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The Old English Way of Evangelism, Part II

(Copyright 2004 by Arthur W. Collins)

Critique of The Celtic Way of Evangelism

Hunter does a good job of presenting the attractive features of Celtic Christianity. And there is no disputing the amazing work of Patrick, Columba, and the Irish monastics. They penetrated pagan cultures, identified with them, and brought them thoroughly to Christ.

The conversion went deep into the popular spirit of the peoples of Ireland and (Gaelic) Scotland. The many learned prayers, constantly repeated, demonstrate a deep piety characteristic of Celtic Christianity. The appreciation of nature which sees God -- the Triune God of orthodox Christianity -- present everywhere lends beauty and power to the Celtic expression of faith in art.

The Celtic monasteries emphasized spiritual formation in a way that John Wesley and the Moravians would have approved. Even the bishops were expected to be under the spiritual guidance of abbots.

A passion for learning caused the Irish monks to preserve, illuminate, and pass on classical learning. Greek and Hebrew were being taught in Irish monasteries at a time when the Latin of the Vulgate was barely within the command of Continental monks.

Finally, Hunter rightly points out the missionary impulse present in the Celtic Church. It was deeply felt. The desire to bring the gospel to other nations caused the Irish monks to go to Scotland, Switzerland, Northumbria, maybe even Iceland --and, according to tradition, America. This explains how the nation of Brazil got its name. People remembered the stories of St. Brendan the Navigator, who supposedly sailed west and found the Isles of the Blest (Hy Breasil in the Irish).

* * *

In telling the story of Celtic Christianity, however, Hunter is guilty of some terribly sloppy history. His worst howler is probably where he makes reference to the Scots-Irish. He says, "In the two centuries following Patrick, hoards [sic] of the Irish invaded Scotland and absorbed the Picts, thus accounting for the term ‘Scots-Irish' and explaining the similarities in Scottish and Irish accents and culture to this day [p. 18]."

Simply put, he has the Scots-Irish arriving 1200 years too soon, headed in the opposite direction, and part of an entirely different religious movement. Yes, the Scots of Scotia (Ireland) invaded Pictland from the West. Eventually, the Scots absorbed the Picts; Kenneth MacAlpin is credited with being the first to unite Picts and Scots under a single monarchy. But it was 17th-Century Presbyterian Scots opposed to Catholic restoration who were invited into Northern Ireland by the English to keep the native Irish down. The Scots-Irish spoke a variety of English, and still do. These are the "Scots-Irish" who later immigrated to America in such numbers.

Hunter goes on to discuss the movement of Celtic Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon world from the north and the establishment of the monastic center of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. At about the same time, Roman Christianity was entering that kingdom from the south, via the preaching of Paulinus at the court of Edwin, King of Northumbria. In another generation, differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity came to a head at the Synod of Whitby, where King Oswy chose to follow Rome. The Celtic influence in northern England declined thereafter. Hunter sees this as an example of how the followers of Roman (read, "authoritarian, inflexible, arrogant, non-growing") Christianity forced aside the followers of Celtic (read, "cooperative, adaptable, spiritual, growing") Christianity.

This Roman/Celtic dichotomy runs throughout the rest of his work. He increasingly caricatures Roman and Celtic differences in order to emphasize it. Perhaps worst, though, he completely misunderstands the Old English Church. He treats it as a blank slate upon which the conflict of Rome and Iona played itself out. Anything good later accomplished by English missionaries he assumes is copied from the Celtic model. Everything which cannot be ascribed to good, Celtic influences must therefore be bad -- and Roman. This shows a complete disregard for the genius of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

* * *

Let us begin to set the record straight. To begin with, we must understand the dual nature of the Northumbrian monarchy. The kingdom of Northumbria was a fusion of two smaller kingdoms, Bernicia (roughly, lowland Scotland today) and Deira (roughly, modern Yorkshire). Two royal houses jockeyed for leadership over the whole.

According to tradition, Pope St. Gregory's initial impulse to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons came when he saw some blond-haired youths for sale in the Roman slave market. What people are these? he asked. Upon being told that they were Angles, he is supposed to have said, Non Angli, sed angeli ("not Angles, but angels") for they were so fair in appearance. He asked them who their lord was, and they replied, Aelle. Their king's name sounded as if they were already saying "Hallelujah," so Gregory decided they simply must be saved. He asked where they were from, and they said, from Deira, which to Gregory's mind sounded like they were destined to be saved from the wrath (de ira) of God. The point is, the people of Northumbria thought of themselves as being either Bernicians or Deirans more than Northumbrians.

After Aelle's death, the Bernician royal house gained ascendancy, which meant that Aelle's son, Edwin, was living in exile in East Anglia, where he made his first acquaintance with Christianity. Edwin is supposed to have had a vision, or meeting with a mysterious visitor there, who spoke to him alone concerning both God and his (at that time, highly improbable) return to his kingdom. After he regained the throne, he was therefore very open to the preaching of Paulinus (part of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons), who represented the Christianity he had seen in East Anglia -- and who revealed to him the contents of the meeting he had had with the mysterious stranger. So Edwin was baptized by Paulinus, and much of his court converted with him, including the chief pagan priest, Coifi.

