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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 22 - Organisation of Iona; Ecclesiastical Government


They who measure the greatness of an enterprise by its outward pomp and magnificence, still see nothing grand in the voyage of Columba and his twelve companions across the Irish Channel. They traverse the sea in their modest wherry, they step ashore on their lonely isle; no shout of welcome hails their arrival, even as no adieus, that we read of, had greeted their departure. They kneel down on the silent strand and implore the blessing of the Most High on their mission. Their supplications ended, they address themselves, just as ordinary settlers would, to the humble tasks connected with the preliminary arrangements. Nothing could be more unpretending. It is not thus that political enterprises are inaugurated. The warrior goes forth at the head of armies and fleets. There is "the thunder of the captains and the shouting." The footsteps of the Gospel are in silence. The eclat which serves to disguise the essential littleness of the former, would but hide the grandeur of the latter.

We have seen how wisely Columba chose the site for the headquarters of his mission—a little island, ringed by the silver sea, yet closely adjoining the mainland on which he was to operate. On the south the territories of the Scots, his countrymen, stretched away to the Clyde. On the north lay the far ampler domain of the Picts, his proper mission-field, bounded on the south by the Grampian chain, which parted it from the southern Picts, and stretching eastward and northward till it met the ocean. Iona being neither exclusively Pictish nor exclusively Scottish, the danger was less of its inhabitants becoming mixed up in the quarrels of the two nations; and the neutrality of their position would tend to disarm prejudice, and facilitate access to both peoples. Their little dale was at once the oratory in which they might meditate and pray; the arsenal in which they might forge the weapons with which they were to wage their spiritual warfare; the school in which they trained the sons of princes and nobles; the tribunal to which kings and chieftains carried their differences and quarrels; and, above all, a great missionary institute whence the pure light of the Gospel was to be radiated by evangelists, not only over all Scotland, but also over a large part of England, as well as over wide regions of northern Europe.

Let us describe first the general appearance and arrangements of the little hamlet which we see rising on this Hebridean isle, and destined to be for centuries the headquarters of the evangelical faith; and next, let us attend to the ecclesiastical and spiritual mechanism enshrined on this spot, the influence of which is felt in countries far remote from the center from which it works.

After the labour of two years the material framework of the Columban mission stands complete. Iona is the rival of Rome, yet it is not of marble but of mud. Its builders have neither the means nor the inclination to make it vie with its great antagonist in the glory of its architecture. In the center of the humble settlement rises the church. It is a structure of oaken planks, thatched with rushes. Around the church are grouped the cells of the brethren of the mission. They are of clay, held together by a wickerwork of wattles. Columba has a hut appropriated to his special use. It stands apart on a small eminence, and is built of logs. He writes and studies in it by day, and sleeps in it by night, laying himself down on the bare ground, with only a skin interposed, and resting his head on a stone pillow. To these are added a refectory, where the fathers take their meals at a common table, and a guest-chamber, for the reception of strangers who happen to visit the isle. These comprise the strictly ecclesiastical portion of the little city, and around them is drawn a rath of mud and stones.

Outside the rampart are the erections required for the commissariat of the community. There is a barn for storing the harvest, a kiln for drying the grain, mill for grinding the corn: there is a stable, a byre, a smithy, and a carpenter's shop. A stream, which has its rise in a lakelet hard by, rushes past the cluster of huts, and turns the mill wheel. The dress of the members of the mission was as primitive as their dwellings. They wore a tunic of white linen, and over it a gown of undyed wool, with an ample hood which hung down on the shoulders, and on occasion could be drawn over the head. They were shod with sandals of cowhide, which they put off when they sat down to eat. Their board was plainly though amply furnished. Their meals consisted almost exclusively of the produce of their island, which their labour and industry had made wonderfully fruitful. They had milk from their cows, eggs from their barnyard, apples from their garden trees, fish and seal's flesh from their seas, and barley bread grown in their own fields. Latterly the establishment enjoyed the services of a Saxon baker; for Adamnan records certain words of "the saint, which he tells us were heard " by a certain religious brother, a Saxon, by name Geneve, who was at the moment working at his trade, which was that of a baker."[1] Such was the usual simple fare of the brethren. On Sabbath, or when it chanced that a stranger visited them, they enriched their table by adding to their ordinary diet a few dainties.

