From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 9 - The Celtic Church: A Model of 1st Century Christianity

"So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:46-47)

Over the past few years, I've been studying the Celtic Christianity that pervaded the British Isles before the Dark Ages. I previously thought that only Druids populated England in the centuries after the time of Christ - until we moved from the United States to the northeast of England. Then I began to discover that Christianity had been a pervasive force in the northeast at that time, with Christians operating in the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy, divine healing and miracles. It was a Christianity based more on community and relationship than on a central structure or hierarchy. There was an outward focus with a clear missionary emphasis and practice. It had life! Further, women were an integral part of the life of the Church, preaching, teaching, and leading communities of both men and women. As I have studied this Celtic Christianity alongside that of the early Church, the parallels have become more and more obvious. The Celtic Christianity of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries was much more akin to the Christianity of the first century Church than the Roman Christianity that was introduced to England in A.D. 596. As Tucker and Liefeld point out, the Celtic Church remained (at least for a season) insulated from the restrictions that were beginning to be put upon women by Rome at this time, because of their independence from papal authority.1 That all began to slowly change in A.D. 664 with the Synod of Whitby. However, until that time, the Christianity in Britain was thriving, alive, growing and supernatural.

Possible first century evangelization of Britain

David Gardner, in his book The Trumpet Sounds for Britain, asserts that Christianity was already in England and thriving when the Pope sent his emissary Augustine to evangelize the English in A.D. 596. He makes a good case for this, citing several facts. The first fact is that Roman legions first landed in Kent in A.D. 43. At that point, Britain became one of the forty-five provinces of the Roman Empire with an occupation of troops until A.D. 407. (Constantine issued an edict in A.D. 313 which paved the way for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire 70 years later.) Gardner notes how God used the road systems of the Roman Empire to foster the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This is a fact recognized by most Church historians. Gardner then cites historical sources which record that a British Christian Church sent Bishops to early Church councils during this time, and comments that Christianity would have needed to be quite well established by that time for such a thing to happen.2 The historian Eusebius (A.D. 260 - 340) recorded that "the apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles", strengthening the case that Christianity came to Britain in the first century.3

Gardner also presents a case for Christianity to have arrived even earlier than the Roman conquest of A.D. 43. He shares that Julius Caesar made two peaceful exploratory trips to Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. which opened the way for visits from Roman colonists and traders to begin to penetrate Britain. One historian he quotes asserts that these colonists and traders established settlements in Britain. Gardner then notes that the Feast of Pentecost was attended by people "from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) and suggests that some of those converted at that time (3,000 in one day) could have very well been merchants and traders who may have returned to Britain, carrying their newfound faith with them!4 This sounds entirely plausible when one understands there was evidence of trade between the Celtic people and the Greeks as early as 550 B.C.5 There is also evidence that the matriarchal society of the Celtic Britons was changed to a patriarchal one long before the birth of Christ, due to influence from Greek and Roman cultures.6

Gardner's point, he says, is to establish the type of Christianity that was first brought to Britain. If it truly came during apostolic times in the first century, then it would have been something very close to that of the early Church described in the New Testament, unpolluted by later prejudices, heresies, and institutionalization.7 I was drawn to Gardner's thesis because this same conclusion had dawned upon me as I studied both the Celtic Church of Britain and the emerging Church of the New Testament. For a period of seventy years or so, there were two streams of Christianity operating in Britain concurrently - one was the Celtic version which operated independently of Rome (much to the papal frustration) and the other was the Roman version established by the Pope's emissary Augustine in A.D. 596. The Celtic version was entrenched in the west and the north of Britain and the Roman version in the south. A struggle for Roman supremacy ensued with the fate of the Celtic Church sealed at the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 664. King Oswy of Northumbria, made the decision that they would join with the Roman Church. A move of the Holy Spirit that had spanned several centuries was thereby quenched by the sterility of hierarchical rule, institutionalism and human control. From the Synod of Whitby onward, the light of the gospel was gradually extinguished. England moved steadily into the throes of the Dark Ages.

Women leaders in the Celtic Church

During the years that the Celtic Church thrived in the British Isles, its women leaders were particularly noteworthy. The women played as great a part in Church life and leadership as the men did. There is evidence that they performed "mass" and gave the sacraments. Brigid of Kildare and Beoferlic (Beverly of York) of the Celtic Church in Northumbria were both ordained as Bishops.8 Celtic women leaders also led large monastic communities of men, women and children. These were called "double monasteries" by some.

