The Celtic Church in Northumbria
The early Christian Church in Britain and Ireland
The Christian Church in Roman times
As an introduction to this series of talks I feel it is important to place the Irish or “Celtic” Church in Northumbria within the wider context of the Early Christian Church in Britain and Ireland. Although St Augustine of Canterbury, sent in 596AD by Pope Gregory, to preach the Gospel to the English people, is regarded as the apostle of England; many would say that St Aidan was its true apostle. Augustine’s mission began in the south with Canterbury as its main centre while Aidan’s mission began in the north arriving some forty years later than Augustine but enjoying far greater success in his missionary endeavours. Of course, these two men were not the first missionaries in England. It is accepted without question and documented by St. Bede and others that the Christian faith came to Britain during the Roman occupation, however, the exact date of its arrival is unknown. The first documentary evidence comes from the Church Father Tertulian, who writing in about 208 A.D. claimed that: parts of Britain inaccessible to the Romans were indeed conquered by Christ.
It has been speculated that its coming was the result of Christians fleeing from Lyons in Gaul, or France as it is known today, during the persecution of Emperor Marcus Aurelius around the year 177AD. St Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People(1) , which will be our main source for these talks,does report that in the second century a British king, Lucius(2) was baptised at his own request and that his example was followed by many of his people. From then it is believed that the Church continued to expand in Britain, however, very little has been recorded about its growth or development. Also, according to St. Bede Britain’s first martyr St. Alban died during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian about 305. Alban in fact was martyred for shielding a monk(3) , who had instructed him in the faith and who himself was martyred shortly afterwards, so the Church would seem to have been fairly well established in certain parts of Britain by then.
The Break-up of the Roman Empire – The Anglo Saxon Invasion
Apart from some references in St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History little is known the Church in Britain in the late 4th and 5th centuries. With the break up of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the country by the Saxons and the Angles it was a very difficult and lean period for the Church. At the beginning of the 5th century the evacuation of the Roman army from Britain began; the Roman forces were recalled to the mainland and especially to Rome defend the Empire now in danger of being overrun by the Barbarians, coming from Northern and Eastern Europe.. This provided the British Celts with the opportunity of reclaiming the territories they had lost to the Romans; but in the absence of the common enemy fairly intense tribal warfare, which the Celts were well known for, developed. While all this was going on Bede tells us that the Irish were taking full advantage coming across to raid and plunder and then take the booty back with them to Ireland. It was in one of those raids that Patrick was taken to Ireland as a slave. The Picts were doing the same from the north, from across the Scottish border.
Then, around the year 425AD, one of the British Chiefs King Vortigern, in desperation when the neighbouring tribes were getting the better of him, invited the Anglo-Saxons, from Northern Europe, to come and help him in his battles. The Anglo Saxons came not only to help but to take the spoils for themselves, which was the beginning of the Anglicisation of Britain; an invasion which was far more successful than the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th century which arose out of similar circumstances. There was one notable character, a Britain, apparently trained as a Roman fighter, who had put up a valiant fight against the Anglo Saxons and for a time had managed to keep the incoming tide of invaders at bay, until eventually the Anglo Saxons broke through and the Celts and their leader had to retreat westward to Cornwall and Wales. That leader has become known as the legendary figure King Arthur and the myth goes that he is still in hiding waiting for the day when he will lead the British Celts to regain their lost heritage.
The Anglo Saxons were pagan; and while there were Christian communities in Britain at the time. Bede tells us that many of them lost the faith or reverted to paganism after the Romans left. Patrick admits to this in his Confessions. There were some, however, who had been driven to Wales and along the Western seaboard that seemed to have persevered in the faith; certainly the Western seaboard was an area where missionary outreaches especially from France were welcomed and monastic settlements developed from which Christianity began to spread northwards to Scotland and Westwards to Ireland. Bede writes about one such missionary outreach among the Picts in Cumbria and Southern Scotland led by St. Ninian; (360 – 432).(4)
The Early Irish Church
And now to Ireland; to talk about the “Celtic” Church in Northumbria it is important that we look to its origins in the early Irish Church, which, in fact, brings us back before the time of St Patrick. Most of us were brought up to believe that St Patrick was the first to bring the Christian faith to Ireland in the year 432AD. More recent research, however, has shown that there were Christian communities in Ireland especially in the south when Patrick arrived, these had their own Bishops, notably St’s Ailbe, Coleman, Declan and Ciaran, whose mission was centred in the Munster area. Prosper of Acquatine, the French Chronicler of the 5th century mentions that Pope Celestine sent the Bishop Palladius to the Christians of Ireland in the year 431A.D. That was the year before Patrick was reputed to have begun his mission to the Irish. It is strange that Prosper doesn’t mention Patrick and that nothing further is known of Palladius, not even from Irish sources, so one has to conclude from this that it is difficult to ascertain any factual information about the Church in early medieval Ireland.