Meanwhile, Celtic Christianity had been entering Bernicia via Lindisfarne. After Edwin's death in battle with the pagan King Penda of Mercia, the rival, Bernician royal house took power. King Oswy and his family had received the faith from Lindisfarne. This set up the confrontation between the representatives of the two branches of Christianity at the Synod of Whitby (AD 664).

Now, it is obvious that Rome was the winner over Lindisfarne at the Synod of Whitby. It is also a fact that the missionaries from Rome had had a number of confrontations with British (= Welsh) bishops, where they had attempted to bring them under their authority. These meetings had been highly contentious, and the missionaries from Rome got a name for being arrogant and demanding. But if we were to see these confrontations only in the light of Hunter's Celtic/Roman dichotomy, we would be misled.

For one thing, the British Church (from which Patrick had originally come) got along with neither the Irish nor the Anglo-Saxons. They were more tied to the Gallic Church of Armorica (Brittany) and Aquitania than to the Irish Church, even as the Welsh are more akin to Bretons than to Irish or Scots. And the British Christians detested the Anglo-Saxons, who had displaced them in the previous century and driven them into the western fringe of Britain. The fact that some of them now were embracing Christianity did not impress the British bishops.

So we have to understand that, apart from the behavior and beliefs of individual leaders of the Roman mission to England (about much could be said in either direction), there were other factors at work that helped create the "arrogant" reputation of Rome. The British bishops wanted to be under somebody like the Archbishop of Tours, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury, in order to avoid having to cooperate with the (converting) Anglo-Saxons. And though they were as Celtic as anybody, the British bishops shared few of the virtues Hunter attributes to Celtic (read, "Irish") Christianity.

What Augustine, Theodore, and the other missionaries from Rome were trying to do was to consolidate effort. Foreigners themselves, they didn't understand why Anglo-Saxons and British wouldn't cooperate; frustrated, they tried to simply force things together, with mixed results. But their failures in this regard should not prejudice us when we look at that most important of meetings, the Synod of Whitby.

At Whitby, two groups of English-speaking Christians freely debated which group had the better way for the kingdom to follow. Some matters, which seem silly to us today (the style of tonsure, for instance) were hotly debated. Other matters, far weightier (the date of Easter), also came up. But in the long run, Oswy had to decide which group represented the future. He chose Rome. Rome represented the future, for Rome represented a wider range of contacts -- both ecclesiastical and political.

Hunter sees the Synod of Whitby as a bad thing: Oswy chose the worse alternative. Ah, what might have been, we must think. He then goes on to allude to Anglo-Saxon missions on the continent, and attributes their remarkable success to their following the Celtic model. But all these things are tied up together.

This leads us to the W-saints, three men from the same time period and same place, all of them Christian leaders and evangelists. All of them were educated in both Roman and Celtic ways. They knew each other and worked together. Unfortunately, they have the confusing names of Wilfrid, Winfrid, and Willibrord.

Wilfrid promoted the Benedictine Rule in England, was one of the deciding voices at Whitby speaking for Rome, and led the conversion of Sussex (the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdom). Winfrid (later called Boniface) went to Germany, where he had astounding success in church-planting. He was later martyred in Frisia (Holland). Willibrord is called the "Apostle to the Frisians," but died before Winfrid was killed by them. The Frisians were the closest cultural and linguistic cousins to the Anglo-Saxons.

People confused the W-saints back then (even as we do, today). When Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to horn in on the prerogatives of the Archbishop of York, Wilfrid (then Archbishop of York), went to Rome to complain. Theodore and his allies tried to prevent him, but wound up detaining Winfrid (Boniface) on the Continent; their henchmen got confused by the similarity of names, too. Anway, Wilfrid made it to Rome and made his case; he won the argument in the end.

These were all great names in the English Church; all were reformers, monastics, educated men, evangelists. All knew both the Celtic and Roman models of church life intimately. All of them chose Rome over Iona.

Hunter is simply wrong when he assumes that these guys' successes were due to their adopting Celtic methods. Insofar as they would have been aware of differences between Celtic and Roman methodology, they would have chosen the Roman. Where Celtic and Roman used the same methodology, they probably did so because it worked -- and works wherever it is used, by whoever it is used, with whomever it is used. Questions of borrowing from one by the other are tricky to prove, especially when neither group need "borrow" an obvious method at all.

* * *

I further think that Hunter (the evangelical Protestant) is confusing Roman church leadership of the second half-millennium (500-1000) with the Roman church leadership of the third half-millennium (1000-1500). The two are as different as night and day. The former was a robust, adaptable, growing body ministering mightily to many peoples and planting churches everywhere. The latter was a politically meddlesome, power-hungry, theologically authoritarian, wracked-by-schism bunch.

Hunter is also guilty of forcing a 21st Century paradigm on the facts of Antiquity. He talks constantly in modern buzzwords, such as "mission teams." At the end of his work, one knows quite a bit about the methods preferred by George Hunter; one is not so sure one knows the methods preferred by Patrick or Columba.

The Celtic Church did amazing and wonderful things. But not every amazing and wonderful thing is thereby Celtic in origin. Nor does it mean that the Celts didn't have a few bees in their bonnets, too (everybody does). In the end, one should not let one's admiration for the achievements of Celtic Christianity life blind one to the equally unique contributions of the Old English Church, to which I now will turn.
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