Celtic Christianity is a modern movement wherein ancient practices that were presumed to be followed in Christianity in the British Isles are integrated into current Christian practice. The community of practitioners is usually centralized within an abbey, although individuals may worship at churches of different denominations (always Protestant; usually liturgical). The claim is that Celtic Christianity teaches the traditions of the early Christians in the British Isles before Roman Catholicism gained ground there.
The Celts were a loose association of tribes that emerged in Eastern Europe and over the years covered territory from modern-day Turkey to the Atlantic Ocean. They were also known as the Gauls by the Romans. It’s thought the Celts founded the city of Galatia. By the time of Christ, the Romans had pushed the Celtic tribes to the British Isles with a few small settlements remaining in France and Spain.
An unconfirmed, extra-biblical legend says that Joseph of Arimathea was a relative of Mary’s and took the young Jesus to the British Isles, where Joseph managed the Roman tin mines. After Jesus’ ascension, Joseph is said to have traveled back to Britain and introduced Christianity to the locals. Instead of adopting a Jewish or Greek Christianity, the converted Druids worshiped Christ through the lens of their own culture. They emphasized family and tribe, the monastic life of the North African Christians, and a connection to God through nature. Women held more authority than in Europe and Asia, church leaders reveled in spiritual study, and theology was centered on the Trinity. Sacred places where pagans had once interacted with evil spirits became sanctuaries where people could commune with the Holy Spirit (whom they pictured as Ah Geadh-Glas, or the “Wild Goose,” rather than the Heavenly Dove).
In AD 664, Celtic Christian King Oswiu bowed to the pressure of Britain’s Roman invaders (and his Roman Catholic wife) and agreed to convert his kingdom to Roman Catholicism. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall gave up their Celtic form of Christianity more gradually than Britain, with the Protestant Reformation helping push it out in the sixteenth century. Since Celtic Christians had long held that writing the sacred was sacrilegious, and other religions tried to destroy what was left, the only writings we have of the early Celtic Christians are a few prayers.
Much of what’s presented as the history of Celtic Christianity is filled with speculation. About all we know for sure about ancient Celtic Christianity is that it was fairly rural and it celebrated Easter on a different day from Roman Catholicism.
Just as the term legend must be employed regarding the history of Celtic Christianity, the words some and maybe are necessary in describing its modern incarnation. Celtic Christians are generally members of non-centralized abbeys and devote themselves to whichever aspects of Celtic Christianity appeal to them within the context of their denomination of choice. A few of the commonly shared beliefs among Celtic Christians are a worship of God as Trinity, respect for the saints, adherence to the Nicene Creed, rejection of Roman Catholicism, and a conviction for hospitality and loving others. Views on homosexuality, abortion, ordaining women, Scripture vs. church tradition, evangelism, and sacraments vary widely.
Here are a few uniquely Celtic Christian beliefs that modern practitioners of Celtic Christianity claim were celebrated by the ancients:
- The belief that their practices pre-date the Roman Catholic Church and represent a more accurate reflection of the early church.
- A love of nature and the practice of seeing God’s character and glory in His creation (without devolving into pantheism). A conviction to care for creation often follows.
- A willingness to give women more authority in the church, if not ordain them as priests.
- The belief that marriage is a sacrament that should be available to all clergy.
- A monastic life, whether in a specific monastery or within a family and a private life, but overseen by a spiritual leader.
- The blurring of the line between sacred and profane—the belief that one’s spiritual life and worldly life should be combined and never separated.
- The belief of the existence of “thin places”: original Celtic Christians continued the pagan, Druidic belief that specific geographical locations provided a closer view of the spirit world; with Christianity, these places became sacred sites where worshipers could be closer to the Holy Spirit and receive His guidance.
- Loyalty to family, extended family, and “tribe,” combined with a welcoming hospitality to everyone.
- Small abbeys, often meeting in rented spaces, as the center of religious life.
- A love of art and music.
- Veneration of particularly Celtic saints, such as St. Brigid, St. Columba, and St. Patrick.
- The use of an Anam Chara, or “soul friend,” as a mentor to guide an initiate into the practice of Celtic worship.
Celtic Christianity is more about the expression of faith than the definition of theology. Celtic worship traditions seem to be most common in non-Roman Catholic liturgical denominations like Anglican, Episcopalian, and Independent Catholic. They can also be found in Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, among others. British Israelists have used Celtic Christianity as further evidence for their erroneous belief that the English are descended from the ten “lost” tribes of Israel. Some Celtic Christian traditions are adopted by those in the emerging church.
Whenever the Christianity of the Bible is combined with ethnic tradition or old pagan practices, problems will arise. Some of the traditions of Celtic Christianity are good to follow, like allowing clergy to marry, evangelizing through gentle invitation, hospitality, and realizing that our lives cannot be compartmentalized between the spiritual and the physical. Other traditions, like emphasizing the arts, are neutral. Yet others, such as the veneration of saints and a belief in “thin places,” can easily slip into heresy. Romans 1:25 warns of the danger in sliding from worshiping the Creator to worshiping His creation. Seeking spiritual experiences without being grounded in the Bible has caused no end of trouble. And choosing a worship style because of its ethnic or cultural appeal is fine as long as the practice never becomes more important than the One being worshiped (Romans 10:12); Christians are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Celtic Christianity is more than singing “Be Thou My Vision” or wearing a Celtic cross. And it’s more than adding a few supposed Celtic traditions to one’s spiritual walk. Celtic Christianity is a non-standardized lifestyle adopted by members of any number of denominations that can lead down a spiritually dark path laced with pagan influences. Everything that is good and right about Celtic Christianity is already in the Bible. Everything that’s not is either adopted from Druidism or Roman Catholicism. The world doesn’t need a Christianity that’s defined by yet another ethnic group; it needs one that’s defined by Jesus.