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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter V. The Celtic Church


The Lamp that Lighted Pagan Europe

The Celtic Church established by Columba in Scotland in the sixth century endured until the death of Malcolm Canmore in the eleventh, when it gave place to the Church of Rome; and even after the religious revolution of that period, the Culdees, a body of Celtic ecclesiastics, can be traced down to the fourteenth century.

The Venerable Bede, a contemporary and friend of Adamnan, tells us that Columba “left successors distinguished for their great charity, divine love, and strict attention to discipline”. For many generations, indeed, that marching soul led men to great enterprises and successful issues. From Scotland, the Iona missionaries passed to England and the continent of Europe. They it was, along with their brothers from Ireland, who brought Christianity to the greater part of Germany and Switzerland, and even to part of Italy; and their names are known from Iceland to Tarentum. The Convent of Erfurt, which produced Luther, is believed to have been a Celtic foundation, the last to survive in Germany; and at Milan, at St. Gall in Switzerland, and at Wurzburg, there may be seen manuscripts executed by men who had learned penmanship and theology in Iona or her daughter monasteries. The little island became supreme not only over the numerous monasteries created by her sons, but also over the senior foundations in Ireland. In the seventh century, she was at the height of her fame: the centre of a vast area of missionary activity, a renowned theological school, and a seat of learning.

Martyrdoms are all but unknown in the early history of the Celtic Church, and its saints are therefore not martyrs, but founders of churches and great teachers whose work and spirit survived and inspired those who came after them. Their names linger in many parts of Scotland. Loch Columcille in Skye, and the Isle of Inchcolm (Colum’s Isle) in the Firth of Forth commemorate two of the many monasteries founded by Columba himself. The Cathedral of Aberdeen is dedicated to St. Machar, a successor of Drostan, who, along with Columba, converted a Pictish fort at Deer into a monastery, the centre of missionary work in East Pictland. The name of the martyr Donnan survives in Kildonan, of Blane of Bute in Dunblane, of Mun in Kilmun, of Finnan in Glenfinnan, of Maelrubha in Loch Maree. Up and down the western seaboard and throughout the isles are scattered the remains of little Celtic chapels and monastic cells, built by these holy men.

Comparatively little is known about the system and theology of the Celtic Church, and the whole subject has given rise to much controversy. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic alike have claimed for their particular communion affinity in doctrine or usage with the Church of Columba. “The striking fact”, says Troup, “is that they meet round his memory.” But while all modern religious bodies may claim a share in the spiritual inheritance of the ancient Church, it is certain that none resembles it outwardly.

The Celtic Church was monastic in form. Monasticism was probably first established within the Christian Church by St. Basil, in the East. In the fourth century, St. Jerome introduced it into Western Europe, and St. Martin of Tours into Gaul. Thence it was brought by St. Ninian to Strathclyde, and a little later by St. Patrick to Ireland. It was the modified Irish form of monasticism — less formalistic, and more vigorous and bracing than that of the East—that Columba established in Iona. Its monasteries were not destined for recluses—though the church had its anchorites—but were rather religious settlements where men were fitted to go out into the world, and preach and minister to all and sundry. “The secret of the early Celts lay in this, that they linked sacrament with service, altar with hearth, worship with work.”—(Troup.) Their active and enterprising spirit succeeded in creating the great missionary church that the times demanded.

Columba constituted his church on the model of the family, and the source of jurisdiction was vested in the Abbot. For over two hundred years after the Founder’s death, the Abbot was chosen from his kin, in accordance with Irish tradition and clan feeling. In later days, when the clergy commonly married, hereditary succession was common also in benefices.

Diocesan episcopacy was unknown, but there were bishops of a sort. They appear to have been a very numerous body, appointed for the purpose of ordaining deacons and priests in their respective monasteries. In other respects, we gather, they lived the same life as the rest of the community, though honour was shown to the office.

Ordinations seem to have been irregular, personal qualifications being deemed more essential than ceremony. “More Scotico”, indeed, was used as a term of reproach amongst the Roman Catholic clergy, who exalted organization. “The Christian virtues of humility and meekness,” says Miss Bentinck Smith, “in which the emissaries of the British Church found Augustine deficient, were valued in Iona above orthodoxy and correctness of religious observance.”

“It was a marked and distinctive feature of the Iona system that while missionary monks, North and South, willingly yielded corporate obedience to Iona, and loyally owned Columba’s authority, they were always allowed individual liberty and freedom of judgment.” —(Troup.) In later days, when great spiritual leaders were lacking, this freedom tended to degenerate into licence, and the loose organization of the Church led eventually, as we shall see, to her corporate decay.

The precise nature of the doctrines of the Celtic Church is not clearly known, but from scattered allusions we gather that the scriptures were the basis of teaching.

The monks appear to have enjoyed a very liberal education. They were all bi-lingual in Latin and Gaelic, and probably many were, like Adamnan, proficient in Hebrew and Greek .as well. Within the monasteries, the services were conducted in the Latin tongue, but the monks preached to the people in their native Gaelic. (To this day services are held in Iona in the ancient tongue.)

Not a few of the monks, in successive generations, were distinguished in poetry, rhetoric, general philosophy, and science (including astronomy). A love of the useful and fine arts was inculcated, and so highly was music valued that in the early days the faculty was regarded as a gift bestowed by heaven only on its favourites.