No mystic or symbolic sign adorned or sanctified dress or person. The only badge which they permitted themselves was one that indicated that their calling was a sacred one. They enlarged the fore part of the head by shaving. The tonsure of the head was an ancient custom, in universal practice among the priests of paganism, but strictly forbidden to all who served at the altar of Jehovah. This custom had been resuscitated, and was now in common use among the Roman clergy, whom it was supposed to endow with peculiar holiness. Among the Columban clergy it was simply an official mark, and it was worn in a way that indicated their perfect independence of a church that was now claiming to be mother and mistress of all churches. The elders of Iona shaved the fore part of the head from ear to ear, in the form of a crescent, whereas the fashion of the Roman ecclesiastics was to shave a circle on the crown of the head. Rome saw heterodoxy in the tonsure of the presbyters of Iona, and even Bede laments the perversity with which these good men clung to this wicked usage. In truth, the monk of Jarrow had great difficulty in conceiving how sound theological knowledge could lodge in heads so unorthodoxically shorn. He acknowledges their learning, extols their piety, and commends their diligence; but alas! of what avail were all these graces when their heads were not "clipped" after the pattern approved at Rome?

A traveler from the distant Italy, where the clergy of the day were attiring themselves in robes of silk and sitting at tables that groaned under a load of luxuries, has visited, we shall suppose, our remote country. He is sailing along in the narrow sound of Iona. He marks the island on his left rising out of the billows of the Atlantic, lonely and desolate its look, with the storm mist, may be, hanging over it. His eye lights on the little cluster of rude huts which he sees covering beneath the western hill, which gives it a little shelter from the furious blasts which sweep across it from the world of waters. He descries, moreover, some of the members of the community, in their garments of homespun, going about their daily avocations. "What colony of misanthropes," he exclaims, " has chosen this forlorn and wretched spot for their dwelling? What miserable and useless lives they must lead in this savage region, where rarely is the sun able to struggle through the thick air, and where only at times does ocean sleep and its thunders subside in silence." How astonished would our traveler have been to be told that his steps had led him to the Luminary of northern Europe; that on this lonely isle and in these rude huts dwelt theologians and scholars, and that he saw before him a higher school of wisdom and a purer fountain of civilization than any at this hour to be found in the proud city from which he had come.

From the material framework we turn to the apparatus enshrined in it, constructed for spiritual conquest. It was the middle of the sixth century, and the growing superstition at Rome had obscured the lights which Paul and the first preachers had kindled in the sky of that city. To have gone into the darkness of Druidism with the dying lamp of tradition would have been vain. Columba turned to a quarter where the Gospel never grows old. At the center of his mechanism he placed the Word of God. His text-book was the Bible. Around its open page he gathers the youth in his college, and in their remote and solitary isle they hear the voices of prophets and apostles speaking to them as they had spoken to the men of early times.

The first duty and main business of every one on Iona, whether master or scholar, was to study the inspired volume, not to seek for allegory, but to discover its plain sense, to commit large portions of it to memory, and to occupy their leisure hours in multiplying manuscript copies of it.

We see the young Columba, in the school of Finnian, instructed in the "wisdom of Holy Scripture." The first work in which we find him occupied is the transcription of the psalter; the last of his mortal labours was to write the thirty-fourth psalm. He halted in the middle of it to die. He was a quick, accurate, and elegant penman, and he reared a race of swift and accurate scribes, who anticipated the achievements of the printing press by the dexterity of their pens. We learn from Adamnan that the substance of Columba's preaching was the "Word of God." It was the fountain of his theology, the pillar of his faith, and the lamp with which he enlightened the dark region of Pictland.

