Keith Hunt - Celtic Church in Britain #2 - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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The Celtic Church in Britain #2

Missionary Work


by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


Bede's story of the Church in Britain brings his readers face to
face with the Celtic attitude toward evangelism. He records that
Augustine began his approach to the indigenous British Christians
"by urging them to establish brotherly relations with him in
Catholic unity, and to join with him in God's work of preaching
the Gospel to the heathen". But the Celts refused. This has been
interpreted as indicating their lack of zeal for the conversion
of the pagan Saxons. But conquerors have seldom been eager to
accept the religion of the conquered. The records suggest that
Celtic Christians at large were eager to propagate their faith.
This may be established from Bede's own records. And one of the
canons attributed to Patrick stressed that "one's country is
first to be taught, after the example of Christ; and afterwards
if it does not make progress, it is to be abandoned".

After his second attempt to persuade the Celtic Christian leaders
to co-operate with him proved futile. Augustine laid down his
ultimatum. Here is his final statement as Bede has preserved it,
and Bede's own comment on its result. Augustine invited the
British Christians "to join with us in preaching the word of God
to the English. But the bishops refused these things, nor would
they recognize Augustine as their archbishop". The last sentence
is the crux of the matter. The British Christian leaders would
not submit to Augustine. It was a matter of authority and not
merely of a lack of zeal for evangelism. To have complied with
the request for the former they evidently felt would have
amounted to submission to the latter.

Notwithstanding all this, one of the main characteristics of
Celtic Christians during the seventh century was the stress they
laid upon missionary activity. Far and wide the "pilgrims for
God" ranged the islands of the western seas, lashed by storms.
Their frail coracles bore them from Ireland to the land of the
pagans of North Britain, untamed in heathenism. Across into the
Continent ravaged by war, the representatives of the Celtic
Church carried the gospel. For the British evangelist "to voyage
over the seas, and to pace over broad tracts of land was not so
much a weariness as a delight", Gildas recorded. They often
embarked in the smallest of currachs, allowing the winds and
currents to bear them where they would. Some must have found
unmarked graves in the rough waters of the north Atlantic. With
no assistance from a missionary base at home, into lands unknown,
the pilgrim evangelists journeyed. They lived where they were
able to find shelter; they ate what they received from hospitable
strangers. Here is a story, although of a later date, which is
typical of any point during the period of Celtic missionary

     Three Scots came to king Alfred in a boat without any oars,
     from Ireland, whence they had stolen away, because they
     desired, for the love of God, to be in a state of
     pilgrimage, they necked not where. The boat in which they
     came was wrought of two hides and a half, and they took with
     them food sufficient for seven nights; and on the seventh
     night they came to land in Cornwall, and then went
     straightways to king Alfred.

And so Celtic Christians, in gratitude for the faith they had
received, travelled from their homes, "propter nomen Domini,
making always peregrinatio pro Dei amore."

Interest in this type of evangelism probably started in Ireland
through the influence of Patrick's example. His words must have
stirred the hearts of his people: "Who was it that called me,
fool though I be? ... that ... I should faithfully be of service
to the nation to whom the love of Christ conveyed me ..." This
labour, he affirmed, he had "learnt from Christ my Lord". He
looked back after his eventful life and testified that his only
reason for returning to Ireland was the gospel and God's

Those who revered Patrick's memory followed his lead. Later
Celtic preachers used arguments taken from biblical precedents
when advocating missionary enterprise. The "Old-Irish Life of
Columba" sketched the saint's career in the form of a sermon
probably read on the occasion of his festival. The speaker
introduced his theme by discussing the call of Abraham to go from
Ur to the Promised Land. He presented three reasons why similar
pilgrimages should be made in his time. God's grace might call
men to service in foreign lands; other missionaries might make
appeals; a "soul-friend" might suggest such a trip. To these,
three further reasons might be added: the ascetic urge to find
the "desert"; the Celt's love of adventure; or the expulsion of
those who maintained the old usages in face of the gradual
Romanization of the Celtic Church. These motives, singly or in
combination, scattered hundreds of pilgrim-missionaries into
distant lands. The movement probably started with Columba in 563.
Place names, and dedications of churches across Europe and its
islands demonstrate the extent to which these evangelists

