Since around the mid-1800s, there has been a renewed interest among both the clergy and laity in the West in “Celtic Christianity.” Broadly speaking, this Celtic Christian revivalism is animated by the idea that, in the course of history, a certain tradition of more ancient, pre-Norman Christianity from the British Isles has been lost to us, and bears recovering. Often, is it imagined to be more in tune with nature and the wild than the more formalized brand of the faith supposedly imposed by William the Conqueror after he triumphed under a papal banner at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In an age in which Westerners are wrestling often with the issue of “disenchantment,” the idea of this supposedly wilder kind of Christianity has an obvious appeal.
We could pick at a number of threads in all this, but one simple question bears asking before all others: was there ever such a thing as a distinctive “Celtic Christianity”?
Distinctives of Post-Roman
British and Irish Christianity
When the Roman Empire was Christianized in the course of the fourth century, its British provinces (essentially modern England and Wales) were no exception and its people soon became at least nominally Christian. Culturally, they were much the same as Romans elsewhere, but after the Empire collapsed in the fifth century, it became clear that the British were different in two notable respects. First of all, they retained their native Celtic language, the ancestor of modern Welsh, although they continued to use Latin for most forms of writing. Secondly, they gave rise to an evangelistic movement which spread the Christian faith to Ireland, a country that the Romans had never conquered. This required a considerable degree of ecclesiastical innovation, because Ireland lacked towns. Churches therefore formed around monasteries, which became centers of evangelization. These monasteries usually began simply with the “cells” of a few monks, and it is from these cells (or kels) that so many modern Irish place names derive: Kildare, Kilarney, Kilkenny. Unusually, many of these monasteries were governed by hereditary (yes, hereditary) abbots to whom the local bishops were often subordinate. This was a pattern of church government that was unheard of elsewhere and that was to cause considerable difficulty later on, as various reformers did their best to make the Irish church conform to the norms that prevailed in the rest of Western Europe.
The spread of Christianity across Ireland and the other non-Roman parts of Britain was the work of monastic evangelists whose names are often preserved but whose activities are shrouded in legend. By far the most famous of them was St. Patrick (c.385–461), a British Christian who is credited with having founded the Irish church, although it is generally agreed that he was not the first person to have preached the gospel in Ireland. Patrick has left us some writings in Latin, which may have been his mother tongue, and it is hard to see how he can be described as a “Celt” as opposed to a Roman. He may have spoken the ancient British language, but we know that his Irish was learned during the years that he spent as a captive in that country. Irish is also a Celtic language, but it is fairly distant from British and would not have been immediately comprehensible to Patrick, who would probably not have thought of the two tongues as related to each other. As far as Christianity is concerned, there is no reason to suppose that Patrick saw himself as any different from the Christians of Roman Britain, or of anywhere else. He may be credited with having adopted the monastery as the basic unit of church organization, but this was only because it was the best way to evangelize the country, not because it represented any distinct theological position.
Development in Wales and Ireland
To this day, Wales and Ireland remain the cradles of any historic “Celtic” Christianity, though they have relatively little to do with one another and the umbrella term “Celtic” is not one that comes naturally to either of them. Wales has followed the development of the Church of England over the centuries, though with some peculiar features that have more to do with its extreme poverty than with any spiritual factors, and in the eighteenth century it was largely swept up in the Evangelical revival. Welsh Christians tend to be Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists, though many are also Anglicans as in England. Ireland, however, followed a completely different path at the time of the Reformation, with the native Irish largely rejecting the Protestant movement. One result was that Irish Catholics were brought increasingly into conformity with Roman norms, abandoning whatever remained of their native “Celtic” heritage, in particular the odd custom of married abbots and hereditary monasteries. Protestants were few, but they were reinforced by immigration from Britain and now form perhaps a quarter of the population, mostly in what is now Northern Ireland.
Conflict between Catholics and Protestants of course still afflicts the island of Ireland to this day, but neither side can be said to have a particular devotion to any “Celtic” heritage they might claim. The revival of interest in the Celts in the late nineteenth century was initially the work of Protestants who had been influenced by the prevailing romanticism of the era, but political developments have created a different situation today. Irish nationalists, most of whom were (and are) Catholics, embraced the Celtic myths in a way that alienated most Protestants, who no longer identify with them. But not all Catholics are nationalists and the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards “Celtic” Christianity is ambivalent. It is fair to say that those who are enthusiastic about it are mainly Roman Catholic, but that Rome takes a much more reserved approach, neither rejecting it out of hand nor embracing it wholeheartedly. The effects of this ambivalence can be seen in a number of studies of the subject, of which the most notable are Oliver Davies’s Celtic Spirituality and Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings. Both of these books do what they can to define an identifiably “Celtic” spirituality, but both also recognize just how controversial and difficult the whole subject is.
The Easy Reunion of Rome and Celtic Christians
To the extent that Celtic enthusiasts communicate with one another today they are obliged to do so in English, which is now the mother tongue of most Welsh and Irish people, and it is only against the backdrop of the English language and culture that modern “Celtic” consciousness can be understood. This is nothing new. It was under the impact of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries that the Celtic nations of the British Isles assumed something like their modern identities. The Welsh remained hostile to their pagan English neighbors, but the more distant Irish undertook to evangelize them and made an important contribution to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. That conversion was also partly the work of missionaries sent from Rome such as Augustine of Canterbury in the late sixth century, who discovered upon arriving in England that the Romano-British Christians had been cut off from continental Europe for two centuries and had not followed the various liturgical reforms and theological developments that had occurred there during that time. This gave rise to a conflict between Roman and native traditions that was eventually resolved in favor of Rome, though it took a century or more for the more recalcitrant Celts to adopt the new practices, of which the change of methods for calculating the date of Easter was the most important. The transition was slow but it was peaceful and there was no long-term resistance to it among the Celts, which indicates that there were no theological differences between the two sides that would have prevented a merger.
