Pelagius did not buy Augustine’s take on original sin as a transmitted disease. No responsible Biblical scholar would buy that theory today…. Biblical myths like all religious myths are about our relationships to God, neighbor, the world and self. They are neither science nor history – which is why the two contrasting stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are able to stand side by side. Pelagius said that every child comes from God -and should be watched and imitated carefully because he/she has God’s image and imprint still fresh. (Jesus didn’t say the children should become like the learned adults- but that those who know so much need to become like the child.

    The fact is that that church had two contrasting theologies in Pelagius and Augustine- both of which have merit. Pelagius, however, in terms of theological acumen is far closer to the teachings of Jesus and the prophets. A Re-reading of the writings of Pelagius will reveal a theology more like Jesus in the Gospels than like Paul or especially pseudo-paul with his negative view of women and the world!

    Augustine’s viewpoint as the norm is the primary source of today’s splits between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the physical, science and faith – and the appropriate place of women in the life of the Church. What is taught in seminaries and text books about Pelagius is not actually about Pelagius, but what Augustine says about Pelagius!!

    Pelagius – (as much as Galileo who got his) deserves a break today!

    Of course – then the Church would have to re-look at Matthew Fox!

    • Stephen K says:

      Dear Rev Wayles, my own readings have led me to see the truth in what you have said. “Original sin” as is popularly conceived might as well still be a “transmittable disease” for many traditional Christians because they still see human nature as “something to be fixed by baptism”. Baptism does no such thing. What it does is something of a mystery, as all sacraments are, but it sets up and infuses, we believe, a grace of the Spirit that births us into a spiritual, as distinct from the natural, life, ready to grow in purely spiritual ways of faith, hope and love. It definitly does not fix or alter our human nature, which is surely the way God made us. The Garden of Eden story is beautiful and powerful but not history, and Augustine is great but not God.

      I read already that Pelagius was the victim of an inability to see things other than binary terms. It sounds, from what you say, that he was something of a precursor to Francis of Assisi. God IS surely in all things. You’ve prompted me to seek out Pelagius in his own words. Thank you!

      • Stephen K says:

        PS. Yes, I think we have to relook at Matthew Fox! (Although I dig him already).

      • I will need to take a better look at Pelagius, one who has been characterised as saying that man could attain salvation by his own efforts. “Orthodox” churchmen usually argue against their adversary by “demonising” or making a caricature of this position. This happened in the sixteenth century with Roman Catholic arguments against Protestants at the Council of Trent.

        Pope Francis has brought Pelagius back into our minds. I believe it was a Jesuit who said Aide-toi et le ciel t’aidera, which we express in English as God helps those who help themselves. We certainly don’t “save ourselves”, but we are responsible for ourselves and those close to us. Outside strict Christian orthodoxy, there is the notion of karma – which has many expressions in the Gospel as reaping what we sow, getting back what we give both in positive and negative terms. It can be taken to extremes and spiritual life made into a kind of bank or law court.

        The “moderate position” would give us an idea of God being the instigator of everything and acting in his creation by means of “uncreated energies” or grace, and that we are responsible for collaborating with that grace. We are not compelled to be “saved” – ie: given a happy afterlife as opposed to being left to the hell we create for ourselves. Unless all we are is a complex system of electro-chemical reactions giving an illusion of consciousness that ends with physical death, we are in this life to prepare for the next stage in our evolution towards God and the Light. We have responsibilities and we are invited to take them seriously.

        Maybe our “works” and prayers seem to count for very little, but quantum theory has come up with amazing ideas. A single thought can change everything and infinitesimal acts and thoughts are infinite. Scientists begin to see things in a very different way from the materialists, and this opens up a whole new way of thinking for us religious folk.

        From the point of view of new wine and old bottles, we need to move on beyond Augustine and scholastic theology to a point where we will no longer feel the need to debate such matters. Issues that divide Christians will melt away and disperse, because they were only ever problems of language and attempts to express eternal mysteries in rational terms. We have got to move on. Every time we revive the old RC/Protestant, Pelagian/Augustinian and Jansenist/Jesuit polemics, the Church and Christianity die that little bit more and are ignored by people with other things to do in life.

      • Stephen K says:

        Well said, Father!

      • Michael Frost says:

        One thing Christians can do today is to attempt to see the complete history surrounding Augustine and contemporary reactions to him. He didn’t go unquestioned at the time by some very powerful thinkers. And we can read those critiques today. It is sad that Western Christendom has come to use a pejorative term, semi-Pelagian, when semi-Augustinian is equally valid.

        There were at least three influential Christians who wrote on the issue: Sts. John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and Faustus of Riez. John, their “leader”, had spent a tremendous amount of time in the East, was a monastic, and had interacted with great monks and teachers (e.g., St. John Chrysostom) before coming East as the Father of Western Monasticism. The pope even called on him to write an early treatise opposing Nestorius. Sadly, Faustus is the most neglected. But anyone interested could glean something from Thomas Smith’s De Gratia: Faustus of Riez’s Treatise on Grace and Its Place in the History of Theology (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1990); good luck finding Gustave Weigel’s 1938 biography of him. (Guess I’m a bit biased, my long-term WR parish is named after Vincent.)

