The Celtic Church in Britain

(As needed for the understanding of the Celtic Church in Ireland)

We do not know when Christianity reached the British Isles, but we can deduce from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, (all 2nd century) that Christianity had reached Britain in their time. Constantine – who had spent some time with his father in Britain – quoted the British church as an example of orthodoxy.

The Ancient Celtic Church – 400AD

In the early part of the fourth century the Celtic church had a complete organization, with its bishops and metropolitans.

The doctrines and the ritual of the old church were simple. They taught the oneness of the Godhead; the Trinity, the divine and human nature of Christ, redemption through His death, and the eternity of future rewards and punishments. They regarded the Lord’s supper as a symbol, not a miracle; they took both the bread and wine as our Lord commanded these should be taken – in remembrance of Him and they did not refuse the wine to the laity. Their hierarchy consisted of bishops and priests, with other ministers, and a particular service was employed at their ordination. Marriage was common among the clergy. There were monasteries with monks living in them, sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience to their abbot. Each church had many altars; and the priests chanted the service (in Latin). Disputes were finally settled by provincial synods, held twice a year, beyond which, on matters of discipline, there was no appeal.

The Celtic Church scarcely survived the middle of the seventh century. Her calamities came in three successive steps – the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain; the Saxon Conquest; and the Augustinian Mission.

The withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain

When the barbarian troops started to attack the Roman Empire, her troops were gradually withdrawn from Britain. In the middle of the fifth century the Romans had finally left completely. The government then fell into the hands of a number of petty quarrelling princes. Civil wars, national weakness, and demoralization followed, with their usual effects.

The withdrawal of the Roman troops exposed the country to invaders, especially the Picts and Scots. The British chiefs, unable to resist these audacious robbers and spoilers, appealed in their distress to Rome. “The barbarians,” they said, “break through our walls, like wolves into a sheep-fold, retire with their booty and return every succeeding year.” But the Romans were unable to help their old friends. Disappointed and despairing the Britons turned to the Saxons for help.

The Saxons Conquest (500AD)

About the middle of the fifth century the Saxon ships of Hengist and Horsa reached the British coast. They completely defeated the Picts and Scots. But now they in turn became the conquerors and masters of the ill-fated Britons. The Angles and other tribes poured in on the country; and although the Britons did not yield without a severe struggle, the Saxon power prevailed, and reduced the natives to entire submission, or drove them to seek shelter in the mountains of Wales, Cornwall, and Cumberland. The Saxons and Angles were not only wild warriors, they were savage and merciless. They exterminated Christianity wherever they conquered. According to Bede, the bishops and their people were indiscriminately slaughtered with fire and sword, and there was no one to bury the victims of such cruelty. Many emigrated, and some settled in Armorica, (Brittany), France. However, the Celtic Church survived in the northern and western districts.

Britain, after this event, relapsed into a state of obscure barbarism, was withdrawn from the view of the civilised world, and was sunk down to the depths of misery and cruelty. In 563 Colum Cille arrived in Iona and brought the Gospel back again to (mainly northern) Britain.

The Augustinian Mission (596AD)

In 596, 150 years after the arrival of the Saxons in Britain, Augustine was sent by Gregory the Great to the Anglo-Saxons. After initial discouragement, forty-one missionaries landed on the Isle of Thanet and announced to Ethelbert, king of Kent, their arrival from Rome, and their message of glad tidings of great joy to himself and all his people. Ethelbert’s wife, Queen Bertha was of the house of Clovis and Clotilda. Her father, Clotaire the First, king of the Franks, had stipulated in her marriage settlement that she was to be allowed the free profession of Christianity.

Ethelbert, influenced by his queen, received the missionaries kindly. Augustine and his retinue were allowed to proceed to Canterbury, the residence of the king. The king was informed that they had come with good tidings, even eternal life to those that received them, and the enjoyment of the blessedness of Heaven forever. The king was favorably impressed, and gave them a mansion in the royal city of Canterbury, and liberty to preach the gospel to his court and his people. They then marched to the city, singing in concert the litany; “We pray thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that Thine anger and Thy fury may be removed from this city, and from Thy holy house, because we have sinned. Alleluia.”

By these preparatory steps the missionaries’ way was now plain and easy. The approval of the monarch inspired his subjects with confidence, and opened their hearts to the teachers. Converts, such as they were, multiplied rapidly. On the Christmas day of the year 597 ten thousand people were baptized. Ethelbert also submitted to baptism, and Christianity became the established religion of his kingdom. Augustine’s progress outside Kent was at first slow. The Welsh rejected his claim of supremacy over all Christians by virtue of his Roman commission, and they were expelled from London, where Augustine had hoped to put the Metropolitan See.

The submission of the Celtic Church

Augustine obtained a conference with some of the Celtic bishops (a numerous Christian population still existed in the northern and western districts) at a place that from that time was called Augustine’s oak, on the Severn. Augustine’s demand to the Celtic clergy was, “Acknowledge the authority of the bishop of Rome.” “We desire to love all men,” they replied, “and whatever we do for you, we will do for him also whom you call the Pope.” Surprised and indignant at their refusal, Augustine exhorted them to adopt the Roman usage as to the celebration of Easter, the tonsure, and the administration of baptism, that a uniformity of discipline and worship might be established in the island. This they refused to do. Having received Christianity at first not from Rome but from the East, and never having acknowledged the Roman church as their mother, they looked upon themselves as independent of the See of Rome. A second and a third council were held, but with no better results. Augustine was plainly told that the Celtic church would acknowledge no man as supreme in the Lord’s vineyard.

It was a turbulent time for Britain and especially for Kent, which was slowly loosing its power to Mercia. The king of Mercia, Penda, had as allies the (Christian) Welsh, who revenged themselves on their Northumbrians brothers.

Synod of Whitby (664AD)

The success of the Iona mission on English soil revived the disputes between the Celtic and Roman Churches. In the middle of the 7th century. Oswy, king of Northumbria summoned the synod of Whitby in 664. King Oswy had been a champion of the Church of Iona until the death of his brother Oswald but now gave his judgment in favor of the claims of Rome as the inheritor of Peter’s commission. The men of Iona could no longer maintain the struggle in England. Some like St. Cuthbert, accepted the new order of things, others retired back into Ireland.

The Celtic Church continued to blossom on the continent, until Boniface, the apostle of Germany (who died 754). He successfully ‘reformed’ the Churches in Germany, Frisia, Gaul etc. and brought them in submission to Rome.