It is important to state this last point because one of the arguments for the existence of a distinctive Celtic Christianity that has been made in modern times is that it had a distinctive spirituality that was based on an independent theological tradition. At its crudest, this comes down to the difference between the teachings of Augustine (354–430) and Pelagius (early fifth century). Pelagius was a Romano-British Christian, traditionally thought to be either Irish or Welsh, who taught at Rome until he had to flee to North Africa in 410, to escape the invasion of Alaric the Goth. It was at that time that Augustine became aware of him and concluded that Pelagius was teaching a kind of salvation by works, which Augustine promptly denounced as heretical. Rome was won over to Augustine’s view and Pelagianism was suppressed, though there are indications that something that went by that name remained a problem in Britain for some decades. Modern exponents of Celtic Christianity often like to claim that it was shaped by the survival of Pelagius’s teaching, which denied the total depravity of mankind arising from original sin, affirmed the goodness of human nature, and (somewhat surprisingly) promoted a social egalitarianism in which both the religious hierarchy of medieval times and the subordination of women to men were unknown. Celtic Christianity is also supposed to have absorbed a good deal of pre-Christian pagan spirituality, though our lack of knowledge about that makes it almost impossible to evaluate how important an ingredient it was.
And yet, despite this apparent gulf between Celtic Christianity and that of the continent, we see no widespread resistance or tension at the point in history where it returns to union with Rome.
The Trouble With “Celtic Christianity”
In this brief analysis of “Celtic Christianity,” then, two things stand out. First of all: it is a modern reconstruction of a theological environment that effectively disappeared in the early middle ages and was only retrieved with the emergence of a “Celtic” consciousness in the late nineteenth century. Since that time, it has been embraced by a varied assortment of romantics, revolutionaries, and reactionaries who have revolted against the hegemony of modern society, represented above all by the English language and culture which is everywhere dominant. Given that the Celtic prototypes of these revivalists were pre-modern, it is relatively easy to portray “Celtic Christianity” as a way of life without the trappings of modernity, best recaptured on some remote Irish or Scottish island. In reality, few people take their enthusiasm to such extremes. Instead, they prefer to imagine what such a life must be like and bewail the fact that they themselves are forced to live in a world dominated by automobiles, central heating, and the internet, all of which they tend to see as corruptions of some primitive ideal. It is obvious that men like Patrick and Columba did without those things and lived in what to us would be great hardship, but whether they would have rejected our way of life as inherently unspiritual—and done so more than anyone else in Europe—is not so clear. Nor can it be seriously claimed that everything that has gone wrong in Western culture is ultimately due to Augustine, whose own lifestyle was (after all) much closer to that of Patrick and Columba than to ours.
The second standout feature brings us to the nub of the problem we face when trying to evaluate “Celtic Christianity.” If we read the writings of the ancient Celtic saints through the lens of modern life, we shall be struck by their apparent simplicity—the closeness to nature, the lack of theological sophistication, and so on. But if we compare the Celts of the fifth and sixth centuries to their contemporaries elsewhere in the Christian world, another perspective emerges. Were the Irish ascetics any different from the Desert Fathers of Egypt? Was Pelagius unique in what he taught? The evidence strongly suggests that he was not—some form of works-righteousness was common across the ancient Roman world. In this context it was Augustine who stood out, not Pelagius, who was apparently welcomed in Constantinople as perfectly orthodox after having been chased out of North Africa as a heretic. The Irish and the Welsh no doubt drew on their local traditions and customs to illustrate their faith. The well-known Irish hymn “St Patrick’s Breastplate,” for example, is couched in language reminiscent of primitive tribalism:
I arise today, through The strength of heaven, The light of the sun, The radiance of the moon, The splendor of fire, The speed of lightning, The swiftness of wind, The depth of the sea, The stability of the earth, The firmness of rock.
Yet whilst this imagery used to illustrate the faith may be drawn from their natural surroundings, there is nothing particular here about the faith itself. The hymn’s theme—devotion to the Trinity—is clearly imported from the Christian mainstream and is fully in tune with it. Even the elements of local “color” cannot be restricted to the Celts, since their neighbors, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, shared them in equal measure, and nobody—least of all the “Celts”—saw anything odd about that.
In the final analysis, we ought to say that the Christianity of early medieval Wales and Ireland (with its extensions in Brittany and Scotland respectively) reflects the time and place in which it emerged, but that it did not differ in any significant respect from what could be found elsewhere at the same period. As the worldwide Church elaborated its orthodoxy, the Celts took it on board and either abandoned or reinterpreted their traditions accordingly. Modern reconstructions of their world are inevitably selective in what they choose to emphasize and therefore distort the reality. This is particularly obvious when it comes to claims that the ancient Celts practiced “gender equality” in a form that neatly dovetails with modern beliefs, but the principle can be extended to cover every aspect of their church and society. The portrait of the Celts as “noble savages” in the tradition of Rousseau and the Enlightenment may appeal to some, but objective historical investigation has shown how inaccurate it is, just as it has done with similar societies in other times and places. The conclusion therefore seems inescapable—there were great Celtic writers, evangelists, and artists who have left us an impressive legacy, but they were not fundamentally different from contemporary Christians elsewhere and their heritage cannot be considered to have been a form of Christianity genuinely distinct from what was then common to the Church as a whole.
Gerald Bray is Research Professor at Beeson Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books including The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland (Apollos, 2021) and Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (Lexham, 2021).
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