There is a good reason for the question mark in the title. The truth of the matter is that our knowledge of this particular subject remains limited. There are aspects of the nature of Christianity in the Celtic lands that are still shrouded in mystery, and there are certainly serious question marks concerning the ways in which Celtic Christianity is portrayed today.
Celts in the Bible?
Christianity has existed in the Celtic lands since the New Testament times. Galatia – which has the same etymology as the French name for Wales, Pays de Galles – was an ancient Celtic kingdom in north central Asia Minor (Turkey today). However, in 25BC the Romans created a new province that they called Galatia, which included both the ancient Celtic area and non-Celtic lands to the south.
Was Paul’s letter to the Galatians written to Christians in the original Celtic kingdom or to those in the southern part of the province where he had just been on his first missionary journey? Although there are strong arguments on both sides, it is more likely that he was writing to the recent converts in the south who had been confused by the corrupted gospel of the Judaizers.
However, Peter wrote two letters to Christians throughout Asia Minor, including believers in Galatia – and these were almost certainly the Celtic Christians in the north. Thus, there were churches among the Celts from the early years of the Church’s history.
A distinctive Christianity?
By the year 200 Christianity had arrived in Britain through the witness of ordinary people – merchants, officials, soldiers, etc. In 314, three bishops from Britain attended the Synod of Arles in Gaul, demonstrating that the Church in Britain was well enough established by then to have a formal structure and to be able to send representatives to a wider church council.
However, it was not until around the year 400 that there was the beginning of a distinctly ‘Celtic’ Christianity. Up until that time, the Roman armies occupied Britain, and Christianity here was much the same as it was in other parts of the Roman Empire. After the Romans left, however, the Anglo-Saxons invaded eastern England, driving the Celtic peoples to the west and largely – although not entirely – separating them from Christians on the Continent.
As a result, Christianity in Wales to some extent developed independently of the direct authority of Rome. Nevertheless, the technical differences between Celtic Christianity and Catholic Christianity were quite minor, such as the way in which the monks cut their hair and the manner in which Easter was calculated. Monasticism was popular in both, although in Wales it took a different form, based on the ‘clas’. This was a community of men – who were free to marry and raise a family – responsible for worship, evangelism, and pastoral work within society at large.
However, there was a definite difference as regards spiritual life and vigour. By the sixth century, Catholic Christianity had grown incredibly in terms of numbers, authority and influence, but it had lost much of its inner vitality. This was the very time when Ireland and Wales were experiencing revival and the widespread planting of churches. Christianity in Celtic lands also seems to have been mostly orthodox in theology in the fifth and sixth centuries. For example, Patrick quoted the Bible extensively, and Garmon and David defended the doctrines of grace against the heresy of Pelagianism.
It must be acknowledged nevertheless that, as the centuries progressed, there was a growing tendency among Celtic Christians to follow their Catholic counterparts in adopting an unbiblical emphasis on the sacraments and penance, at the expense of salvation through grace and justification by faith. This spiritual decline was exacerbated by political pressure and the lack of an administrative structure able to withstand Roman Christianity. At the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Christians of north-east England accepted the authority of the Catholic Church. Elsewhere this process was more gradual: the final assimilation did not happen throughout the Celtic lands until after the Norman Conquest.
A Celtic Church?
Although there were some distinctions between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Catholic’ forms of Christianity between 400 and 1100, it is misleading to talk of a ‘CelticChurch’. We cannot be sure that there was a unified system of beliefs among the Celts during this period. (It is worth remembering that since 1940 there have been major variations in belief and behaviour among those who call themselves ‘evangelical’. In other words, even ‘evangelicals’ have not displayed a unified system of beliefs over the last 70 years, let alone 700 years.) Most of the available written sources come from Ireland, but there is no absolute certainty that the material contained in them is an accurate reflection of the position in the other Celtic lands.
Nor was there a uniform ecclesiastical structure among Christians in the Celtic lands – Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and parts of northern England. This was partly due to geography: although there was much contact between the Celts via the ‘western seaways’, travel was far from easy and there were no modern means of communication to help to organize and regulate the Church. Moreover, by the time of the Synod of Whitby in 664 the basic Celtic language had already begun to branch out into a number of different tongues, which meant that there was no lingua franca among Celtic believers – Welsh speakers, for example, understand something of Cornish and Breton, but little of Scottish Gaelic and Erse.
There was never any unified, structured body or administrative centre that bound together the churches in the Celtic lands. In other words, there was no ‘CelticChurch’ as such, and perhaps no uniform ‘Celtic Christianity’ either, only Christians who were Celts and churches that existed among them.
Key figures in the history of Christianity among the Celts
Pelagius (fl. 400) was a monk from southern Britain. There is no definite proof that he was from Wales – Wales as such did not exist as a separate entity at that time – although the Welsh had their own name for him, namely ‘Morgan’. He came to prominence in Rome by rejecting the teaching that humans are sinners by nature. Rather, he held that we have an inherent freedom to choose either good or evil, and are therefore ‘sinners’ only when we actually do that which is wrong. God’s grace is really the ability to live without sinning, through following the example of Jesus Christ.
