The growth in interest in the early Christianity of the Celtic peoples has been truly remarkable, Christian bookshops now usually having a couple of shelves of books labelled ‘Celtic Christianity’ or ‘Celtic Spirituality’. However, just a cursory glance by anyone with some basic academic knowledge of this Christianity is enough to set their alarm bells ringing.
For some of these books are totally devoid of any themes or even texts that could be described as ‘Celtic’. ‘Celtic’ prayer books too are becoming increasingly bizarre, with prayers now celebrating genitalia and libidos, ‘Celtic’ liturgies for use after terrorist incidents, and contributions from writers in the ‘Celtic’ tradition such as Mother Theresa, St Francis of Assisi or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This tradition has now become a bottomless hat to pull as many dubious rabbits from as one likes.
Sadly, all publishers now have to do to be assured some mediocre offering will sell is to ensure the word ‘Celtic’ is somewhere in the title, so gullible have we become. Enormous clangers have been dropped in the process: the reverse cover of one compilation of Celtic Christian texts, for example, describing them as having been ‘composed in languages long extinct’– not a slip-up to make in a rowdy nationalist pub in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany or the Isle of Man where we still speak these languages. This could only happen, of course, because the Celtic peoples themselves are steering well clear of all this, perhaps to avoid being patronised by over-enthusiastic ‘Celtic’ spirituality gurus who are not Celts, don’t speak a Celtic language, and who usually don’t know what they are talking about. (An interesting parallel is with North American Indians and Australian Aborigines who are getting increasingly tired of ill-informed Caucasians defining their heritage for them.)
Then there are the communities that cheerfully use the term ‘Celtic’ to describe who they are or what they do (not the Iona Community, it should be noted). One talks proudly of following a ‘Heretical Imperative’ – a concept which would go down like the proverbial lead balloon with early Celtic Christians who were stubbornly traditionalist. They also refer optimistically to ‘Celtic’ Northumbria.
Yes, it is true Aidan was sent from Iona with fellow Irish monks to Lindisfarne to found a monastery there in 632, and St Colman, a fellow Irishman, succeeded Aidan as abbot on his death in 651. However, Colman left in the exodus of Irish monks after the Synod of Whitby ruled against Celtic practices in 664, his place being taken by an Anglo-Saxon. This marked the end of a mere 32 years of the Irish mission.
Aidan and Colman ministered to Anglo-Saxon people in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom ruled by an Anglo-Saxon king. Fanciful theories that the Anglo-Saxons came and peacefully absorbed Celtic peoples rather than drove them away have been dispelled by recent genetic surveys. Describing Northumbria, therefore, as ‘Celtic’ is quite ludicrous, particularly as it lacks a living Celtic language.
So where does this all leave us? Just how ‘Celtic’ is today’s Celtic Christianity? One Gaelic-speaking Scottish academic somewhat cynically said that Celtic spirituality enthusiasts should go and live on top of Rockall if they wanted to prove they were really serious about following their chosen spiritual path. For Celtic saints invariably lived lives of extreme austerity, fasting and penitence; they had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Real Presence of the Mass was central in their spiritual life; there was a very real belief in judgement, damnation and Hellfire; they venerated relics; they spoke a Celtic language; they were stubbornly traditionalist; their liturgy was not particularly distinctive; the vast majority would have been celibate; they didn’t ordain women.
If such things do not feature in popular modern expressions of ‘Celtic’ Christianity, where would a Celtic saint such as Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Iltud or Petroc feel most at home spiritually were they beamed forward in time to the present day?
Clearly, it would be within Catholic or Orthodox monasticism. The ethos of the faith of early Celtic Christians is far, far closer to that of modern Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy than to today’s Protestantism or Anglicanism from whence has sprung this easy, ersatz ‘Celtic’ Christianity.
But few self-respecting Orthodox, Catholic or genuinely catholic-minded Christians, or ethnic Celts are likely to be brave enough to leap on an out-of-control ‘Celtic’ bandwagon to try and bring some sense to proceedings. The increasing zaniness of the current ‘Celtic’ spirituality free-for-all has created an enormous bubble that now urgently needs to burst or deflate, the word ‘Celtic’ now becoming interchangeable with the word ‘alternative’ because of such enthusiastic and indiscriminate misuse. I cannot believe I am the only one weary of this endless cycle of spiritual hubris.
Yes, Christians today will benefit greatly from learning about the early Christianity of the Celtic peoples, their tenacity of faith and the seriousness of their religion; but what is being described as ‘Celtic’ Christianity or spirituality today is about as Celtic as fish and chips or gin and tonic. Something of real substance, value and integrity may one day be born, most likely from within Irish Catholicism, but it is looking increasingly unlikely it will ever come out of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
So don’t worry about Celtic tigers; just beware being sold a Celtic pup.
Andy Phillips is a commentator on Celtic cultural and religious issues for Cornish World magazine, Radio Cornwall and Cornish newspapers firstname.lastname@example.org