The multiplication of manuscript copies of the Bible was specially the work of the older members of the establishment. While the younger brethren were abroad on their missionary tours, the elders remained in their cells, engaged in the not less fruitful labour of multiplying copies of the Scriptures which the younger men might carry with them in their journeys, and which they might leave as the best foundation stone of the communities or churches which they formed by their preaching. These copies were probably without embellishment. In other cases great labour was bestowed on the ornamentation of these manuscripts. "The Books of Kells and Durrow" are wonderful monuments of the conception, the skill, and the patience of the Columban scribes in the seventh century."[2] The Bible thus stood at the center as the vital propelling power of the whole Columban mechanism.

Let us reflect how very much this implied, what a distinct and definite character it stamped upon the church of Iona, and how markedly different in genius and in working it proclaimed this young church to be from that great ecclesiastical body on the other side of the Alps, which was beginning to monopolize the name of church. Iona was a proclamation to the world that the BIBLE and not ROME is the one source of Truth, and the one fountain of law.

Wherever the missionaries of Iona came, they appeared not as the preachers of a new creed, elaborated and sanctioned by their leader Columbia, and which till now had not been heard of beyond the precincts of their isle; they published the "common faith," as contained in Holy Scripture, which they held to be the one authoritative standard of religious belief. This was what the age needed. The theology of the Roman Church had received a large admixture from impure sources. It had become a medley of tradition, of the canons and decrees of councils, and the revelations or reveries of saints. The world needed to be shown what Christianity is as contained in its primeval fountains.

Iona, moreover, presented a public claim of Independence. The church of Iona, founding herself upon the Scriptures, had thereby the right of ruling herself by the Scriptures. Her government was within herself, and drawn from her Divine charter. An oracular Voice from the Seven Hills was then claiming the homage of all churches, and the submission of all consciences. The reply of Iona virtually was, "Christ our Head we know, and the Bible our rule we know, and to them we willingly render obedience, but this voice that speaks to us from afar is strange, and the claim of submission which it urges is one which we dare not entertain." At an hour when Rome was monopolizing all rights, and preparing for all churches a future of slavery, the flag of independence and freedom was boldly and broadly unfurled amid the seas of the north. It was a Protest, at even this early age, against ultramontanism. It was not so full and distinct a protest, nor was it emitted on so conspicuous a stage, or ratified by so many legal formalities as that which the princes of Germany published at Spires in A.D. 1529; but in spirit and substance the protest which these thirteen men lifted up on the rock of Iona in A.D. 563, and the Protest which the confederated German princes published to the world ten centuries afterwards, were, in truth, the same. Iona was the earliest organized opposition offered to a tyranny which was destined, when it had come to its full growth, to cover for ages the whole of Christendom.

The great cause of liberty, too, owes much to Iona. And let it be carefully noted that the liberty in which we find Iona giving us our first lesson, and fighting our first battle, was the highest liberty of all—the liberty of conscience. It is here all liberty begins, whether that of an individual or that of a nation; and it was in this liberty—the liberty of the soul—that Iona now began to educate and train the Scots. This was a liberty unknown in the schools of Greece; it was a liberty unknown to the patriots, who contended against the phalanxes of Philip, and the hordes of Xerxes. Nor did the Caledonians who died fighting for their moors against the Romans, dream of this liberty. They knew only the half, and that not the better half, of it. The wide range and surpassing grandeur of this principle was unknown in the world till Christianity entered it. It did not begin to be understood in Scotland till Iona arose. We are accustomed to speak of Iona as a school of letters, and a nursery of art, but we fail to perceive its true significance and the mighty impulse it communicated to the national life, if we overlook the first great boon it conferred on Scotland—FREEDOM OF SOUL.

The next question is touching the government of this little ecclesiastical community. Order, of course, there must be, otherwise confusion would speedily have overwhelmed the mission, and the end sought would have been defeated. But order implies power somewhere, and in someone. The government of Iona was lodged in the hands of Columba. Naturally so, as the projector of the enterprise, and the man of highest social position and greatest talent in the little band. He exercised jurisdiction under the name of Abbot. He was the father of the family; and truly paternal his government appears to have been. In the annals of Iona, at least while Columba presided over it, we read of no act of insubordination, no violation of duty, nothing, in short, calling for the exercise of a punitive jurisdiction.

