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The Celtic Church

There is apparently a debate about the existence of the Celtic Church. There appear to be two fundamental questions:

  1. The history – whether it was a daughter of Rome
  2. The structure – whether it was an organised Christian body.

The Celtic Church and Rome

In his work The Highlanders of Scotland (1902 edition) William F. Skene, wrote:

"The church of the northern Picts and northern Scots, to which the name of Culdee was afterwards given, and which owed its origin to St. Patrick….emanated from the church of Gaul, a church always opposed to that of Rome, and claiming a descent from the church of Ephesus, and its founder, St. John the Evangelist; and it was under the teaching of St. Martin of Tours that St. Patrick framed the system of church government which he afterwards introduced.”

Skene was the Historiographer Royal for Scotland so is a respected authority. Nevertheless many argue that The Celtic Church is older than the Contintental Churches:

The churches of France and Spain, must yield in point of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain, as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the Passion of Christ. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_Christianity)

There is clearly an argument about the History of the Celtic Church and whether it really looked to its foundation from St Peter, St. John the Evangelist or even Jesus Christ – which to my mind is rather pointless. Its antiquity is not a measure of its existence.

The Anglican Church of today is undoubtedly an independent church – but it evolved from the Church of Rome. The Anglican Church has a clear structure, and is clearly an organised Christian body. Does anyone debate the existence of the Anglican Church? Therefore, to use the parallel of the Anglican Church, the Celtic Church clearly existed, as it was demonstrably an organised Christian body.

The Organisation of the Celtic Church

Its organisation was not Episcopal as such. William F. Skene, wrote

“The [Celtic] church of this period must be viewed as consisting rather of different groups of monasteries, founded by the respective saints, either bishops or presbyters, of the second order, each group recognising the monastery over which the founder of the group personally presided, or which possessed his relics, as having jurisdiction over those which emanated from him and. followed his rule's. It was thus not one great ecclesiastical corporation, but an aggregate of separate communities in federal union. Secondly, that the abbots of each monastery, whether bishops or presbyters, were not elected by the brethren forming the community, but succeeded one another by a kind of inheritance assimilated to that of the tribe.” WF Skene Vol 2 Church and Culture p66

Many refer to the Celtic Church as the Columban Church – which is quite incorrect.

Cathedrals and Monasteries

In the early seventh century the main differences between the Roman Church and the Celtic Church was that whereas the Roman structure was episcopal and centred on cathedrals, the Celtic Church was abbatical and centred on monasteries - more properly muintirs or families. These muintirs were great centres of learning, shining lights in the Dark Ages. Apart from this there was a great deal in common, and differences were few. The Celtic Church calculated Easter differently - which led to the Synod of Whitby. The Celtic tonsure was different to the Roman.

Last updated 20 April, 2013