‘Celtic Orthodoxy’ – ancient or modern? (ii)

Round tower of Glendalough, Ireland (photo: Ticketautomat)

In the first part of this post I put forward the idea that there is a deep-seated commonality between Celtic and Eastern Christianity which we are rediscovering at the present time (not least through sacred art) for reasons that merit more serious investigation that they have hitherto received. Undeterred by skeptics who say that this is merely a modern myth put about by New Agers and inveterate dreamers with a vague grudge against institutionalized forms of the Western Church, in this instalment I will try to test the hypothesis that this is not just a modern phenomenon but one which has an actual basis in history.

The first striking thing to point out is that there is good evidence to suggest that the Celtic lands were in contact with Christians from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire very early in the story of the Church. Writing in the first decade or so of the third century Tertullian of Carthage intriguingly comments – a reference which will soon afterwards be corroborated by Origen [1] – on the existence of ‘places among the Britons unapproached by the Romans (‘Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca’) but subdued to Christ (‘Christo vera subdita’)’. This is highly suggestive, as it constitutes the first indication that the evangelization of the British Isles was not synonymous with assimilation to the civilization of the Roman Empire, which would be one explanation for the fact that Christianity in the early centuries of the Celtic Church developed somewhat independently from the rest of the Latin West. So the question naturally arises – if the remoter parts of the British Isles were not exposed to Christianity by way of contact with Rome, by what route did the Gospel travel to these outlying north-western regions of Europe?

This is where distinguishing myth and conjecture from history becomes decidedly difficult. It is of course hard to take seriously the fanciful notion that it was Joseph of Arimathea himself who brought the Gospel directly from Palestine, passing via Glastonbury and the Isle of Avalon; this is clearly the stuff of Grail legends (in some versions of which Joseph actually travelled to Britain with the boy Jesus for the purposes of extracting tin from the mines of Cornwall [2]). What is remarkable about such stories, however, is that they appear to have been in circulation, and therefore part of the popular consciousness, at a relatively early date. Writing in the sixth century, the historian Gildas contended – an account not contradicted by Eusebius -, that ‘these islands received the beams of light … in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [i.e. prior to 37 C.E.], in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment or death’. [3]

Some scholars, attempting to reconstruct the journey of Christianity to Britain and Ireland, have more plausibly pointed to the fact that St Paul’s letter to the Galatians may well have been addressed to Celtic tribes (the word galatoi being etymologically related to ‘Celt’) living near present-day Ankara and speaking a version of Gaulish. These tribes would, it is argued, have been in contact with the Gauls of Southern France, who would then have travelled to Britain by the end of the second century. Given the pivotal rôle of Gaul as a conduit for Eastern Christian thought into Western Europe (via figures such as St Irenaeus of Lyons and later St John Cassian) and its geographical proximity to Britain, this hypothesis is far from fanciful. If correct, it would establish a material link between Celtic Christianity and the spiritual traditions and practices of the East which appears to be borne out by remarkable parallels in Christian art and architecture between Ireland and the world of the Desert Fathers in Egypt and Syria.

Beehive huts, Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry)

Syrian Beehive structures, Jazira

Perhaps the most obvious hallmark of Celtic Christian culture is its emphasis (unique in a Western European context) on monasticism in line with the Eastern ascetic tradition. One only needs to compare the characteristic Irish round towers or ‘beehive’ hermit’s cells in ancient monastic sites such as Glendalough or Skellig Michael with similar structures in Egypt and Syria to be struck by the resemblences. It is equally worthy of note that a number of Irish place-names bear the designation ‘Disert’ or Desert, with seven Coptic monks being buried at one of them (Disert Ulidh in Ulster). These are mentioned in a litany attributed to the ninth century saint Oengus, while the oldest extant Irish Missal (Stowe) mentions Egyptian anchorites of the fourth century. The role that these monks may or may not have played in the evangelization of Ireland is contested, but the correspondence between early Celtic and Coptic Christianity seems to  be attested by the cumulative weight of other evidence such as the similarity of Irish and Coptic letters, Crosses and tau-shaped bishops’ croziers quite unlike those of Western Europe.

One of the most notable confirmations of the thesis of Coptic-Celtic contact came in 2006 with the discovery in an Irish peat bog (by the driver of a mechanical digger) of the Fadden More Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from the eighth century which astonishingly had been bound using Egyptian methods and materials. A National Museum of Ireland press release commented:

Fragments of papyrus were dramatically discovered in the lining of the Egyptian-style leather binding. This potentially represents the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Middle Eastern Coptic Church. It is a finding that asks many questions and has confounded some of the accepted theories about the history of early Christianity in Ireland. [4]

Seen in the light of such evidence, the remarkable resemblence of present-day Gaelic Psalmody to the liturgy of Coptic monasteries on which I commented in the first part of this post would therefore appear to be more than mere coincidence.

Coptic and Celtic Crosses

So much for the archeology. What of the spiritual heritage common to Celtic and Eastern Christianity? The recent Global Dictionary of Christianity offers a useful summary of the shared elements:

‘Celtic Christian beliefs emerged from the blending of Celtic indigenous faith with the Desert Tradition of the ancient Coptic Church […] The pneumatological richness of Eastern Orthodox theology led Celtic Christians towards a theology that is both trinitarian and sacramental. […] Union with God was the fundamental way Celtic believers understood the gift of salvation in Christ. Humans were created for relationship with God, and Christ’s coming as the second Adam was the way in which fractured God-human relationships could experience reconciliation. Christ was both the reconciliation of humanity and the soul friend, or anamchara. […] With the Celtic belief that creation hosts the divine, Celts developed life-affirming holistic approaches to faith.’

The question that really interests me is why this commonality should be surfacing right now. What is driving people to explore these parallelisms? Here the conclusion of the Global Dictionary article maybe provides a clue:

‘With their approach to spirituality Celtic Christians were able to unite what is often seen in contemporary life as mutually exclusive.‘ [5]

There are signs that an increasing number of Christians of various denominations are looking to integrate elements of Celtic and Eastern Orthodox tradition into their own spiritual practice because they are seen to offer an antidote to the dualistic categories that have increasingly come to dominate Western modern thought (mind vs body, grace vs nature …) and whose negative impact upon our world is becoming more and more obvious, particularly with regard to our relationship to the natural environment. Basically, these ancient traditions have something authentic and precious that we have lost and badly need to recover – via what is frequently called ressourcement or a ‘return to the sources’ [6] –  if we are to resolve present-day problems. It is to this search, both in art and theology –  that part III of this post will turn.


[1] Origen (c.185-254) speaks of the presence in Britain of a church ‘at the very end of the world’ (‘quae mundi limites tenent’). See Charles Thomas, ‘Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500’ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 43.
[2] This legend seems to have been behind the otherwise inexplicable line from Blake’s celebrated ‘Jerusalem’: ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?’ (see Christopher Bamford, William Parker Marsh, Celtic Christianity : ecology and holiness (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1982), 11).
[3] Ibid., 13.
[4] Reprinted at http://www.seandalaiocht.com/1/post/2010/09/papyrus-fragments-found-with-ancient-irish-bog-book.html
[5] William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (eds), Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 144.
[6] See the post ‘Back to the Future’ on this blog.


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