Brigid of Kildare (A.D. 455 - 525)

Brigid was raised in druidism before converting to Christianity and was named after the druid goddess of fertility. Brigid was known to be brazen and bold. One story describes her boldness and unconventionality. Upon being pestered by an unwanted suitor, she "thrust a finger into her eye, pulling it from the socket until it dangled on her cheek. Appalled, the suitor beat a hasty retreat."9 After her conversion to Christianity, Brigid was ordained by Mel, the Bishop of Ardagh, who conferred upon her not only the office of priest but that of Bishop as well. Brigid first established a community of believers at Drumcree, then later at Kildare. She ruled a mixed community of both men and women.10 It has been noted that Kildare was one of the most famous Christian communities in Ireland. The area was apparently a druid stronghold, famous for its magical oak trees. But in the center of this occult stronghold, God used Brigid to establish a stronghold of His kingdom where Christ was exalted.11 Brigid traveled widely, preaching to both rich and poor, and speaking at Church synods. Miracles were also attributed to her ministry.12 She became very well known, even beyond her native land, and was given the title "Mary of the Gaels."13 Michael Mitton, in Restoring the Woven Cord, pays tribute to Brigid, noting, "The people of Ireland have traditionally respected Patrick and Brigid as their two greatest evangelists."14

Darerca of Killeavy

Darerca was baptized a Christian by Patrick [sometime after A.D. 432], who then asked her to take charge of teaching women converts. Later she stayed with Brigid at Kildare for a time, then went on to become Abbess of a site called Ard Conais' under the direction of Bishop Ibhair. Finally, she founded a new abbey at Killeavy, County Armagh. It too was a mixed community. She was well known for her miracles and exceptional organizational ability. Killeavy was considered one of the most influential centers for the gospel during this time in Ireland. Darerca is recognized to be one of the most influential women leaders during the time of Patrick. The center at Killeavy was taken over by a succession of women abbesses after her death.15

Aebbe

Aebbe was the sister of Kings Oswald and Oswy of Northumbria. All three had been raised by the Irish Celtic missionaries in Iona after their father was killed. Here they became Christians. When Aebbe returned to Northumbria in A.D. 634, she founded a mixed religious community at Coldingham, which stood for 50 years. After her death, a mysterious fire destroyed the monastery.16

Ide or Ita (died A.D. 570)

Ide, an Irish woman, was called "the bright sun of the women of Munster." She established a community at Limmerick and opened an ecclesiastical school there. One of her more famous pupils was Brendan the voyager (A.D. 486-578). The fact that Brendan studied there suggests that it was also a mixed community.17

Hilda of Whitby (A.D. 614 - 680)

Hilda's given name was originally Hild, meaning "battle" in Anglo-Saxon. She was born into the royal house of Northumbria in northeast England. Hilda was raised a pagan. After her father's murder, she was sent to live in the court of her relative, King Edwin. He had just married a second wife, Ethelburga from Kent, who had become a Christian and been baptized by the Paulinus, the Pope's representative in Kent. After a few years, Edwin also became a Christian and was baptized along with his family and followers (including Hilda). Hilda apparently worked in a secular vocation until age 33. At this point she was inspired by the teaching of Aidan, the Celtic missionary from Iona who had established a religious community on the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast. Hilda decided to become a nun and went to the south of England to stay with relatives in preparation for going to a convent in France. However, before she could leave, she was contacted by Aidan who begged her to return to Northumbria and establish a monastery of her own.

She was given some land for the monastery on the north bank of the River Wear as it entered the North Sea, called Monkwearmouth. Today the city of Sunderland sits on the spot. A few years later, in A.D. 649, Aidan appointed her the Abbess of Hartlepool farther down the northeast coast. Bede, the great chronicler of Christian history during this time, wrote that Bishop Aidan and other church leaders who knew Hilda's wisdom and love for God used to visit and advise her often while she was at Hartlepool. In A.D. 655, Hilda was given 1200 acres of land by King Oswy to establish a monastery at Whitby, called Streonshalh in Anglo-Saxon. In just seven short years, she built up the community at Whitby from nothing to a well-established community which became a center of learning and training for the priesthood. She trained clergy, sent out preachers and trained scribes to copy manuscripts, as well as directing and administrating a huge, bustling community of religious people, families, scribes, musicians, builders, fishermen, etc. A famous library was built at Whitby. Both abbeys at Whitby and Hartlepool were mixed communities of men and women under Hilda's leadership. Bede reveals that no fewer than five future Bishops were trained at Whitby under Hilda. The famous English poet, Caedmon, also studied under Hilda at Whitby.