        Compare the Council of Arles (473) to the 2nd Council of Orange (529). The former is viewed as semi-Pelagian and the later as semi-Augustinian. The former hues more toward Cassian, Vincent, and Faustus. The latter to Augustine and Prosper. But certainly in the 5th Century the West was not united behind Augustine’s later views.

      • Michael Frost says:

        And I think we should pay close attention to voices from the Reformation. Not all are exactly as we often think

        Anyone who wants to see a more irenic form of Reformed thinking should read Bullinger’s 2nd Helvetic Confession (1561/1566). It is a masterful attempt at a very broad form of Augustinianism. For example, Chapter X, Of the Predestination of God and the Election of the Saints, should be mostly agreeable to the vast majority of Christians. Including even EOs and Methodists!

        And one great systematic Reformer, Philip Melanchthon, struggled his entire theological life on the issue. He was a serious scholar of patristics and linguistics, esp. as they related to the study of Holy Scripture. See Gregory Graybill’s Evangelical Free Will: Philipp Melanchthon’s Doctrinal Journey on the Origins of Faith (Oxford, 2010). I love how this Presbyterian pastor put it:

        “Yet Melanchthon’s evangelical free will was something new. It was neither a [RC] transformational model of justification, nor Luther’s understanding of the bound will combined with imputed righteousness. In fact, it was a development from within the theological landscape of Luther’s soteriology. It was a retention of Luther’s mechanism of salvation (substititionary atonement in Christ alone through faith alone), coupled with a deliberate departure from the negative consequences of a strong view of the governance of God.” (p. 316)

        Sadly, esp. for English Christians, the much more militant and aggressive Westminster Confession of Faith replaced Bullinger. And Melanchthon ended up being outcast by both Lutherans and Reformed. Too often the later followers end up having a greater say than the initial thinker. Beza’s take on Calvin becomes our idea of Calvinism. The scholastic Formula of Concord, not the Augsburg Confession, becomes historic Lutheranism.

        We should always be faithful to history and carefully study the actual words of the “great” men of theology. Certainly before going on to study their followers and later formulations.

  7. ed pacht says:

    Also, I think we need to be careful about our use of labels. All too often we besmirch leaders by assigning to them the distortions that followers have made of their teachings. Calvin, for instance, was no Calvinist, and would in all likelihood have rejected the classic five-point soteriology insisted upon by Calvinists as being too little nuanced. Luther and Calvin were both Augustinians, but I’m not convinced that Augustine would have recognized himself in their use of his work. I’ve often observed what a huge difference in spirit and sometimes in content there is between Thomists and Aquinas himself. It is clear that some of Pelagius’ followers did indeed carry his thinking to the places referenced in the condemnations. Did Pelagius himself hold to or teach those errors? That needs to be reinvestigated. “Pelagianism” in its usual definitions is something I cannot accept, but was Pelagius a Pelagian? I rather doubt it. Perhaps truth is only to be found in this dispute if both Augustine and Pelagius are heard and real thought is given to what happens when their ideas are brought into contact and the apparent tension allowed to draw finite minds closer to infinite truth. I hope I’ve made some degree of sense here – these are deep waters.

    • One thing I learnt at university was that the Monophysites were not Monophysites, Nestorius was not Nestorian, Luther was not Lutheran and so forth. The historical “heretical” positions came more from the caricatures made up by “orthodox” adversaries. Similarly, Tyrrell was not the same kind of “Modernist” as Alfred Loisy or Harnack.

      It’s all a problem of the use of language and a domain where I am in agreement with Pope Francis – they have made an ideology of the faith. Indeed, labels are dangerous.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, I do agree about labels. I conclude no one person thinks exactly – or believes exactly – what anyone else does. I came across reproduced web editions of the works of George Tyrell a couple of years ago. I found an earnest, thoughtful, religious and spiritual man. The circumstances of his estrangement with his order and church add poignancy. Yet all traces of this thought, earnestness, religious love and humanity are (and were) effectively erased by the fatwa condemning him as a modernist and heretic. Teilhard de Chardin was another suppressed as a non-person. But I guess one can find heaps of examples on different points of the religious compass, wherever power is in the hands of those who think they have or aspire to absolute power.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Yes, unfortunately, for those famous persons who lived so long ago and were deemed heretical, we often have little of their complete works. Sometimes all we have are excerpts, fragments, or commentaries by opponents.

        But one thing is usually clear. Regardless of what they were actually “for” they and/or their followers did not accept the orthodox position as defined and promulgated. So Nestorius’ own views may be somewhat obscure, but he didn’t accept the decisions of the 3rd Council. He unwillingness to accept that which was defined says a lot about who he was and what he believed. Same for Arius. And the Monomphysites. We often know people more by what they oppose than by what they accept as their own belief.

    • Stephen K says:

      Yes, ed, you’ve made lots of sense, as always. They are deep waters. I find that the Augustine who speaks in the Confessions is not at all the Augustine I keep hearing about who is largely responsible for ideas about women, sex, original sin or Trinitarian “Persons”. In other words, we are not simply reducible to things we might say or think at particular times or to what others might think and feel about what they think we might say or think at particular times. Who really was Pelagius? Why are we talking about him or an ‘-ism’ attributed to him, today? Well, let us explore a little, without obsession but in a spirit of interest and curiosity, that we might learn from him and the exploration. Thank you, ed.

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