Keith Hunt - Celtic Church in Britain - Page Eight   Restitution of All Things

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The Celtic Church in Britain #8



by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


     Organization developed in the Church out of necessity. It
was Christ who appointed the apostles to promulgate the
principles of his kingdom, and they immediately set about winning
converts. After Pentecost the numbers of Christians multiplied,
They met for devotion in the porticoes of Herod's temple and held
seasons of fellowship in the larger homes of the more wealthy.
The poor were helped with material necessities, but only in a
haphazard sort of way. When murmuring arose because of supposed
inequalities, the Christian community authorized a special group
of persons to serve the business needs of the Church, while the
apostles were free to minister in prayer and preaching. This
picture of the primitive church is filled in by St Paul. Writing
both to Timothy and Titus he advised them to appoint leaders in
every church they established, with other subordinate helpers
called deacons and deaconesses. As the number of groups of
believers increased in a locality a leader was probably chosen to
superintend the affairs of several churches, as St Paul himself
had done. In the early Church this overseer was elected from
among the elders of the Christian communities, and, because of
the lack of available evidence, it must be concluded, apparently
received no special consecration. He was seemingly first among

(Paul was over a number of churches ONLY in the sense that he had
raised up those churches and was a spiritual "father" to them.
There is no evidence he was dictatorial overlord over those
churches, as became popular within the Roman church as centuries
moved on - Keith Hunt)

     The title bishop meant overseer, or one who supervised the
affairs of the Church; it stressed authority. The term presbyter,
with its shortened form, priest, indicated a man who was older in
experience; its emphasis was seniority, maturity, and a sense of
responsibility. The terms bishop and presbyter were used
interchangeably in the New Testament, and for centuries later.
With modifications in ecclesiastical organization gradually
coming about, the functions of bishop and priest grew to be
different;* but for a long time this difference was not clearly
defined. The two categories of church official, the
bishop-priest-elder on the one hand, and the deacon and deaconess
on the other, were the only functionaries in Pauline and later
church life.
     The evolution of the simple presbyter into a monarchical
bishop was a gradual one. In some areas of the Church the bishop
ruled over presbyters at an early date, possibly from the middle
of the second century, while in other localities the movement
progressed more slowly. When Celtic Christianity was carried to
Ireland by Patrick, this clearly marked differentiation between
bishop and priest appears not to have existed in the section of
Christianity in which he had been brought up. In the writings of
Patrick references are found to his ordaining only bishops. Later
records present a picture of the earliest Celtic church
organization simply swarming with bishops! There are fewer
problems in understanding why this is so if it be granted that
bishop and priest were still apparently different names for the
same office, and that these Patrician bishops were the ministers
of the various groups of believers, without any of the authority
or functions which are associated with the accepted meaning of
the title bishop. The catalogue of the saints of Ireland
according to their different periods is perfectly intelligible in
this light: "The first order of Catholic saints was in the time
of Patrick, and then they were all bishops, famous and holy and
full of the Holy Ghost; 350 in number, founders of churches. They
had one head, Christ, and one chief Patrick." This order
continued to the year 534. Taken at its face value this record
presents a view of the organization of the primitive Celtic
Church in Ireland which would be quite natural in the
circumstances. Neither episcopacy nor monasticism had de-

(*A full discussion of the rise of episcopacy from the primitive
New Testament church organization is outside the scope of this
(I have done all this in my many studies on Church Government on
this website - Keith Hunt)

veloped beyond the experimental stages, even in Gaul, by 400. In
Ireland, at the remote extremity of the west, and in a semi-pagan
land, many of the later refinements of both systems were lacking
in the opening decades of the fifth century.
     In this catalogue Patrick was the "chief" of the Church.
There is no hint of dependence on any organization or authority
outside of the Celtic Christian community. While the believers
looked to Patrick as their leader, Christ was regarded as the
"head" of his people. Each bishop was apparently the pastor of
his congregation, appointed so by Patrick when the believers
were grouped together. The Pauline practice of placing a bishop
or presbyter in charge of each community seems to have been
carried out by Patrick in Ireland.  The Celtic glossator
presented a remarkable picture of what he regarded as the ideal 
bishop, It was based on his understanding of St Paul's teaching.