Columba's contribution towards the conversion of Scotland and the
accomplishment of his followers in Christianizing their Anglo-
Saxon neighbours is, from the viewpoint of world history, the
most momentous achievement of the Irish section of the Celtic
Church. In 563, at the age of forty-one, Columba left Ireland for
Iona with a dozen helpers.
King Bruide is credited with having given Iona to Columba as a
missionary base. From it Columba's followers and successors
spread their settlements into remote parts of Scotland, and out
to the western islands. And so the long task of bringing the
northern heathen tribes into the Christian fold began. But not
only did the Columban church reach out to evangelize Scotland, it
also spread its influence into England. By 632 Augustine's
disciple Paulinus, after founding an outpost of Christianity in
Northumbria, was forced by a rise of paganism and war to flee
south, leaving Hames the deacon to try to maintain the faith.
After the departure of Paulinus the Christianity in the north of
England passed into another phase. While Oswald had been in exile
at Iona, the brethren had instructed him carefully in "the
teachings of the Scottish church".  When he became king, he
apparently disregarded whatever remnants of Kentish Roman
Christianity might still have remained, and sent to his old
friends at Iona for a missioner to instruct the Northumbrians in
the Celtic Christian faith. The first Celtic preacher to respond
was too exacting and met with little success before he returned
home disgruntled. The brethren at Iona held a council to discuss
their next move. One of their number made the point that the
spread of the gospel among pagans would be hastened by tact and
patience. The others noted his insight into the situation and
decided that he would be a suitable missionary. So Aidan was
immediately ordained and sent to Northumbria.

It was probably about 635 AD that Aidan arrived. As had Columba
before him, Aidan picked an island off the coast as his base. It
was from Lindisfarne that light penetrated pagan Northumbria. On
occasion King Oswald himself acted as Aidan's interpreter in the
work of evangelizing his subjects. From the north, Celtic
Christian beliefs spread into the kingdom of the Middle Angles,
and thence into Essex. Here Fursey from Ireland had pioneered
Christianity. The brethren of Lindisfarne spread the knowledge of
the cross from the Forth to the Thames. There were, however,
large areas of Britain which remained rough and pagan.
On the day Aidan died in 651, the young lad Cuthbert requested
entrance into the Christian community at Melrose. He was destined
to become the most illustrious missionary of that celebrated
settlement. Sometimes on horseback, more often on foot, Cuthbert
sought out distant villages and everywhere preached the gospel"'
leaving behind him "a fame which no Churchman north of the Humber
has surpassed or even rivalled". When the initial success of
Augustine and his followers failed to fulfil its promise, it was
the group of missionaries from Iona, establishing their base on
"the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the true cradle of English
Christianity" that gave the faith a precarious foothold up into
Scotland and down into England.

Celtic missionaries also laboured on the Continent. About the
time Columba established Iona, Columbanus was born in what is
today Leinster. His first schooling was under Sinell on the
island of Clauin, in Lough Erne. He moved on to the Christian
school of Bangor on Belfast Lough, about 580, for further study
with Comgall. After he had been many years in the cloister he
longed to go into strange lands and with twelve companions
crossed England and reached Gaul. Preaching and teaching as he
and his friends were able, living and toiling with any who shared
hospitality with them, the Celtic clerics entered Burgundy the
next year. King Sigibert, grandson of Clovis, welcomed Columbanus
and gave the ruins of the ancient Roman castle of Anegray
(Anagrates) in the Vosges, as a site for the first Celtic
monastery on the Continent. Austere to severe, the regulations
which Columbanus drew up bound his fellows to rigid lives of
stern discipline. Their food was simple, their labours
exhausting, their devotions long sustained. Either refraction or
forgetfulness was immediately punished.

From this Christian household the salutary principles of religion
and education, the blessings of mercy and tolerance, the
disciplines of justice and righteousness flowed gently into the
turgid stream of Gallic life. Multitudes journeyed to listen to
the Irish teacher and stayed to believe. But opposition from
angry pagans and jealous Roman clerics drove them eventually
through the region which is today called Switzerland and on into
Italy. King Agilulf donated Bobbio to Columbanus. Here the
Irishmen built up a Christian settlement and laid the foundations
of what was to become the most famous Celtic house in Italy.

But not only did the missionaries from Ireland travel across
Scotland and down into England and on into the Continent, they
also turned their eyes northward. To the isles of the western
seas as far away as Iceland and beyond they sailed their tiny
craft. Maol Rubha, born into the same clan as Columba, crossed
into Scotland in 671 and established a settlement at Applecross
in the region known today as Ross-shire, between Loch Garron and
Loch Torridon. He preached both in Scotland and also in Skye and
other islands of the Hebrides. Dying in his eightieth year, Maol
Rubha left a reputation almost as glowing as that of the great
Columba himself.

Celtic pilgrims soon occupied islands lying to the extreme north
of Scotland. The ancient Norwegian chronicler noted that "these
islands were at first inhabited by the Picts and papae", and "the
papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore
like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic
tongue. An island is still called after them Papey. But, as is
observed from their habit and the writings of their books
abandoned there, they were Africans, adhering to Judaism." Here
is a very early record of Celtic Christian settlers who were
accused of "adhering to Judaism". This expression is used to
indicate observers of the Jewish Sabbath. This evidence suggests
that early Celtic Christians followed this custom. These pioneers
were Christians who tenaciously held to their ancient beliefs and
had been banished by tyrants such as King Nectan.

