Celtic roots and Scottish Presbyterianism

Photograph: Abbey and Celtic CrossIt may seem strange to start a course on Reformed Christianity by looking at a period centuries before the Reformation. However Celtic faith is the soil out of which Scottish Christianity grew, and it is a ground-swell of spiritual renewal today that includes, but is far from limited to, Reformed traditions.

Celtic spirituality has become popular for its connection between life, earth and faith, and is part of a wider revival of Celtic culture which includes Irish pubs and dancing and some aspects of New Age spirituality, as well as orthodox Christianity. It is not the first such revival of interest in 5th to 7th Century Irish and Scottish Christianity and each period from when the stories of the saints were written, to the compilation of "Celtic" prayers by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica early in the 20th century, have added their own layers of significance.

Historically the Celts were also found in other parts of Europe, including Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, though care is needed about assuming how strong the blood relationship is between ancient peoples who had some traits in common. It is also believed that the Galatians Paul wrote to were Celts. It is not surprising that the word Celtic covers enormous diversity not just some common cultural traits, or that that diversity is pagan as well as Christian. In an age reacting against rationalism and tired of captivity to a closed materialistic universe Celtic spirituality with its earthiness and easy transcendence is attractive, but critical choices are needed.

For those of Scottish and Irish descent the stories of Patrick evangelising Ireland and of Columba going to Iona are especially important even as they speak to Christians of a range of cultures and traditions. Over 60 years ago George Macleod began the rebuilding of the Abbey and other buildings on Iona, seeking in the renewal of the historical site the spiritual renewal of the church and people of Scotland. The Iona Community remains an important centre for pilgrimage, for hymn-writing, and for community life; a reminder of the cost and possibilities of a renewal that connects deeply with land and people - and their spiritual history. Presbyterian Churches and Schools in New Zealand are named after Iona itself (Blockhouse Bay, Linwood, Upper Hutt) as well as St Ninian (Blenheim, Karori and Riccarton), St Kentigern (Burwood/New Brighton and St Kentigern School and St Kentigern College) and St Columba (Botany Downs, Fairlie, Havelock North, Lower Hutt, Mahurangi, North Avon, Oamaru, Taradale, and Tauranga).

In applying Celtic faith to Christian worship and mission today, there are a range of issues which may not translate as immediately as ancient Celtic prayers and their feel for God and nature. Since Celtic spirituality connects with pagan revivals as well as with Christian, some principles of selection are needed.  Mostly this is positive. Mission in resacralised Western cultures today can be informed not only by the missionary commitment of a much earlier era, but also by the way in which the church in that situation dealt with its pre-Christian background. Mission in contexts where tribal loyalties remain strong in an individualistic world can find points of contact with the conversion and conflicts of Celtic tribes in Ireland and Scotland. We may want to think about contemporary parallels to transitions from standing stones to Celtic crosses and what this says about place and about symbol. In an age of mobility we may wish to reflect on the place of monasticism in providing stable communities of faith. In an era of migration and tourism we may see pilgrimage as a way of using journeys as models for the Christian life as well as opportunities for personal growth and for evangelism. In Celtic faith there is a sense of the beautiful and the poetic, of sacred space and the sacredness of space, of the earthly human and the reality of spiritual power. 

Yet these are things the Reformed tradition does not always find easy, perhaps an indicator of how much Presbyterianism accommodated to the return to reason and scholarship needed to recover the message of the Bible at the Reformation, and later took on the world view that went with the Enlightenment and the value it placed on education, science and rationality. What was liberator of the Gospel in one generation became its jailer in another. It sometimes seems that traditions other than Presbyterian embrace more quickly the value of things Celtic for faith and mission today (in Dunedin it was Baptists and Anglicans who led the way, not Presbyterians, though it is different in other parts of New Zealand, for instance in Christchurch with the ministry of John Hunt).

Some of this Reformed reluctance may not be unrelated to the way Scottish culture often associates spirituality with emotion and then places a strong element of control alongside the expression of feelings. If the way in which the culture has commonly overcome the fear of letting one's feelings go has been alcohol, then it is not surprising that the association of emotion, spirituality and feeling is often negative. Phrases like "dour Scots" imply an absence of emotion, but may more accurately refer to the control of feelings rather than their absence. If at times that may approach repression at the same time as values sentimentality, it can also reflect a healthy respect for the power of things that move the spirit - suggesting that there are some elemental forces in Scottish spirituality we still need to understand. If Scots culture can appear to fear spirituality and emotion, it also respects and recognises them - which is not at all the same as unbelief.

Of course in the Christian Celtic revival, romantic idealisation and history are in tension, and the realities which gave birth to art, poetry and a sense of the presence of Christ in all things were often pretty grim. If not everybody cares, this is itself part of the Celtic heritage - a love of ambiguity in tension with a love of logic. Stereotypical romantic and rational Celtic personalities can easily be seen as Irish and Scots, but they are part of the same family. Thomas Cahill's book, How the Irish Saved Civilisation illustrates it nicely. It is a great story, but at the end I was still not sure whether I had gained a reasonable interpretation of what actually happened or had yet again been seduced by a good story.

Meek and Bradley are correctives to the romantic view. Bradley has a foot in both camps, but maps six periods of renewed interest and how these serve contemporary needs not just the "truth" of past events. Meek provides some necessary cautions about believing everything we read,  but not all that is inspired by Celtic faith is historically irresponsible. Related dangers to those he highlights include a readiness to use Celtic history to fight battles framed in terms of the Scots versus the English, or the Scots versus Rome.

Some see the Synod of Whitby of 664 when the Celtic churches lost to Rome over monastic tonsure and the date of Easter, as a preview of later conflicts with both Rome and England.

These interactions, romantic and historical, logical and open-ended, are ways in which an ancient tradition lives and breathes its faith into new generations. They are not dissimilar to how Christians generally interact with the Scriptures, or to how churches and mission groups and even nations try to cope with factual and legendary accounts of their origins. Both the romantic and the historian are shaped by issues from their own context, but the very determination of the historian to isolate the probable facts may make it difficult for them to grasp what it was that was really going on that the legends and hagiography bear witness to. We need both approaches and might be encouraged by the Celts to realise that "what really happened?" matters, but when we want to know what it means we discover that the question of truth is not always on the side of the historian. 

John Roxborogh

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