(All this would be in line with New Testament teaching on church
government - Keith Hunt)

     The bishop was to be a man of probity, acknowedged as such
by those who were not even members of his community. He should
show that he was able to control his is family before his
ordination, and most certainly after it. His fellow Christians
should be unanimous in their estimate of his fitness for office. 
He must never become intoxicated, nor must he even be fond of
drink. He should be free from avarice, have no quarrel with any
person. He of course, must be a baptized Christian, and his life
should be characterized by good works. He should be inclined to
hospitality and ready at all times to receive Eccsort of person
in need.
     Ecclesiastical authorities should not confer orders on him
unless they have weighed his reputation and character. Checking
his fitness for his responsibilities most carefully, to see that
his personal life was above reproach, for if he had failed to
correct his family when not a bishop, he was hardly likely to be
an effective leader of a multitude. His ability as a preacher
should be reviewed to see whether he was a suitable person to
teach the flock of God, since he should be studious, skilled in
knowledge, and wise in his exhortation, exemplifying in his own
life the principles he sought to propound.

(All correct, but I've gone into detail on the matter in studies
on church government on this website - Keith Hunt)


     In the fifth century clerical celibacy had not yet been
enforced in all parts of the Christian Church, nor had it reached
Celtic lands. Patrick's great-grandfather was a deacon, his
grandfather was a priest, and his father was a deacon. Patrick
wrote these facts without embarrassment. He evidently had no
notion that his readers would regard them as anomalous. That
bishop-priests and deacons were married in the Patrician period
of the Celtic Church is also attested by other sources. The Book
of Armagh, written about 807, preserved a record of the type of
bishop Patrick was believed to have sought. The saint once asked
Domnach Mac Criathar of Leinster to recommend a suitable
candidate, one who must be "a man free, of good kin, without
defect, without blemish, whose wealth would not be over little
nor over great; 'I desire a man of one wife, unto whom hath been
born only one child.' When Fiacc the Fair had been found to
possess all these characteristics, he was ordained as a bishop by
Patrick, the first man so consecrated in Leinster. It was
evidently not necessary to have to pass through any lower grades
in church office as a prerequisite to installation as a bishop.
Patrick was only seeking to carry out the New Testament
regulation, and was so followed by the later leaders of the
Celtic Church. This is vouched for by the remark of the Old-Irish
glossator on the Pauline stipulation that the bishop should be
married to one wife only, "before ordination and after baptism:
needless to say 'afterward' then." His children should be
examples of a well-disciplined family.
     It will be noted that inside the monastic "familia" marriage
was permitted to the bishop, priest, or any other Christian who
might so desire. The same is apparently true of bishops who were
not within monastic jurisdiction, for the law tracts recognized
the son of a bishop without any opprobrium. The later homilists
also regarded marriage in a bishop as not censurable: "Patrick
himself went and founded Ath Truimm, twenty-five years before the
founding of Armagh; ... Now [these are] the progeny that belongs
to Patrick by consanguinity and by faith and by baptism and by
doctrine; and all that they obtained by land and of churches they
offered to Patrick for ever." Does this statement mean that
Patrick had "progeny by consanguinity", or does it indicate that
his successors did? It might possibly point to the episcopal
succession which remained in the family. Whatever its
significance, an intriguing story has been preserved of the
marriage of Patrick: "Now when Milluic considered how he should
retain Patrick, he bought a handmaid for him, and when the feast
was prepared on their wedding-night they were put together in a
house apart." Another account, which sought to establish the
point that Patrick and his bride never actually consummated their
marriage, noted that "Patrick preached to the bondmaid, and they
spent the whole night in prayer". Patrick was then supposed to
have recognized his bride as his sister whom he had not seen for
six years. "Then they gave thanks to God, and go into the
wilderness. Now, when Patrick was biding in the wilderness, he
heard the voice of the angel, saying to him, 'Ready is the ship
     The knowledge of Patrick's marriage and family must have
persisted for centuries for these later comminatory stories to be
thought necessary. Their point seems to have been, not that
Patrick was not married, but that his wife lived with him "in the
wilderness" as a spiritual spouse or sister. Stories like this
are frequently met in Irish sources. Here is one which fathered
on Patrick the rule that men and women should not continue to
live in this "spiritual" relationship, but should separate one
from the other:

     At a certain time Patrick was told, through the error of the
     rabble, that bishop Mel had sinned with his kinswoman, for
     they used to be in one habitation a-praying to the Lord.
     When bishop Mel saw Patrick coming to him, to Archachad, in
     order to reproach him, bishop Mel went to angle in the
     furrows whereon rain had poured ... Then bishop Mel's
     kinswoman came having fire with her in her chasuble. And her
     raiment was not injured. Then Patrick knew that there was no
     sin between them, saying, "Let men and woman be apart, so
     that we may not be found to give opportunity to the weak,
     and so that by us the Lord's name be not blasphemed. 

     These tenth and eleventh-century narratives were used to
establish clerical celibacy and reinforce the penitential canons.
But even a canon attributed to Patrick acknowledges a married

     If any clergy, from sexton to priest, is seen without a
     tunic, and does not cover the shame and nakedness of his
     body; and if his hair is not shaven according to the Roman*
     custom, and if his

(*This canon has caused a great deal of discussion. Parts of it
must be of a later date. A married clergy and "the Roman custom"
seem mutually exclusive. The ministry of sextons would also
appear to require a later dating of that portion. Todd and Bury
have both tried to deal with the problem at length. It would seem
that later writers have corrupted the original canon for
propaganda purposes)

     wife goes with her head unveiled, he shall be alike despised
     by laymen and separated from the church.

(AGAIN WE NOTICE by this time the false teachings have come into
the Christianity of Britain - Keith Hunt)

     At the beginning of the seventh century Gregory had
recognized that there were clerics in Britain who did "not wish
to remain single", and recommended to Augustine that he permit
them to marry and draw their stipends separately. And at the time
the penitential of Finnian was written the pressure towards
establishing a celibate clergy was mounting:

     If anyone, who formerly was a layman, has become a cleric, a
     deacon, or one of any rank, and if he lives with his sons
     and daughters and with his own concubine, and if he returns
     to carnal desire and begets a son with his concubine, or
     says he has, let him know that he has fallen to the depths
     of ruin, his sin is not less than it would be if he had been
     a cleric from his youth and sinned with a strange girl.

     Yet even Finnian dedicated his penitential book "to the sons
of his bowels". But the implication of the Old-Irish Penitential
is that celibacy was optional with priests or deacons, but
mandatory for bishops:

     Anyone holding the rank of bishop, who transgresses in
     respect of a woman, is degraded and does penance twelve
     years on water diet, or seven years on bread and water.
     If he be a priest, or a deacon who has taken a vow of
     perpetual celibacy, he spends three and a half years on
     bread and water.

(The man-made laws and traditions of the Roman church were taking
hold in parts of Britain - Keith Hunt)

     There were, as has been noted, priests and deacons who had
not taken vows of perpetual celibacy. The Burgundian and
so-called Roman penitentials also prescribe penances in case "any
cleric or his wife overlays a baby, he (or she) shall do penance
for three years, one of these on bread and water". The baby was
obviously their own.

     The attitude against a married priesthood hardened through
the years as the result of the idea that he was a holy receptacle
of sacramental grace. In later centuries it was declared that "a
priest, practising coition, small is his profit in baptizing;
[i.e. he cannot baptize] baptism comes not from him, after
visiting his nun".