(Ah yes indeed, the true Christianity brought to Britain in the
first century AD was a Christianity of 7th day Sabbath observing,
hence Rome accused them of Judaism and of being heretics - it is
recorded in history, the facts are there for those who will see
with their eyes - Keith Hunt)

From the outer Hebrides or from the northern Orkneys, or it might
even have been from Ireland itself, the Irish missionary-
settler-hermit-adventurers sailed up into the Atlantic looking
for a "desert" in which to fulfil their pilgrimage. The Irish
geographer Dicuil wrote (c. 825) that a priest had told him that
"for nearly a hundred years hermits dwelt, [in the Faroes] from
our Scottia (Ireland) ... But the Norsemen had slain every one of
them." So it was believed that as early as 725 Celtic settlers
had lived on the Faroes.

But not satisfied with these outposts in the ocean, more daring
pilgrims travelled on to Iceland:

     But before Iceland was inhabited (by settlers) from Norway,
     there were there the men whom the Norwegians call Parpar;
     these were Christian men, and it is believed that they had
     come from the west beyond the sea, because Irish books, and
     bells, and croziers, were found (left) behind them, and many
     other things besides, so that one might know they were

Olaf's Saga added "that they were Christian men, and had come
from the west beyond the sea". Theodoric observed in his
"Historia" that they were "very few" in number. The Norwegian
chronicler noted as of the date 872:

     And then the land (which is now called Iceland) began to be
     inhabited for the first time, except that a very few men
     from the island of Ireland, that is lesser Britain, are
     believed to have been there in ancient times, from certain
     indications found; namely their books, and certain utensils.

While these Celtic pilgrims were not missionaries in the
strictest sense, even in death their books testified to
succeeding pagan peoples of the Christian faith which they had

The Celtic predilection for change occasionally was a source of
difficulty. The penitential of Cummean ruled against "any
wandering and unstable man", and decreed that he "shall be healed
by permanent residence in one place". There are records of trips
even to the Holy Land and Rome in later centuries. But these were
not always viewed with favour, as this quatrain in Old-Irish

     Going to Rome? Going to Rome? 'Twill bring no profit, only
     trouble. The King thou there wouldst quest Not found shall
     be, if he go not in thy breast.

A similar sentiment was expressed on the virtue of long journeys
in order to find God: "Since God is near to all who call upon
Him, no necessity is laid on us to cross the sea. For one can
approach the kingdom of heaven from every land." These sentiments
seem to reflect a swing away from a regard of pilgrimages,
especially to Rome, as ways for deepening devotion. There were
those who contentedly sighed:

     All alone in my little cell without a single soul in my
     company. Beloved pilgrimage before going to the tryst with

And it was for this that Cormac, son of Culennan, made his
choice, singing for many of his friends:

     Shall I choose, O King of the mysteries, 
     After the delight of downy pillows and music, 
     To go upon the rampart of the sea,
     Turning my back upon my native land? 
     Shall I be in poverty in the battle
     Through the grace of the King, a King without decay, 
     Without great honour, without my chariot, 
     Without gold, or silver, or horse?

(Finian of Clonard was told by God's angel when desiring to go to
Rome "What would be given thee at Rome", saith he, "will be given
to thee here. Go and renew faith and belief in Ireland after
Patrick" (LSBL, 224). Does this mean that there had taken place
some sort of apostasy in Ireland after the passing of Patrick?
(See Todd, Patrick, 503) Gildas, David, and Cadoc are supposed to
have helped establish the second order of Irish saints)

     Shall I launch my dusky little coracle 
     On the broad-bosomed glorious ocean? 
     Shall I go, O King of bright Heaven, 
     Of my own will upon the brine?
     Whether it be roomy or narrow,
     Whether it be severed by crowds or hosts -
     God, wilt Thou stand by me
     When it comes upon the angry sea?

Individual response to a divinely placed inner drive to spread
the faith, singly or in groups, impelled Celtic missionaries to
go forth. Without credentials or material support, self-reliant
and trusting in God they accomplished more than their numbers
would warrant. Spontaneity, lack of traditionalism, and
individuality were the features of this movement.

With the gradual Christianizing of the peoples of the Continent
the motives for making journeys outside Celtic lands changed. As
Roman Christianity spread during the seventh and succeeding
centuries, Celtic missionary pilgrims encountered more and more
representatives of the Church of Rome, and after initial
suspicion, and sometimes hostility, many eventually joined with

But not only did this missionary and pilgrim travel in itself
indicate an important phase of the practice of Celtic Christians,
it also provided opportunity for a comparison to be made between
their beliefs and those of Roman Christian communities.

To be continued  

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