The obedience which the elders of Iona fielded to their presbyter-abbot was perfect. Yet it was rendered under the compulsion of no oath. A promise or vow of submission to the authority of the superior was all that was exacted of the entrant. The spring of their obedience was higher than any vow or oath; it was found in the zeal which burned in the hearts of all to carry forward their common mission, and the love they bore their common head. Columba had but to signify his will, and it was instantly done. The easiest and the most difficult tasks were undertaken with a like alacrity. We see the brethren ready to set out on the most distant journey the moment the command is given, and work in the remotest part of the mission-field. The summons to return and present themselves in Hy obeyed with equal promptitude. Has it been said, Go, labour in the field? go, plough, or carry home the grain. The command which enjoins the humble task is accepted in the same willing spirit as that which enjoins the most honourable service. Are spiritual exercises prescribed? The brother retires without a murmur into seclusion, spends the time in meditation and prayer and fasting, and emerges only at the expiry of the allotted period. No soldiers ever obeyed their general with a more hearty goodwill. No monks of the middle age were ever more submissive and alert. And yet the brethren of Iona knew when not to obey, which is more than can be said of the mediŠval fraternities. The obedience of the Columban elders was ruled by a higher Will than that of the father-abbot. A century afterwards, when Adamnan sought to seduce them from the paths which Columba, their founder, had set them, and win them to the customs of Rome, they refused to follow him, abbot though he was, and he was forced to demit his office and retire.

It is not uncommon to speak of Iona as a monastery, and its inmates as monks. These terms in this case are altogether inappropriate. They bring up before the mind an order of men and a class of institutions essentially different from those of Iona. Monachism was a method of organising and acting which the violence of the times rendered so far necessary, and which offered possibilities of benefiting the world not easily procurable in that age in any other way. But in process of time declension set in, and monachism became as corrupt a thing as the world it had forsaken, and the end was that society had to step in with a sentence of condemnation and sweep away a system that, instead of purifying the world, as it professed to do, was sapping its morals and devouring, its substance. But we challenge for Iona an essential difference, not from monkery at its worst, but from monkery at its best. Let us see in how many points the monastery and monks of Iona stand contrasted to the monasteries that rose in such numbers in the East, and in a short time became equally flourishing in the West.

Isolation was one of the fundamental principles of the early monasteries. The African hermit fled to the desert or buried himself in the cave. He forsook the world on pretext of reforming it. Columba, on the contrary, founded his institution on the social principle. So far from forsaking society, he courted contact and familiarity with men, not seeing how otherwise he could diffuse among them the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of Christianity. The devotions of the eastern hermit in the lonely wilderness might edify himself, but we fail to see how they could benefit his fellows. So far as his example could stimulate or his words instruct others, he might about as well have been in another planet or in his grave. With Columba and his brethren it is the very opposite. If they have fixed their headquarters on Iona, it is that they may be near the two great families of the Picts and the Scots; and how often are their wherries seen crossing and recrossing the "silver streak" that parts them from the mainland. What strath or hamlet or tribe is it to which their anxious steps do not carry them? We see them instructing the ignorant, consoling the sick and the dying, and initiating the rude native in the arts and industries of life, as well as teaching him the "things of the kingdom." And if again, for a little space, they seek the solitude of their island, it is that, recruited by its quiet, they may issue thence to resume their benevolent and fruitful labours in the world.

The monks of the Eastern and Western Church were under vow and rule. Of the three main orders of monks,the eremites, the anchorites, and the caenobites, the last come nearest the model established by Columba; but still we trace a wide and essential difference betwixt the caenobite monk and the presbyter of Iona. The caenobites, like all the other orders, promised a blind obedience to the will of their superior, and bound themselves to live according to his rule, practicing the two virtues of poverty and celibacy. Previous to their vow it was open to them to marry, and possess property, or to live as celibates, and pass through the world without being owner of so much as a penny. There was just as little merit or demerit in the one state as in the other. The error of monkery was this: it held the renunciation of lawful enjoyments to be a meritorious act. It was an aggravation of this error, that abstention from things indifferent was made the one end and aim, and not a step towards higher and nobler services. The monks rested here. Drawing around them the triple cordon of their vow, their habit, and the walls of their convent, they associated together for the profession of celibacy and poverty in the fond belief that this was pleasing to God and in some mysterious way profitable to the world. It was this that constituted them monks.

