Summary: The Celtic Church was a missionary movement, combining evangelism and social change.
Celtic Spirituality of Mission and Service
I remember one of the first sessions that we had on Celtic Spirituality, one of you asked me if the Celtic Christians lived a fairly quiet Christian life, not “pushing” their faith on the cultures around them.
It was a question that had a definite bias against mission and evangelism. We do have this bias in our society, and in the church as well – when I first came to Runnymede, longtime, committed Christians talked about bristling at the “E” word – not only because of the abuse that they have felt as the “evangelized” but also the feeling of being pressured into joining evangelistic programs that they did not feel comfortable with.
Leap of Faith clip
Now you know why some people cringe and the word evangelism
There are many both inside the church and outside who have great reservations about the modern missions movement. At it’s best, it had a great desire to see people who had never heard the Gospel embrace the good news of Jesus, at it’s worst it was a tool of the European empires that they traveled with. The Prime Minister’s recent apology for the residential school system pointed to the cultural imperialism that often went along with missions in the past.
How do you feel when you hear the word “Evangelism?”
How about “Missionary?”
Even with our bias against evangelism and mission, it is impossible to talk about the Celtic Church without recognizing that it is first a missions movement.
Sales Model of Evangelism – make them realize their need – “you look terrible, you need Jesus.”
This is not the Celtic way – Patrick & the Celts were not salesmen.
The three saints that we’ve concentrated on, Patrick, Columba & Columbanus, were all missionaries. We talked of the pilgrimage that many Irish monks went out on to find Christ – these were seldom only personal spiritual journeys, but they were also missionary journeys – they would push their coracles into the sea without sail, rudder or oar and see where the Spirit would blow them. Where they landed they would live as the faithful among the people and draw folks into relationship with their Creator through Jesus.
In the Early days of the Celtic Church, Bishops were ordained first as Apostles, or “sent ones” to spread the good news. They did not have the administrative and institutional church leadership role that we might think of when we hear the word bishop. In many ways, the abbots of the monasteries had a more prominent leadership role, while the Bishops concentrated on expanding the knowledge of Christ in their region. Finney says “the (Celtic) Bishops performed the sacramental actions peculiar to their order, such as ordination, but above all were the leaders of evangelistic missions into the surrounding countryside and to the local secular leadership.” Finney, Recovering the Past p. 55
Patrick is the apostle of Ireland – credited with most of the population of the island embracing Christ within a generation of Patrick. There are some who would say that he is the first missionary since the apostle Paul: if not, he is surely the first missionary to venture outside of the Roman Empire.
By the time Patrick died at the ripe old age of 115, after 60 years of ministry, the vast majority of Ireland would have adopted this very indigenous, very vibrant Christian faith.
The Celts did not have the high value placed on tolerance that we have today, so there would have been no cultural or anthropological angst that we have today about converting people from their traditional religions to Christianity.
In many ways it was best explained as a conversion, not to Christianity, but to Christ. They were not spreading a religion, to have more people under their control, but they were spreading the Good News that the Creator wanted to have a relationship with them through his Son. It was the good news of inviting people to life the life that they were created to live: in the family of the one that you were created in the image of.
It was Good News that pulled people out of fear based, and often oppressive religious systems and beliefs.
Patrick recognized that it was good news as he suffered as a slave on the hills of northern Ireland. He returned to Ireland not to conquer for Christ, but to woo people into his love.
Patrick was a missionary unlike many others – he already had an understanding of the culture and ways of the Irish, and he felt no need to “civilize” them into Roman ways.
Even the Celtic cross is a sign of the marrying of the culture and Christian faith – The circle was an important symbol to the druids, and instead of destroying it as evil and devilish, Patrick placed the cross over it. This doesn’t mean that he adopted the traditional religion into his Christianity: there was much to be discarded it was a fear-based religion that included human sacrifice and fearsome and arbitrary gods. But the Celtic Christian faith was one that spoke to the same earthy felt-needs of the people, and it adopted much of what was good and pure from the traditional culture.