One major influence in shaping the early Irish Church seems to have been Ireland’s association with the Church in Gaul (France), which in the late 4th and early 5th centuries had been strongly influenced by Eastern Desert Monasticism that seemed to put up a better battle, than the non-monastic diocesan based churches of Rome, against the invading tribes from the north and east in the break up of the Roman Empire. There are many great names associated with that period in Gaul one of the best known was St. Martin of Tours (316 – 397). Martin, originally a Roman soldier, started off his missionary life as a newly converted Christian in a monastery in Tours.
I think it is important to give some background here to the French connection.
St Martin of Tours
By the early 5th Century Martin had become famous, a legendary figure, of Biblical proportions mainly through The Life of St Martin written by the hagiographer Sulpicius Servus, who presented Martin as being remarkable for his Christian charity and life of poverty; renowned for his healing powers, even to the extent of raising the dead. He was also reputed the have a great missionary zeal. His Christian life was rooted in the ideals of Eastern monasticism. However, unlike the monks of the Egyptian and Syrian Desert, high on Martin’s agenda and on the agenda of French monasticism was the desire to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers. The desert monks focused their energies more on developing the interior life – the life of prayer and contemplation through ascetical living and weren’t really concerned about missionary outreach; having said that, people seemed to flock to them from the cities in their droves. The great gift to the Church from desert monasticism is the development of a theology for the spiritual life and of Christian mysticism, which in turn formed the basis for western monasticism and was at the heart of its missionary outreach. So Martin both because of his exemplary life and his great missionary zeal played a big part in the growth of monasticism in France and in bringing the Christian faith to England and Ireland at a time when the Christian faith in Europe was being threatened with extinction.
Another French man who played a significant part in this movement was John Cassian (360 – 433), who, as a youth, went to join the desert monks in Egypt and Syria, later to return to France bringing back with him much of the wisdom and the spirituality of Eastern Monasticism which he shared in his famous Book of Conferences, a masterpiece on prayer and on the spiritual life and still widely used today. He founded his first monastery at Marseilles. Also another Frenchman named Honoratus founded a monastery at Lerins, where it is believed that many Irish studied, including St. Patrick. So there was a sense in which France of the 4th and 5th Centuries looked more to the East than to Rome, certainly adopting the spirituality of desert monasticism, but also taking on some of its structures while directing its missionary zeal and outreach westwards towards England and Ireland.
Monasticism in Ireland
The connection with Martin of Tours and French Monasticism I would think has been very significant to the development of the Early Irish Church. As well as being missionaries another important feature of French and later Irish monasticism was a great respect for the discipline of learning and scholarship. There seemed to be a keen awareness among the French of that time, with the break up of the Roman Empire, that they were living in a period of change and transition and they were conscious of the danger of losing contact with the past, not just in terms of Church history, its teachings and literature but also in terms of the more secular history and literature which they regarded as foundational to the religious and cultural identity of Europe. So the monks were involved in collecting, copying, in translating and in cataloguing classical literature and historical documents from the ancient Greek and Roman cultures as well as manuscripts from the Eastern Church, Rome and other sources. The Irish monasteries carried on this tradition and we know became renowned as centres of learning and scholarship, and the Irish seemed to take to the spirituality of Eastern desert monasticism with its emphasis on penitential and ascetical practice, although, as we will see Irish monasticism took on its own unique shape and form.
Irish Church Unique in its Structures
While the relationship between Gaul and Ireland was close and significant Daibhi O’Croinin assures us that in structure: the Irish Church appeared to be organised along lines that differed markedly from the Church in Gaul. From an initially standard administrative system adopted from the Western church, [by St. Patrick] in which bishops ruled over diocese whose territorial boundaries were clearly defined, the Irish churches seemed to have beentransformed into a quite different but distinctive organisation in which most of the important churches are monastic houses, united to lesser daughter houses in a confederation of paruchia [parishes] under the overall control of the abbot of the mother church. In stark contrast to the earlier continental pattern the paruchia was not a territorial unit with fixed boundaries. This and other distinctive features marked off the Irish churches as peculiar: administrative power was in the hands of the Abbot, not the bishop. Bishops there were still, of course, since the ecclesiastical dignities and sacramental functions of the bishop could never be dispensed with. But his administrative jurisdiction was apparently a thing of the past; that now rested in the hands of the abbot. There was nothing like this in the Continent. (5) The greatest example and evidence of this model in the Irish Church was the monastery at Iona founded by St Columba.