Nothing of all this can we discover at Iona. Whatever abstinence its inmates imposed upon themselves, they made it not the end, but the means to the end, which was the diffusion of the light of Christianity. It is plain, from facts that have come down to us on unimpeachable authority, that the missionaries of Iona took no vow of celibacy. Columba, it is true, was not married. The brethren who crossed the sea with him were celibates, and women were forbidden to live in the colleges; but it is certain that celibacy was not the rule either in Iona or in any of the later establishments which sprang from it. In the Culdee establishment of St. Andrews the father was succeeded in office by the son during thirteen generations.[3] The author of the History of the See of Dunkeld tells us that " the Culdees had wives after the manner of the Eastern Church." [4] In the houses which Columba founded in Ireland marriage was had in honour among the brotherhood by which they were served, and the right of hereditary succession was recognized. In the diocese of Armagh, son succeeded father during fifteen generations. [5] Moreover, the office of abbot came to be hereditary, descending from father to son, a thing impossible if celibacy had been the law of the community.

Nor did the clergy of Iona take the vow of poverty. The proof of this is not far to seek. Laws were enacted for regulating the distribution of the goods of the Culdees among their children, an absurd arrangement, if they were incapacitated from acquiring and possessing property. Their wealth might not be great, but private property they did own; it was theirs while they lived, and their children's when they died, as the laws to which we have just referred attest. Hence the agriculture which they taught others to practice they themselves were careful to exemplify; thus diligently provided for themselves and their families. Columba had fields waving with corn, and barns filled with plenty, at a time when it was rare in Scotland to see field turned by plough or harvest stored in barn. St. Mungo is said to have yoked the deer and the wolf to his plough; a legend which simply means that the Culdees tamed the barbarian and broke him in to the peaceful pursuits of agriculture.

Moreover, the inmates of Iona yielded no passive or servile obedience to their superior. We have noted above a fact which puts this beyond dispute. One of the more eminent abbots in the line of Iona—perhaps the most eminent after Columba himself—Adamnan to wit, the brethren expelled, because his tendencies ran in the direction of assuming a lordship over them. This shows how they understood the relations that bound them to their abbot. Order there was, we have said, in the establishment. This is involved in the very idea that its members lived in society, and sought the attainment of a common end. But though there was government, there was no tyranny; and though there was obedience, there was no slavery. They practiced no idle austerities, and they submitted to the yoke of no immoral vows.

It has been asked, was it a graduated hierarchy which Iona exhibited, or did it present the platform of a Presbyterian polity? This question hardly admits of a categorical answer, and for an obvious reason. Iona was not an organised church. The name that fits it best, and best describes it, is that of a Missionary Institute. It was set down on the borders of what was virtually a heathen country, to redeem its desolation by diffusing over it the light of science and the blessings of religion, and all its arrangements were determined by this idea. It founded itself neither upon the mode of Rome, nor upon the model of the Presbyterian Church, which was yet far in the future; it grew out of the exigencies of its position and its age. Columba was a presbyter, his fellow-missionaries were presbyters, and his successors in the abbatial office were also presbyters. "Columba," says Bede, " was not a bishop, but a presbyter." [6] "In Iona," says another authority, "there must ever be an abbot, but not a bishop; and all the Scottish bishops owe subjection to him, because Columba was an abbot, and not a bishop." [7] There was no bishop resident at Iona in Columba's day. There was not a single diocesan bishop in all Scotland till the great ecclesiastical revolution under David I. Pinkerton, who is not infected by Presbyterian notions, admits "that the Abbot of Iona was in effect Primate of Scotland till the ninth century." [8] The testimony of Bede, which is well known, is to the same effect. "That island," says he, " is always wont to have for its governor a presbyter-abbot, to whose authority both the whole province, and even the bishops themselves, by an unusual constitution, owe subjection, after the example of their first teacher, who was not a bishop, but a presbyter and monk."[9] It is clear there was neither episcopal throne nor miter at Iona.

