History

THE COMING OF CHRISTIANITY TO THE BRITISH ISLES

In the tradition of the Church, Christianity was brought by people from the region of Ephesus and established in the British Isles by AD45.  This is somewhat bolstered by the fact that the Church in the British Isles maintained that its original Liturgy was that of Saint John, who is known to have lived in Ephesus in his later years.  Saint Gildas the Wise (a Welsh monk, pupil of St. Illtyd. + AD512) maintained in his History, that Christianity came to Britain in the last year of Tiberius Caesar i.e: AD37.

It is interesting to note that the antiquity of British Church, was unequivocally affirmed by five Papal councils: The council of Pisa (1409), the council of Constance (1417), the council of Sens (1418), the council of Sienna (1424), and the council of Basle (1434).  These five councils ruled that the Church in the British Isles is the oldest Church in the gentile world - this despite the fact it would have been politically advantageous for the popes to have ignored the fact, given the possibility of thereby offending France and Spain which were at the time, far more powerful than England.  It seems reasonable therefore, to assume that the documentary evidence in favour of the antiquity of the Church in the British Isles must have been overwhelming.  Sadly, much of that evidence is now lost, destroyed during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersion/destruction of their libraries then, and during the Civil War.

Saint Aristibule (Aristobulus, one of the Seventy Apostles mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Luke 10:1) who died circa AD90, as Bishop of Britain, was one of the early organisers of Christianity among the Celts in Brittany and Britain, according to Saint Dorotheus of Tyre.  The Orthodox Church regards him as the “Apostle of Britain” and accords him that title.  It is to him (and others with him) that we attribute the beginnings of The Church in the British Isles circa AD 37-45.

Recent archaeology suggests the oldest church building remains so far positively identified as such in Britain, as dating from approximately AD140.  We also know of domestic Christian remains of earlier date in the south of Britain.  Later we have the record of the ruler of part of south Wales-Western England, Saint Lucan bringing Saint Dyfan (often Latinised as Damian) and Saint Fagan (often Latinised as Fugatius) to his area circa AD160-180.  Then we have Saint Mydwyn and the Bishop, Saint Elvan, both of whom were Britons, of exactly the same period.  Bishop Elvan reputedly died at Glastonbury circa AD195.

The Roman historian Tertullian, in a tract written circa AD208 mentions the Church in Britain as having reached parts as yet unconquered by the Roman Army, which tells us that the Church had moved beyond the Roman pale and was certainly indigenised, as the actions of Saint Lucan clearly show.  Origen, writing thirty years later, also records the Church in Britain.

Saint Dyfan (+AD190c) is regarded as the first Christian Martyr of the British Isles (and hence the name of the town of Merthyr Dyfan just south of Cardiff in Wales).  The first recorded Christian Martyrs in England were the layman Saint Alban, Bishop Stephen of London, Bishop Socrates of York, Bishop Argulius of London, Bishop Amphibalus of LLandaff, Bishop Nicolas of Penrhyn, Bishop Melior of Carlisle, and others during the period AD300-304.

Constantine, the son of Constantius I (Chlorus) and Flavius Helena (said by Saint Ambrose to have been an innkeeper and by Chesterton and later historians to have possibly been a Briton) accompanied his father from Boulogne to York. There, in AD306 his father died and Constantine was proclaimed Augustus - ruler of the Roman Empire - at York.  Eventually he was to become known to posterity as the Emperor Constantine the Great.  Constantine together with Licenius issued the so-called Edict of Milan recognising Christianity.

In 314 the Bishop of Eborius (York), Bishop Restitutus of London and Bishop Adelfius of Caerleon and a large retinue attended the Council of Arles.

Saint Athanasius specifically states that the British Church recorded her agreement to the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 325.

Again, in 359, British Bishops attended the Council of Rimini.  The archaeological evidence of this period points to the chapels at Lullingstone and Silchester as dating from about 345. In short, the Church was not only quite well established over much of the British Isles by this time, but we have Saint John Chrysostom himself, testifying that it was fully Orthodox in its doctrine, (Chrysostomi Orat ’O Qeos Cristos).

Very soon after the importation of monasticism from Egypt to the Eastern Empire, it appeared in the British Church and quickly became extremely popular.  In fact, the British Church in the fifth century and thereafter, was organised on heavily monastic lines, to a far greater extent perhaps than other parts of the Church.  Hundreds of monasteries and hermitages, great and small, spread out across the British Isles. The monastic life appealed to the mystical quality of the Celtic mind.

It was not until the 4th century that the distinct characteristics of Celtic Christianity began to emerge. After the Romans withdrew from Britain, there was nearly 300 years of significant separation between the Celtic and Roman Christianity, during which time Celtic spirituality was free to develop away from Roman domination. The most significant development of Celtic Christianity was its understanding of the Christian Gospel independent from what was taught by Rome, indeed, it had more in common with the Byzantine Church from where Christianity first came to these shores. Roman Christianity tended to be authoritarian, hierarchical, male-dominated, very legalistic, with a powerful need for control and uniformity and an understanding of governance which was inherited from a dying Roman Empire.

