Celtic Christianity

Image by Keith Talbot of KT Art

Up until now, I’ve focused mainly on the Druid religion in my posts. That’s because the majority of my characters are pagan. But in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Christianity was gaining a strong foothold in England, so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Celtic Christianity, the religion to which some of my favorite characters adhere.

At the time of Arthur and Guinevere, there were three main branches of Christianity: Roman, Celtic and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox)/Oriental. That Britain had its own unique brand of Christianity is perhaps not that surprising, given its relative isolation from the rest of Europe after the departure of the Romans in 410 AD.

I’m not an expert in Celtic Christianity, nor do I aim to be, but I did some research to learn more about the early days of this religion in Britain. It seems to have started sometime around the end of the fourth century and continued until the Synod of Whitby in 644, when the Roman Church prevailed. Here are the main differences between Celtic Christianity and the Roman sect:

  1. The Calculation of Easter – Along with the tonsure  (see #2), the date of Easter was the biggest controversy that kept the Celtic Church divided from the Roman tradition. The calculation of the date of Easter has always been very complicated, involving a lunisolar calendar (time in the solar year as well as the phases of the moon). As time went on, the calculations changed, but the updated information didn’t always reach Britain. So chances are good this controversy arose by accident, with the Britons thinking they were doing the right thing.
  2. The Tonsure – Tonsure refers to the way religious men (monks, ans sometimes priests) shaved their hair to show their religious calling. The Roman Church said the top of the head was to be shaved, with a circle of hair allowed to grow around it (think Friar Tuck). The Celtic custom was to draw a line over the head from ear to ear and shave the hair in front of it (picture a mullet with nothing in the very front). The Roman authorities claimed their style dated back to St. Peter and claimed the Celtic style was modeled on a pagan magus (likely a Druid). I fail to understand why this was such a big deal. And if the story of St. Peter is to be believed, just because he was balding meant all men who followed in his ministry had to be, too? That hardly seems fair!
  3. Baptism – At the time, most people entering the Church were adults (although infant baptism was practiced as well). The Roman and Celtic churches bickered over whether the candidate was to be sprinkled with water (as many churches do today) or immersed, and if immersed, should they be dunked three times or only one? At the time, both conferred First Communion and Confirmation at the time of Baptism. However, oil (chrism) was a scarce resource that had to imported to Britain, so it is said that sometimes Confirmation in the Celtic Church was performed without it, something the Roman authorities didn’t like. The Celtic Church also added on to the Baptism rite a unique, sacred foot washing ceremony, much like Jesus is said to have done at the Last Supper. (I would have love to have seen this. It sounds like it could have been very moving.)
  4. Consecration of Bishops – Bishops held office in Britain as early as 314 AD. In Roman tradition, three bishops were required to consecrate a new bishop, but in the Celtic Church it was less likely for three to be able to get together so they (gasp!) sometimes only had one bishop to consecrate a new one. There was also some quibbling over the proper prayers to be said at this rite.
  5. Naming/Consecrating Churches – In Roman tradition, churches were always named after dead saints, but the Celtic Church often named churches after their living benefactors, which caused quite the scandal.
  6. Differences in the Mass – I won’t bore you with the details (in fact I’m not enough of a theologian to really understand them), but suffice it to say there were regional differences in the prayers said at Mass and even the order in which things were performed. Priests even had latitude to make up their own prayers for many centuries, and chances were very good the Celtic Church incorporated a lot of the pagan traditions of the people. (Yet another reason for the Roman sect to want to suppress it.)

What does this tell me? For one, making a mountain out of a mole hill is a long and venerable tradition in the Church. And so is the desire for conformity. That is probably the thing that comes through the clearest in my Christian characters. They have their rules and they want everyone around them to abide by them. But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of Biblical values. They are also some of the kindest, most merciful people in my stories. Like every other group, you have your good ones and your bad ones – and frankly, the bad ones are most fun to write and read. I can’t wait to introduce all of you to Father Marius, who is the reason I did this research into Celtic Christianity to begin with. If I’ve done my job, you’ll love to hate him.

Do any of you know anything about Celtic Christianity (the ancient religion, not the modern revivals)? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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3 thoughts on “Celtic Christianity

  1. Very interesting!

    I also believe that the practice for married priests lasted a lot longer in the Celtic Church than it did in the Roman Catholic Rite and still survives today in the Eastern Catholic Rites (and the other Eastern Orthodox Churches after the Schism).

    The unlearned opinion regarding tonsures might have been because Saint Peter was balding, but theologically speaking, the strange haircut was probably to show the status of the monks as set apart from society, since in ancient times, there wouldn’t have been a specific garment like monks wear today. In fact, the Roman collar that priests wear in modern times was at one point a regular fashion, and it wasn’t until much later that a specific “uniform” for priests became common.

    There is a quote characteristic of G.K. Chesterton, in his succinct and sometimes over-simplified style, that explains why the Church took such pains over seemingly small details, but I can’t remember it! If I find it, I’ll let you know.

  2. Hi Christie! Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I really appreciate your additions to the discussion.

    You’re probably right about married priests. I hadn’t thought of that angle.

    If you think of the G.K. Chesterton quote, please comment again and let me know what it is. You’ve got me curious.

    And just to clarify, my crack about St. Peter’s balding was meant as a joke, not as part of any theory. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take this stuff seriously 100% of the time! 🙂

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