Sep 8, 2010

The Gathering That Wounded Celtic Christianity

Whitby is a seaside community on the northeast coast of England. In ancient times this was in the kingdom of Northumbria and the king, Oswy, celebrated Easter the Celtic way. His wife, however, was of the Roman tradition. This caused them to fast, both from food and marital relations, at different times. It was a personal inconvenience for the king that ended up having major ramifications for the Celtic Christians. A meeting was held at the monastery of St. Hilda to decide the matter.

The Celtic tradition was defended by a bishop named Colman who claimed that the tradition of Columcille had been handed down by the apostle John. The Romans, on the other hand, looked to St. Peter as their church father. Jesus said that he would build his church on the rock, his name for Peter. In addition, the fact that Paul had preached in Rome gave the Romans, in their view, the authority to correctly interpret this matter. Bede, the great scribe who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, said that the Roman faction (voiced by Wilfrid) also noted that the rest of the Christian world celebrated Easter at the same time and it was only the British, Picts, and Irishwho after all lived on the most farthest islands in the ocean (read the most uncivilized) who celebrated Easter according to the Jewish calendar.

Wilfrid (a priest who spent most of his life trying to prove that Britains fully embraced the ways of the church in Rome and were not Celts) went on to explain that if the apostle John used the Jewish calendar it was so as to not offend the new Christians who had Jewish heritage. Surely, he contended, the practice was outdated.

The Celts would not have used a calendar developed by the Romans when the Romans had never been their rulers. They looked to history to date their observance of Easter. Admittedly, this seems like a minor point to debate. One can only believe that the true question was one of control and power. In the minds of the people who lived at that time, this debate was crucial. The Celts did not believe they were wrong, and the Roman world believed non-compliance meant these people were not true Christians.

The question of spiritual authority was the ultimate matter debated in this synod. Colman, when questioned by the king, admitted that Jesus had given Peter the keys to heaven as described in this passage in the Book of Matthew: “’And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’" When Colman was asked if Jesus had given St. Columcille, the founder of Iona and the spiritual father to all of Britain’s Celtic Christians, equal authority, Colman had to admit he had not.

Oswy ruled in favor of Peter and the Roman tradition because, he is believed to have said, Peter minded the gates to Heaven. King Oswy feared offending the saint would mean he would not be let in. Whatever the reason for the ruling, the result was that all the Celtic churches had to abide by the style of Christianity that was Roman. This was the Christianity that Pope Gregory I (“The Great”) had earlier sent Augustine to Kent to enforce.

Most scholars of the Celtic way believe this event served to end the strictly Celtic way of observing Christianity, at least in mass practice. The Celts held to their beliefs, however, and certain doctrines were not a part of their thinking, such as original sin.

I'm aware that not everyone will agree with what I've written. At least one editor has said that I've thrown Augustine under the bus. I'd love to hear what you think!


  1. The older I get the more I withdraw from organized religion. I believe the efforts to Romanize the Celtic way was 90% about power and control ... and maybe needed to keep the church from fracturing. All men / women have do good things and bad things .. .including the saints, so even Augustine was not perfect, and in this instance I agree with your sensibility on the subject.

    I enjoyed your post.

    Mindie B.

  2. Andy Scotsman MooreThursday, 09 September, 2010

    Enjoyed. This concisely communicates the very deep, and at times, complicated division in the Celtic vs. Roman practice of Christianity. Good job, Cindy!

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mindie and Andy. It's good to hear what you all think.

  4. The Celtic way, attuned to the heartbeat of the Earth, would have suited these isles better than the Roman way, Its legalism still sits ill with us. The drift back to paganism is probably in part due to the imposition of a form of Cristianity which ultimately must fail to captivate the imaginative heart of the people.
    The Council of Whitby did us no favours.

  5. Hi Pen. Good points. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Cindy, great post.

  7. Nowadays, Rome is much more lenient on letting people keep their traditions. Unfortunately, it has not been so in the past. However, it is true that the early Christians advocated all should agree with the Church of Rome due to the Primacy of Peter. The Church had good intentions of keeping unity against spreading heretical sects.