The work of the Celtic Church, south of the Border, is specially worthy of notice, for the evangelization of England is so generally accredited to St. Augustine—as in large measure it ought to be—that the share of Iona in the task is too apt to be overlooked.

St. Augustine landed in Kent shortly after Columba’s death. One of his companions, Paulinus by name, came to Northumbria and made many converts, including King Edwin. Edwin, however, was slain in battle, and the new faith was discarded. Oswald, the heir to the throne, took refuge in Scotland, and received part of his education in Iona. On regaining his kingdom, his first care was to re-establish the Christian Church, and it was to Iona, not to Canterbury, that he turned for help. Aidan was sent, in 635, and he built a monastery, after the Iona pattern, on the little island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the east coast of Northumbria. He preached to the people, at first, in his native Gaelic, while the king sat at his feet, interpreting. Numbers of Scots missionaries followed Aidan, and Lindisfarne became a centre of missionary enterprise second only to Iona. Aidan’s successors, St. Finan and St. Colman, added fresh lustre to the southern monastery. Whitby, later the home of Caedmon, was one of her daughter houses; and so, too, was Melrose, which in turn produced St. Cuthbert, the apostle of the Lothians, whose name is borne by a famous church in Edinburgh.

St. Aidan and his followers not only restored to Christianity areas that had lapsed since the invasion of the Germanic tribes from which our island race is mainly descended, but also succeeded in winning over districts which their predecessors had never been able to enter. From the Celtic missionaries in the north and from the Roman missionaries in the south, there flowed two streams of missionary work that eventually covered the whole land. “The simplicity, the devotion, the free spirit, the tenderness and love, the apostolic zeal of the missionaries of Iona combined with the more complete organization and the higher culture of which Rome was the schoolmistress, to form the English Church.”—(Bishop Lightfoot of Durham.)

When, in due course, the Celtic and Roman missionaries came into contact, a controversy arose regarding the diversity of certain practices of the two churches: the tonsure, the celibacy of the clergy, and notably the date for the observance of Easter. In 463, Rome and the Continental churches had adopted a new method of calculating Easter Day, but the Celtic Churches in North Ireland and Scotland and the ancient British Church retained the old computation, which they believed to have been derived from the East, from the Apostle John himself. In 664, a counsel met at Whitby to settle these differences, and the king, who had hitherto favoured the Celtic Church observances, declared in favour of the Roman custom.

[An old Gazetteer of Scotland gives a vigorous, if somewhat biased, account of this episode:—

“A celebrated, but very stupid dispute, at Whitby, in Yorkshire, between Colman, one of its alumni, and Wilfred, a Romanist, on the precious questions as to when Easter or the Passover should be celebrated, and with what kind of tonsure the hair of a professed religious should be cut, conducted on the one side by an appeal to the traditional authority of John the apostle, and on the other to the interpolated dictum of Peter, the alleged janitor of heaven, and supported on the part of Colman with all the zeal and influence of his Culdee brethren, ended, as it deserved to do, in the total discomfiture of the people of Iona, who totally forgot the moral dignity of their creed both by the jejuneness of the questions debated, and by the monstrous folly of appealing to the verdict of the Northumbrian Prince Oswi, a diademed ninny, who ‘determined on no account to disregard the institutions of Peter who kept the keys of the kingdom of heaven ’—this dispute gave a virtual death-blow to Culdeeism, and the influence of Icolmkill in England. Under Adamnan, who died in 703, Iona proclaimed to the world its having commenced a career of apostacy the ecclesiastics of the island put some trappings of finery upon their originally simple form of church government, they fraternized with the Romanists on the subject of keeping Easter and though continuing to maintain the island’s literary fame, very seriously defiled the essential purity of Christian faith and devotion.”]

This ended the supremacy of the Celtic Church in South Britain, and practically established there the Roman See.

The paschal question had previously estranged the Roman missionaries from the Welsh Christians, and was still to create dissension in North Britain. After Augustine reached England, Gregory wrote cautioning him against the rigorous enforcement of Roman usages, and advised him rather to chose from the customs of different churches those which seemed particularly suited to the place and the people. Augustine, however, gifted man as he was, lacked the tolerance and foresight of the great Pope, and while it is a matter of opinion whether or not he and his followers were wise in refusing to compromise in this particular issue, it is certain that they failed in dealing with the Celtic peoples, as others have since failed, because of “ that passion for complete uniformity which has so frequently worked mischief in human affairs —(Rait.) Sheer tenacity of opinion, however, often overcomes a plastic temperament, and Adamnan, visiting Northumbria twenty-four years after the Synod of Whitby, did not fail to be moved by the rebuke of many learned ecclesiastics, that a small and obscure community like the Family of Hy should venture to defy the wisdom and might of Rome on so important an issue. The gentle, scholarly Abbot, who “shared the prevailing over-estimate of these things”, returned to Iona—where, according to the old Irish chronicle, his appearance with the coronal tonsure of Rome in place of the Celtic half-shaven head was “a great surprise to his congregation”—and dutifully pointed out to the brethren the error of their ways. The brethren, however, refused to diverge from the ancient customs, and a schism was created, which persisted long after Adamnan’s death. Meanwhile the Roman party grew steadily stronger, and in 717, Naiton, King of Picts, expelled from his kingdom all monks who refused to conform. One by one, Iona gave in on all the controversial points, and by 772, unity was restored within the Celtic Church.


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