St. Patrick’s feast prompted me to do a little re-reading of Edward Sellner’s Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, an old favorite. St. Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in 432, but it’s entirely possible that the faith pre-dated his arrival. Various legends tell how Peter or Paul or even Joseph of Arimathea came to the isles. Either way, it’s clear that the Celtic Church rose to prominence from the 5th to the 12th centuries. Growing out of the former pagan culture, Celtic Christianity was quite distinct in key ways that are interesting to contemplate in the 21st century.
First, its governance departed from the centralized Roman style. Geographic dioceses were established by the Church with appointed bishops, usually in urban areas, but throughout the most of the country, which was rural, a system of independent monasteries predominated, a closer fit with the previous pagan tribal culture. Both men and women founded and led monasteries, and some became more powerful than bishops. They lived vowed, celibate lives (the men often priests), but their communal life included participation by nearby families. The monastery provided education, liturgy and pastoral care, and lay people assisted with farm work and other tasks, a unique type of cooperation.
In regards to men and women’s roles, the Celtic Church encountered conflict with Rome for its equality between the sexes. Women’s leadership extended to double houses of men and women; they lived in separate quarters but worshiped together. St. Bridget of Kildare was the abbess of such a house, and early biographies indicate that she and other abbesses were highly influential in a way not seen since. “Women were valued and not ignored, judging from one of the earliest Irish martyrologies, that of Gorman, which lists over two hundred female saints,” Sellner says. Further, Celtic missionaries apparently traveled in pairs of men and women, even to the extent of co-leading the eucharist, a practice severely condemned by authorities. Sellner includes an excerpt from a sixth-century letter to Irish missionaries from the bishops in Gaul:
“ . . . we have learned that you continually carry around from one of your fellow-countrymen’s huts to another, certain tables upon which you celebrate the divine sacrifice of the Mass, assisted by women whom you call conhospitae; and while you distribute the eucharist, they take the chalice and administer the blood of Christ to the people. This is an innovation, an unheard-of superstition. . . For the love of Christ, and in the name of the Church United and of our common faith, we beg you to renounce immediately upon receipt of this letter, these abuses of the table.” (p. 20)
I’m not sure whether I want to laugh or cry at how little things seem to change in 1500 years! Yet, according to theologian Diana Butler Bass, a real seismic shift is well underway in American religion. On the basis of statistics about church affiliation and views of religion, she sees the end of conventional church in all Christian denominations, and her view is optimistic, calling it “a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches — and temples, synagogues, and mosques — that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith — they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.” Our Celtic ancestors provide a hopeful model as Christianity continues to evolve.