     That this most probably referred to married priests is
suggested by the word "coition" and not adultery or fornication
which would be the case were he celibate. This Irish sentiment is
also met with in penitentials other than Celtic. As noted above,
married clergy were also accepted in England and Wales.
     Commenting on the Pauline qualifications of a bishop, Gildas

     Well governing his house, saith the apostle, having his
     children subjected with all chastity ... Imperfect therefore
     is the chastity of the parents, [i.e. the bishop and his
     wife] if the children be not also endued with the same. But
     how shall it be, where neither the father [i.e. the bishop]
     nor the son, depraved by the example of his evil parent, is
     found to be chaste?

     Gildas was not censuring bishops who were married; what he
was deploring was episcopal promiscuity and lasciviousness in the
sons of bishops. Nennius dedicated his History "to Samuel, the
son of Benlanus, the priest", his master, regarding it as an
honour, rather than any kind of disparagement to him, to be
esteemed the son of a learned presbyter.
     That married bishops continued in Ireland until the tenth
century is established by the story of Cormac Mac Cuilennain,
king of Munster, who is called "bishop and martyr". The story

     He was always a virgin, and he used to sleep in a very thin
     tunic, which he wore at matins also, and he used to sing his
     psalms frequently immersed in water. Now Gormlaith, daughter
     to Flann, son of Maelsechlainn, son of Domhnall, was his
     wife, and he never sinned with her except by one kiss after
     matins; and he sang thrice fifty psalms as penance for it in
     the fountain of Loch Tarbh. He was seven years king.

     This pious king-bishop was also a bandit and marauder, for
the annals record "the plundering of Osraighe by Cormac, King of
the Deisi, and many [secular] churches and monastic churches were
destroyed by him". He was eventually slain in the battle of
Ballymoon near Carlow, in 903 (?). His widow Gormlaith married
Cormac's conqueror in 909, and on his death, Neill, king of

     When Malachi became archbishop of Armagh he set about
correcting the practice which had been going on for about two
centuries, that the bishops of Armagh were married men who passed
on their bishoprics to their sons. His biographer, Bernard,
recorded in horror that:

     A very wicked custom grew up through the diabolical ambition
     of some powerful persons to obtain the holy see [Armagh] by
     hereditary succession. Neither would they suffer any persons
     to perform episcopal duties unless they were of their own
     tribe and family ... Finally eight married men held the
     office before Celsus.

     The Old-Irish glossator reflected the tensions in his
community regarding the values of celibacy as against matrimony
among the clergy in his comment on the Apostle's expression "a
sister" "These are the women who attend on us, and are not for
any other purpose." But he added: "It is not enough for thee to
be without a wife, unless thou do good works (or live a
right-acting life); whatever the condition in which one is,
whether it be celibacy or matrimony, it is necessary to fulfil
God's commandments therein."

     So evidently when he wrote, celibacy of the clergy,
discussed by all and accepted by some had not yet become


     The organization of the Celtic Church, as will be noted (in
another chapter) was originally tribal. Communities of Christians
lived in settlements with a presbyter-bishop to conduct their
religious services. With the spread of Christianity and the
moulding influence of the teachings of the gospel the dangers
from pagans probably grew less. As the popularity of monasticism
increased in the West, the divisions between the ordinary
Christians and those who entered the religious life grew wider.
The picture which the Celtic sources present is most confused,
and a clear understanding of the relationships involved seems
impossible to gain. But, at the risk of oversimplification, a
tentative solution may be suggested, and is here submitted.
There were evidently monastic bishops and bishops who were free
from community restraints. Some of the original Celtic
presbyterbishops founded monasteries, in the later definition of
the term, that is, celibate men and woman banded together to live
a life of devotion apart from the world. But even all these monks
did not renounce possessions nor were they averse to labour.
Their communities were presided over by abbots who might be
bishops or priests. Gradually rules were formulated to govern
their lives. But all this took centuries to develop.