The abbey at Whitby has great significance as the setting for the Synod of Whitby. Hilda hosted this historic church conference. Although she did not support the ruling to go with the Roman Church, she accepted it. She continued to establish the abbey in Whitby in strength, influence and reputation until she died in A.D. 680.

Bede comments that Hilda was a much loved woman, affectionately called "Mother" because of her grace and devotion. It is speculated that this is where the term "Mother Superior" originated. In addition to the abbeys at Monkwearmouth and Whitby, Hilda was involved in other "church planting" efforts. Prior to her death, she founded a new abbey, a "cell", at Hackness about 14 miles from Whitby. Hilda was succeeded as leader of the abbey at Whitby by Aelfleda, a woman that she had raised from infancy, trained and mentored. Aelfleda was Abbess over Whitby for thirty-six years.18 Although Hilda was never ordained a Bishop, she was decidedly a Christian leader who stands out in history - a woman of power and influence, balanced by grace, dignity and the love of God.

I have heard of two legends that surround Hilda. One is that wild geese used to stop and rest in Whitby on their migratory flights to and from the Arctic. Their majestic descent has been described as paying tribute to Hilda. Interestingly enough, the wild goose (instead of the dove) is the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. That the wild geese would choose to stop at Whitby seems somewhat poetic and perhaps spiritually significant when we consider that God has redemptive purposes for specific places. The second legend surrounding Hilda is that of snakes. It is said that she cleansed the area of all its snakes, throwing them over the cliffs to the beach below, where they were killed. The snakes then turned to stone and became the fossil ammonites that so prevail along the beaches below Whitby. I found this very interesting since snakes are a symbol for the demonic. That she may have aggressively cleansed the area of demonic spirits during her many years at Whitby somehow does not surprise me!

Summary

Celtic Christianity was a pervasive force in the British Isles during the centuries after the death of Christ. There is substantial evidence that Christianity was brought to Britain in the first century, perhaps even soon after the Pentecostal outpouring recorded in Acts 2. This Celtic Christianity, which pre-existed in Britain before the Roman Church arrived in A.D. 596, was a purer form of Christianity, exhibiting vivid spiritual life and growth. Celtic Christians operated in the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy, divine healing and miracles. The foundation of the Celtic Church was built on community and relationships rather than on a central structure or hierarchy. There was a clear missionary emphasis and practice. Further, women were an integral part of the life of the Church: preaching, teaching, and leading mixed communities of men and women.

There were a number of Celtic women leaders in the Church of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries which are of note. They include Brigid, Darerca, Beoferlic, Aebbe, Ide (or Ita) and Hilda. Brigid and Hilda stand out as the two with the greatest degree of historical prominence. Brigid was renown for her boldness while Hilda, on the other hand, was renown for her grace and wisdom.

The thriving Celtic Church was dealt a death blow at the Synod of Whitby when the King of Northumbria elected to come under the authority of the Roman Church. The ripples from this historic decision spread outward to affect all of Britain and even the Church in Britain today. For women, it meant the gradual loss of liberty and involvement in Church leadership. The chains of bondage were once again placed upon God's women.

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Chapter 9 notes

  1. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 133.
  2. David E. Gardner, The Trumpet Sounds for Britain (Christian Foundation Publications, Cheshire, 1980), 16-17.
  3. David E. Gardner, The Trumpet Sounds for Britain (Christian Foundation Publications, Cheshire, 1980), p. 29.
  4. David E. Gardner, The Trumpet Sounds for Britain (Christian Foundation Publications, Cheshire, 1980), p. 18-27.
  5. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 76.
  6. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995)., p. 30.
  7. David E. Gardner, The Trumpet Sounds for Britain (Christian Foundation Publications, Cheshire, 1980), p. 29-30.
  8. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 142.
  9. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 147.
  10. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 147-148.
  11. Michael Mitton, Restoring the Woven Cord (Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., London, 1995), p. 113.
  12. Celtic Saints, Ann Lockhart, Ed. (Pitkin Pictorials, Great Britain, 1995).
  13. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 146.
  14. Michael Mitton, Restoring the Woven Cord (Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., London, 1995), p. 113.
  15. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 145-146.
  16. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995), p. 150.
  17. Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women (Constable & Co. Ltd., London, 1995)., p. 151-152.
  18. Sylvia Mundahl-Harris, St. Hilda and Her Times (Caedmon of Whitby, England, 1997).

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