Augustine of Hippo saw it as one of his major tasks to counter the insidious effects of Pelagianism. Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378-c. 448) – ‘Garmon’ in Welsh – came to Wales in 429 and perhaps again in 447 to counter Pelagian teachings here and to declare that salvation is of grace – through the grace of God alone, not through our actions or lack of them. There are many places in north Wales named after him, including Maes Garmon (the Welsh-medium secondary school in Mold), Llanarmon-yn-Iâl, Capel Garmon, Betws Garmon, and St Harmon. In the following century the only recorded sermon of St. David (died 589) warns his hearers about the dangers of Pelagianism.
Patrick (c. 390–c. 461), the patron saint of Ireland, was a Celt from near the coast of western Britain – probably Wales or possibly Scotland. Kidnapped by pirates when he was 16 year of age and taken to Ireland, he was converted there through the direct work of the Holy Spirit. He then escaped and returned home, but felt a burden to take the gospel back to Ireland. Possibly after receiving theological training from Germanus in Gaul, he returned to preach the gospel and break the power of paganism in Ireland. His Confession frequently quotes from the Bible and records how the gospel prospered as it was preached among the Irish. His labours there were quite independent of Roman Christianity.
Although Illtud (c. 475-c. 525) may have originally been from Brittany, he became one of the great heroes of early Welsh theological history through the school that he established at Llanilltud Fawr in the Vale of Glamorgan. (Unfortunately the name of the place where he founded his school has been corrupted in the English language in a way that makes a mockery of his very important contribution. I have a conscientious objection to stating the name in English, but it begins with ‘Llan’ and ends with ‘Major’. ) Many of those who studied there – including St David, according to one tradition – went forth to plant churches the length and breadth of Wales. A great number of these are among the place-names beginning with ‘Llan’, which means the enclosed land where a church was established.
A forerunner of the Reformation?
The preface to the 1567 Welsh New Testament argues that Celtic Christianity was Christianity in its purest form. The true faith in Wales had been corrupted by the Catholic Church, but now there was a ‘second flowering of the gospel’.
Despite these assertions, however, it is at best an exaggeration to think of Christianity among the Celts as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. At its peak Christianity among the Celts was basically orthodox in theology and brimming with spiritual vitality, but its weaknesses must also be acknowledged. Reference has already been made to the gradual adoption of Catholic practices, particularly an overemphasis on the sacraments. Later still, some Celtic Christians were guilty of a further deviation from the truth by turning a healthy respect for the natural world into a failure to distinguish adequately between the Creator and the creation, thereby embracing a form of pantheism.
While there is much to commend, it was hardly the ‘pure’ form of Christianity that some have imagined it to be, and to regard it as a forerunner of the Reformation is to do an injustice to the historical record.
A forerunner of the modern missionary movement?
Planting the ‘llannau’ the length and breadth of Wales during the sixth century – there are over 500 of them – was a remarkable missionary endeavour. Although not every ‘llan’ dates from that period, it was a time of revival here, a remarkable expression of the sovereign power of God resulting in fervent evangelistic labour. So many of those road-signs beginning with ‘Llan’ bear witness to what God did in Wales 1500 years ago.
Preachers also travelled extensively to take the gospel to other lands. The ‘western seaways’ provided a means of taking many of them between Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Columba went from Ireland to Iona in 563 in order to evangelize south-west Scotland, and Aidan from Iona to Lindisfarne in 635 to set up a base for the gospel in north-east England. There are also reports of Celtic missionaries in Iceland and on the Continent – including what we now know as France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy – and it has even been claimed that some went as far as Russia.
There is, moreover, a direct connection between the modern missionary movement and Celtic Christianity, with Patrick’s evangelistic labours in Ireland helping to inspire William Carey to go to India. Carey wrote: ‘He who raised the sottish and brutalised Britons to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, can raise these slaves of superstition [in India], purify their hearts by faith, and make them worshippers of the one God in spirit and in truth.’ Carey took encouragement from the fact that Patrick took the gospel to the Irish, ‘who before his time were totally uncivilized, and, some say, cannibals; . . . and laid the foundation of several churches in Ireland.’
Celtic Christianity today
Celtic Christianity as it is widely interpreted today, however, has nothing to do with historical reality. To quote Tolkien, the word ‘Celtic’ has become ‘a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.’ Celtic Christianity has been reinvented and actively promoted as a cure-all for those who are longing for a spirituality missing from the materialistic and secularized modern world. In its imagined form, it is presented as ‘spiritual’ and ‘holistic’, at the expense of both doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical structures. Today’s version of Celtic Christianity is ‘ecological, feminist, spontaneous, non-cerebral, poetic, mystical, almost pantheistic, [and] easily shades off into the New Age paganism.’ In other words, it is all about modern aspirations and agendas, and has little if any connection with the actual reality of Christianity as it existed in the Celtic lands.
There remain many question marks concerning Celtic Christianity, but at its best it had a healthy emphasis on the Bible, prayer, evangelism, and simple living, and a genuine respect for the created world and the creative arts. It was orthodox concerning sin and Christ, and remarkably zealous in its missionary endeavours. At a time when much of western Europe was experiencing the beginning of the ‘Dark Ages’, the light of the gospel shone forth in Wales and the other Celtic lands.
The quotation from Carey is in Michael A. G. Haykin, ‘Patrick: Inspiration for the Mission of William Carey and his Friends.’ Banner of Truth, 594 (March 2013), 5-6.
The quotation from Tolkien should be attributed as follows:
Quoted in Marian Raikes, Light from Dark Ages? An Evangelical Critique of Celtic Spirituality (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 6.
The quotation from Clifford Longley should be attributed as follows:
Clifford Longley, quoted in ibid, 50.