The above quote from Daibhi is borne out by the fact that the church founded by St Patrick, who was trained in France, was diocesan in the western style of the time, but none-the-less distinctive because of its association with Eastern monasticism. Daibhi would see the Irish model developing after the time of Patrick and being established from the year 600AD onwards. This unique structure of the Irish Church proved its value in the Golden Age of Irish Christianity; it became, however, a source of tension in Ireland’s missionary outreach to Britain and the Continent. Although church structures and organisation didn’t seem to be on the agenda for the Synod of Whitby; I have no doubt that it was part of a hidden agenda in the attempts to bring the Irish Church in Northumbria into line with the Roman non-monastic diocesan model of Church. Bede in his history makes reference to this difference and reading between the lines one can sense that he didn’t quite approve. Writing about the Irish Church in Northumbria Bede refers to the mother church in Iona saying: This Island always has an abbot for its ruler, who is a priest, to whose authority the whole province, including the bishops are subject - he then comments: - an unusual order of things in which they follow the example of their teacher [Columba] who was not a bishop, but a priest and a monk..(6)
Irish Society - Tribal
How the church evolved in Ireland taking on this unique shape and structure and how the church managed to flourish and blossom and bear the abundant fruit of its Golden Age is not easy to ascertain. There is the more romantic view that Christianity(7) came into a settled society with its own well developed hierarchical social structures, with the Gospel acting as a leaven that soon transformed what was a secular and pagan society into a dynamic Christian society without destroying those existing social structures; leaving us with that unique model of church organisation which Daibhi talked about above.
Now if we compare this with what Daibhi himself has to say, a very different picture of those early times, seem to emerge. He suggests that the 5th century onwards was a time of radical upheaval in Irish society; that plagues, famines among other things brought about the collapse of traditional Irish society. He even suggests that - and I quote: It might be said, indeed, that it [Ireland] changed more during that time than it has ever done since;(8) and as evidence of the radical nature of those changes he refers to Ogham Stone inscriptions of that period; in this he is telling us that change taking place in the Irish language evidenced in the Ogham script of the time; touched into and brought about a change at the very core and heart of Irish culture and society. He also suggests that Parallel changes in the physical landscape may have led to the emergence of new political groupings and dynasties which appear to dominate the historical narrative from this point on. Scholars argue that the older, tribal, ‘archaic’ structures of society either collapsed or were deliberately dismantled by a new breed of men, more ruthless and dynamic than their predecessors who rode roughshod over the ancient taboos and tribal customs of the prehistoric period in their drive for power and position. (9)
The Evolution of the Early Irish Church
From this perspective, which seems more the more realistic one, we might speculate that in this traumatic time of change and struggle for survival, with old securities gone, people were vulnerable and desperate, and because of that they were open, ready hear and respond, to the Gospel message that offered them hope and especially a new vision for the transformation of society. One could even surmise that the Irish people of the time went through some sort of national death and resurrection or conversion experience out of which a new society slowly and, I’m sure, painfully began to emerge. As it is believed that the Gospel when preached at that time adopted a more holistic approach thus affirming rather than destroying what was good and wholesome in people’s lives, in their society and in their heritage, a continuity was maintained with the past and the foundations were being set on which the new vision of society offered by the Gospel began to develop. This is just my attempt to make sense of what happened and is purely speculative’ but I believe that it fits better into Daibhi’s scholarly account than to the more romantic theories. Which I think should give some hope to us today. While those early centuries of the church must have been difficult and trying times I believe they were also times of great excitement and enthusiasm as individuals and communities began to experience the transformative power of the Gospel giving shape to new and vibrant communities. A process which eventually from the 6th century onwards found expression in a Church organisation that was, as Daibhi O’Croinin tells us, unique to the then known world and that eventually saw Ireland moving into its Golden Era; but also moving out to share with the world at large its message of hope and salvation being offered through the transforming power of the Gospel. And that takes us across the Irish Sea to Northumbria. Acknowledging, however, that Irish monks were already working in parts of England, Bede mentions with great affection the mission of Fursey in the area of East Anglia(10) . Now to the Irish mission to Northumbria.
Irish Mission to Northumbria
First of all it is believed that the monastic model of Church, which adapted itself so well to the tribal and rural nature of Irish society, was a major factor in the success of the Irish mission to England in the early 7th Century. While Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures differed in many respects both were believed to be similar in their tribal structures. They were certainly more a kin to one another than were the urban structures of the early Romano-British culture. Those similarities proved to be more favourable to the Celtic monastic model than they were to the Roman Diocesan model of Augustine in the south of England. This must, to some degree, account for the way the Christian Church spread rapidly after Aidan and the monks who accompanied him established their mission to the North East of England at Lindisfarne. Another important and, I would think, vital factor in the success of this mission was the circumstance in which this mission came about in the first place, which was through the invitation of Oswald the Christian King of Northumbria. This led to a unique and harmonious relationship between church and state working together in the service of the Gospel.