The above passage shows us a presbyter governing the clergy of the whole kingdom. This raises the question, What was the ecclesiastical rank of the Pictish and Scottish clergy? Facts are the best answer to this question. They had received ordination from presbyters. There was no bishop, as we have shown, resident at Iona to give ordination. We learn from Bede himself that ordination was performed by the abbot, and certain seniors or elders acting with him. Speaking of Aidan, who was sent to Northumbria from Iona in the seventh century, the historian tells us that he received his election and ordination by " he assembly of the elders."[10] Coleman, who disputed at the Synod of Whitby, A.D. 664, was ordained by the hands of presbyters. These men, ordained and sent forth by the elders of Iona, had no diocese; they exercised no jurisdiction over other ordained men; and though Bede styles then bishops, and though at times they so designate themselves, we are unable to see in what they differed from ordinary pastors. The term bishop had not come in our northern church to designate a man in whom was vested the exclusive power of the transmission of orders, in which some have made the essence of a bishop to consist. The conclusion to which we are led is, that it was then in Scotand, as it undoubtedly was in apostolic times, when bishop and presbyter were two names for one and the same office; and that just as we find inspired writers in the New Testament addressing the same church-officer at one time as bishop, and at another as presbyter, so we find Adamnan speaking of Column or Colmonel, who paid two visits to Columba, styling him bishop on occasion of his first visit, and presbyter when he comes to speak of the second. These presbyters, on whose heads had been laid the hands of the "elders," as they kneeled in the chapel of Icolmkill, might be called bishops, but they obeyed the Presbyter of Iona, and they ordained other bishops by the laying on of hands, as instance the case of Finnian, who ordained Diuma, Bishop of Middlesex. The "Book of Deer," written not later than the ninth century, "exhibits a period when ecclesiastical institutions were so far conformed to the original model, that the monastic orders, and the hierarchy of ecclesiastical degrees, were unknown among us." [11] Elsewhere a strong line of demarcation parted bishop and presbyter, but in the churches of Ireland and Scotland they were equal.[12]

In the discipline of the Culdee Brotherhoods we see the rudiments of church government, but no fully-developed plan, whether episcopal or Presbyterian. It was not till after the Reformation that the Presbyterian system, with its perfect equality of pastors, but a graduated order of courts, so finely conservative at once of the liberty of the individual and the authority of the body corporate, came into existence. Luther never advanced beyond the threshold of this question. He grasped the grand idea of the universal priesthood of believers, not of the clergy only, but of all believing men, and he left it to those who were to come after him to evolve from this principle the right form of ecclesiastical government. Zwingle and Calvin put their hands to the work, but did not quite finish it. It remained for Knox to solve the difficult problem how best to guard the equal rank and the individual rights of the pastors, and at the same time maintain their responsibility and loyalty to the Church. His Metropolitan was the General Assembly: his Diocesan Bishop, the Synod: his Rector, the Presbytery: his Vicar, the Kirk Session. These alone were the ruling bodies. As regarded individual ministers, no one of them singly could exercise an act of government, or claim jurisdiction the one over the other. All were brethren.


Footnotes

1. Adamnan, book iii., chap. xi.

2. Life by Adamnan, Introd. cxvi.

3. Pinkerton's Enquiry, i., Appendix, 462.

4. See Publications of Bannatyne Club.

5. Vita Malach., c. 7.

6. Bede, iii. 4.

7. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. ad ann. 565.

8. Pinkertor's Enquiry, ii. 271.

9. Bede, iii. 4.

10. Conventu seniorum.

11. Anderson's Scotland in Early Christian Times, i.

12. In Hibernia episcopi et presbyteri unum sunt."—Ekkehardi liberArx Geschichte von St. Gall, i. 267; apud D'Aubigne, v. 31. According to Spottiswood, our bishops had neither distinct titles nor dioceses till the times of Malcolm III., who first divided the country into dioceses. Spots. Hist. p. 40; Vazianzeni, p. 40. Glas., 1697.


 

 


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