(Yes centuries, as the Roman church grew in power and influence
in Britain - Keith Hunt)

     But the presbyter-bishops who did not live in monasteries
evidently acted as spiritual helpers to Christians whom they
served as counsellors and whom they led in worship. These bishops
seem to have been tied neither to locality nor to congregation,
and were free to perform the functions of the office wherever
Christian people might desire it. Under the jurisdiction of no
authority, they were found wandering throughout all Celtic lands,
much to the disgust of later metropolitans who wished for the
discipline and organization of diocesan authority.

     Because of the power vested in him by his clan the abbot of
a tribal monastery was also its chief. Under him the bishop
functioned in spiritual matters only. But with the Romanizing of
the Celtic Church the authority of the bishop increased while
that of the abbot decreased. The prestige of the bishop-priests
was always high. The laws and penitentials ascribe special honour
to them, comparing them with chiefs or kings. In case of injury
compensation was to be paid to them, while any misdemeanour on
their part was punished by heavier penalties than those imposed
on the people. They possessed power to grant clerical letters of
introduction to any Christians who might be journeying to other
parts of the country or to foreign lands. They were exempted from
taxes and were freed from military service. Like Celtic chiefs,
the clergy evidently wore special clothes, which appeared
"austere, and should be unusual". Another gloss called these
garments "his badge of office".

(Once more man-made traditions and ideas were forming within the
Celtic church in Britain as the Roman church gained influence -
Keith Hunt)


     The penitentials contain abundant data indicating the
failings and foibles of clergymen, and the way in which they were
disciplined and rehabilitated. The penalties meted to them varied
with their rank and dignity, and the sort of crime or misconduct
which they had committed. As with the monastic clerics, penances
consisted of corporal punishment, such as fasting and other
austerities, prayers and vigils, peregrinations and exile, and
fines of various kinds.


     The authority of the clergy came to Celtic lands with
Christianity. Patrick had apparently been ordained in the first
place by clerics who had set his father apart as a deacon.
Patrick consecrated the first bishops in Ireland of whom we have
some kind of certain record, and these clerics passed on their
authority through a simple service of ordination. When a layman
or a deacon who showed potential abilities was considered to be a
suitable candidate for the position of presbyter or bishop, he
was consecrated immediately. 
     No order of service has been preserved to show the way an
ordination was conducted in early Celtic Christian times. Gild as
has left a record of the "lections of Scripture" used in the
ordinal of his day. These lessons, different from those in use in
other Western services, were read as the candidate stood by the
altar, possibly awaiting a Communion service. Gildas also noted
the custom of anointing the hands of deacons and priests at the
time orders were conferred. F. E. Warren pointed out that this
"anointing of the hands at the ordination of deacons is not found
in any form of the Roman Ordinal, ancient or modern, nor in any
Gallican Ordinal". A single bishop was permitted to consecrate
another bishop. Warren has tried a reconstruction of the
ceremony, but all that may be said regarding the service is
guesswork. He also conjectures that it is likely that the giving
of the stole to deacons at their ordination, the delivering of
the book of the Gospel to them, and also the investing of priests
with a stole were all probably of Celtic origin. In later times
two or more bishops co-operated in carrying out the Ordinal. The
candidate might feel his need for episcopal authority and request
ordination. He might be chosen by his fellows and have the
dignity conferred on him. This seems to have been the way of
Aidan's consecration, when the brethren of Iona in conference
(conventu seniorum) decided to set him apart to preach. The
seniors might have called for a bishop to carry this out, or
there might even have been one present. But there is no record by
Adamnan that there was a bishop at Iona before 654. It certainly
appears that the joint resolution by the elders of Iona to honour
Aidan for the gospel ministry was similar to the decision of the
brethren at Antioch at the consecration of Barnabas and Saul for
their sacred functions.