Oswald becomes King
First of all Oswald who initiated this mission needs a mention, but to set Oswald in context we need to refer to his predecessor King Edwin, who during his reign as Christian king of Northumbria (616 -633) was responsible for bringing the Roman bishop Paulinus, one of Augustine’s missionary companions, to preach the Gospel to his subjects in Northumbria. Unfortunately Cadwallon the British king of Wales and Penda of Mercia killed him in 632 at the battle of Hatfield Chase. There is no doubt that Edwin was Bede’s hero and would like to place the foundations of the Christian Church in the kingdom at his and Paulinus’ feet, however, it is obvious that little progress was made in that respect and with Edwin’s premature death Paulinus and his associates fled to the South of England and so instead of the Gospel Northumbria quickly reverted to its old pagan ways.
During Edwin’s short reign the sons of the former king of Northumbria and nephews of Edwin, Oswald and Oswy were exiled among the Scots and Irish. They were educated in the monastery of Iona founded by St. Columba, here they became deeply attached to the Irish Church and were baptised Christian while there. Also, it is believed that they were fostered out to Irish nobility where they learned the art of political and military engagement. On the news of Edwin’s death Oswald prepared to return to take possession of what he regarded as his rightful inheritance. Before he could do so he had to engage the pagan king Cadwallon in battle. Before the battle Bede tells us he erected a wooden cross at which he and his small band of soldiers prayed. Bede recalls that while he was in prayer, before the battle Columba appeared to him in a vision speaking the following words of encouragement to him: This coming night go forth from the camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted me that your foes shall be put to flight and your enemy given into your hands (11) On the following day Oswald took the enemy by surprise, Cadwallon was killed at the battle of Heavenfield in 633 and the victory marked the beginning of Oswald’s reign as king of Northumbria in 644AD. In this story St Bede associates Oswald with Constantine whose vision of the Cross led him to victory and to conversion..
Iona to Lindisfarne
In gratitude for the victory Oswald decided that the Gospel should be preached to his people. His association with the Church up to then was the Irish Church in Iona so without delay he sent a request to the Abbot for missionaries to preach the Gospel to his subjects. The first to arrive with 12 apostles was the Bishop Corman a man who St Bede tells was of austere disposition, and who seemed to have made very little progress and in a short time decided that the people of Northumbria were too ignorant and stubborn to accept the message of the gospel and so returned to Iona. When he gave his reasons for returning to his fellow monks at Iona one of them responded in these words brother, it seems that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them, with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.
In speaking out Aidan had chosen himself as Corman’s successor and indeed succeeded where Corman had failed. Little is known about Aidan’s origins. There is speculation that he was a Cork man and was a monk at a southern monastery before he went to join Columba at Iona. After his wise interjection at Iona he was immediately ordained bishop and left for Northumbria with a band of twelve apostles. Oswald gave him the Island of Lindisfarne where he established his monastery. The title of next week’s talk is From Lindisfarne to Whitby as we continue the story of the Celtic or Irish Church in Northumbria.
Final Reflection: The Hermit and His Blackbird
I need to watch the sun, to calculate the hours that I should pray to God. But the blackbird who nests in the roof of my hut makes no such calculations: he sings God’s praises all the day long.
I need books to read, to learn the hidden truths of God. But the blackbird who shares my simple meals needs no written texts: he can read the love of God in every leaf and flower.
I need to beg forgiveness, to make myself pure and fit for God. But the blackbird who drinks with me from the stream sheds no tears of contrition: he is as God made him, with no stain of sin. Amen
(1) St. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Surrey UK: Richmond = Tiger, 2007) Book 1, Cpt. IV, p.11
(2) Bede, xxix
(3) Bede, 1, VII p14-17
(4) Bede, III, IV, 137ff
(5) Daibhi O’Croinin, Early Medieval Ireland 400 – 1200 (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., 1995), 147
(6) Bede III, 4
(7) Sources for this view are: Brendan Lehane, Early Celtic Christianity; and Martin Robinson, Discovering The Celts.
(8) O’Croinin, 41
(10) Bede’ III, XIX, 169
(11) Cited in: Margaret Gallyon, The Early Church in Northumbria (Suffolk: Terence Dalton, 1977), 25.