In contrast, the British (Celtic) Church celebrated grace and nature as gifts from God and recognised the sacredness of all creation. It had a love of mysticism and poetry, a deep respect for the feminine, included women in its missionary work and allowed clerical marriage. The Celtic understanding of Church leadership was rooted in its rural and agricultural communal culture, and the great Celtic monasteries emerged from its already established tribal systems. Leadership and authority in the British (Celtic) Church, lay with the Abbot of the nearest monastery, who were learned, wise, holy, austere and yet gentle. Not unlike Native Americans of the indigenous Africans or Australians, Celtic people had little concept of land ownership or taxes, or tithes and little liking for cities, all of which were introduced into the Celtic lands later on by the Romans, and further established by the Normans. The Celtic approach to evangelism was a peaceful process without coercion or bloodshed.

5TH AND 6TH CENTURIES

The fifth and sixth centuries were marked by large-scale conversions to Christianity in Ireland and Britain, as the Celtic mission continued its emphasis on the image of God at the heart of humanity, and its conviction of the essential goodness of creation. Since the Celtic mission had no central organising force, consequently there was considerable variation and diversity in liturgical practises and monastic rules. By the beginning of the sixth century, Celtic Christianity was wholly monastic in its structure. Roman and Celtic missions did not meet again until the Roman mission to Britain in 597, under Augustine of Canterbury, when there was considerable disagreement. Augustine ‘summoned’ the British Bishops to a meeting, and before setting off, the Bishops all visited a holy hermit to seek his counsel regarding the impending meeting. The hermit advised: ‘if he (Augustine) is meek and lowly of heart, it shows that he bears the yoke of Christ Himself, however, if he is haughty and unbending then he is not of God and you should not listen to him’. Upon meeting with the Britiish Bishops, Augustine, the representative of the Holy See of Rome and the personal envoy of the Pope, firstly refused to stand upon their entry, then proceeded to declare that they must accept the new dating of Easter, use the Roman method of tonsuring and take on the responsibility for converting the newly-arrived Saxons, and leave their wives; and if they refused to do these things, they would meet with their deaths! Unsurprisingly, the British Bishops, remembering the words of the hermit, walked out of the meeting. At one level the conflicts appeared superficial such as the dating of Easter, or the style of clerical tonsure, but at a deeper level it was due to their radically different ways of seeing Christianity and the Church.

664 AD THE SYNOD OF WHITBY

Differences between the two missions (Celtic and Roman) eventually led to the Synod of Whitby in 664. The representatives of the Celtic mission argued from the authority of Saint John, who was ‘the beloved of Jesus’, while the Roman mission appealed to the authority of Saint Peter to whom Jesus said ‘thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church’. The outcome was a judgement against the Celtic mission by Rome.

The tragedy of Whitby was not so much the affirmation of the ways of Rome, but that the way of love of St. John began to be displaced in the spirituality of the Church of the Romans over the Church of the Britons. British monastic communities were replaced by Benedictine monasteries, and strict uniformity to Rome was enforced. On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, where the Celtic community had worshipped outside around high standing crosses, or in simple wooden structures, the high, four stone walls of a Roman church were built. It symbolised the ascendancy of a religious tradition that increasingly was to separate the mystery of God from the mystery of creation. Gradually, the Celtic holy places came to be identified with the indoor Roman church sanctuary, rather than the outdoor Celtic sanctuary of earth, sea and sky. 

AFTER THE SYNOD OF WHITBY

The decree of Whitby did not immediately change the whole face of British Christianity. For hundreds of years there were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, notably in Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland; for instance on Iona, the Celtic monastic community of the great St. Columba was not finally dispersed until the Benedictine Abbey was built in the 13th century. The period of resistance was marked by some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition with illuminated Gospel manuscripts like the ‘Book of Kells’, and the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’, and high standing crosses with Scriptural imagery on one side and creation imagery on the other. The general picture throughout Britain and Ireland, however, was of gradual conformity to the Roman mission although the riches of its spirituality were guarded in the teachings of an oral tradition passed down among the laity for hundreds of years. 

16TH CENTURY - THE REFORMATION

Increasingly, and especially after the 16th Century Reformation in Britain, the Celtic tradition again met with resistance. The reciting of their prayers was discouraged and even banned. In Scotland, a combination of Religious persecution and the 19th Century Highland clearances, in which thousands of families were torn from their ancestral lands to make room for large scale sheep farming, resulted in the fragmentation of the Celtic culture. This loss of the collective memory, meant that the oral tradition began to be lost.

19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES

The devastation of the previous centuries, however, did not represent the death of the British Celtic tradition. Attempts were made to transcribe and collect the prayers, in Scotland in Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland in Douglas Hyde's Religious Songs of Connacht (1906). Carmichael and Hyde were part of a revival of Celtic art and literature, and others were finding new ways to express the spirituality of the Celtic tradition. Although they had ensured that written copies of some of the prayers were preserved, by the 20th century, their living use had virtually disappeared. Despite the previous centuries of resistance to the Celtic tradition, the 20th century saw a growing interest of the Celtic tradition and an increasing depth of appreciation for its spiritual riches, and their applicability for today. This included the founding of communities on both Iona and Lindisfarne, plus a great world-wide upsurge in interest in Celtic spirituality.