     But with the final absorption of the Celtic Christian
organization  into that of Rome monarchical episcopacy became the
practice. In 1609 a jury of inquisition was set up in Ireland to
investigate the state of the Church. Here is part of their

     The said jurors doe, upon their oathes, finde and say, that
     Donnel Mc. Hugh O'Neale, kinge of Ireland, did, longe before
     any bushopps were made in the said kingdome of Ireland, give
     upon certaine holy men, whom they call sancti patrrs,
     severall portions of land ... and that the said portion of
     land, and third parte of the tiethes soe contynued free unto
     the corbe or herenagh, for many yeres, untill the church of
     Rome established bushopps in this kingdome, and decreed that
     everie corbe or herenagh should give unto the bushoppe
     (within whose dioces he lived) a yerely pension, more or
     less, accordinge to his proportion out of his entire


     In the Celtic Church there was no territorial jurisdiction
or predia endowment which later bishoprics possessed. The
introduction of bishops by the Church of Rome, spoken of above,
refers most probably to the Synod of Rathbreasil (1118) when, for
the first time, a papal legate presided in an Irish council. The
initial item on the agenda was to decide upon the regular bounds
of the dioceses and settle the endowments for the bishops. It
would seem, then, that episcopal government, as it is understood
in the Western Church, did not exist in Celtic Ireland until
after the Norse invasions, and came about as part of the process
of Romanization.

     But the early Celtic bishop-priest had many varied duties to
perform. Preaching and presiding at the altar were his regular
tasks. Teaching the Scriptures to the young, and baptizing
catechumens he carried out as opportunity occurred. He acted for
the believers in conferring church orders, ordaining deacons and
priests, and, later, other bishops, when the episcopal dignity
grew in stature. He also possessed the authority of "binding and
loosing". He provided for the circulation of the law books, the
Gospels, and the Psalms, by writing out the Scriptures, and he
officiated at the consecration of houses of worship. Occasionally
a bishop might even become the chief of his tribe and lead his
people to battle. A bishop might also act as a champion, farmer,
or blacksmith, and might even be a physician to the sick and

(So once more we see here some truth and some error. The Celtic
church was being influenced by the church of Rome, or simply by
man-made ideas and traditions - Keith Hunt)

     Through the centuries, and with the increasing influence of
Roman Christianity upon Celtic polity, the position of the bishop
grew in power. The process was very gradual and may be noted by
little hints. Columba recognized a visitor at Iona and deferred
to him the privilege of celebrating the Communion. But is this a
comminatory story to underline a state desired by the Romanizer


     The student of the Celtic sources notices mention of
deacons, here and there. The glossator has also left a picture of
the qualifications for the diaconate, basing his views on the
writings of St Paul. Deacons, like bishops, should be married to
"one wife before ordination", and should "have corrected their
households". The commentator advised, "Let testimony concerning
them be given before they are ordained", for they, too, "are
teachers of the faith", and therefore they must not be "double
tongued", i.e. "let not what they say and what they think be
different"; neither must they "sell the divine gifts for worldy
gain". For on a faithful deacon of this kind "it is proper to
confer a bishop's rank".

     In the post-Viking period the number of functionaries in the
Celtic Church grew. There are records of readers, singers,
door-keepers, bell-ringers, stewards, catechists, treasurers,
scribes, teachers, or doctors. A man might fill one or more of
these functions. Probably in deference to the use of the number
in the Apocalypse, the organization was occasionally termed "the
seven-graded church" to suggest perfection. Deacons are
mentioned, but not much is indicated about their actual duties.
The glossator, in his comments on St Paul's statements regarding
the offices of bishop and deacon in his letters to Timothy and
Titus, indicates that these offices were similar in the Celtic
Church to what they were in New Testament times.

To be continued with "Discipline"




Keith Hunt

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