A Quick Overview of Celtic Christianity

The beginnings of Christianity in Great Britain are lost in the mists of history. Tradition says that St. Joseph of Arimathaea founded the first Christian community in the latter part of the First Century. One thing is certain whatever the origins, by the end of the Second Century Christianity was firmly established among the Celtic peoples of the Roman controlled portion of the British Isles. However, within a few years the Christian Celtic populations of Britain and Northwestern Europe were overrun and in some cases virtually destroyed by succeeding waves of Germanic tribes and Western Europe descended into the period of the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, some remarkable men and women, fired by a love of God and His Holy Church, kept the Christian faith alive and began the re-Christianization of Western Europe.

Celtic Christianity has always been marked by a close connection with the ancient Church rooted in both Old Testament and Gospel traditions. Daily services with extensive readings from Scripture, especially the Psalms marked Celtic worship. The Bible was so deeply loved that great emphasis was placed on the copying of Bibles with rich and elaborate illuminations. Contrary to the Latin tendency to legalism and scholasticism, Celtic Christianity has been marked by a focus on the enigma of God and the mystical wonder of seeing His presence within the marvels of His Creation. The celebration of the goodness of Creation and the "surrender" to God’s mystical sovereignty makes the Celtic tradition more amenable to the Apophatic theological tradition (a focus on the unknowable nature of God) of Orthodox Christianity than to the Kataphatic (the idea that God is knowable through human reason) tradition of late medieval Roman Catholicism.

The roots of Celtic monasticism can be found in the Desert Fathers of the Eastern Church. The lives and writings of such inspiring figures as St. Anthony (251-356) and their struggling with the forces of evil in the desert served as inspiration for the monastic Fathers as they left their homes to teach the Gospel, spread the Church, and live in "desert exile" among pagan peoples from the Ukraine to Iceland. For us the most notable activities were among the Irish and Scottish people. The great Celtic Saints such as St. Patrick, St. Ninian, and St. Columba established a Christian tradition among the pagan Celts and later the Saxons of the British Isles that still resonates with the energy and spirituality of the early Church. The recovery of the rich spirituality of Celtic tradition is a vital part of the ethos of the Western Rite Orthodoxy. It is particularly valued as the spiritual heritage of St. Columba Orthodox Church.