Mainstream 1996

Autumn/Winter Edition 1996 (Part Two)

CELTIC SPIRITUALITY: "A New Way of Being Church"

Did you watch the performance of "Riverdance" on TV? Admittedly, it was visually and musically pleasing, but would you say it was a good advert for the Christian faith? More like a new-agey mishmash of sentimental folksiness plus a strong dash of mysticism.

The sequel to Riverdance has just been announced. It is called "Spirit of the Dance" and looks even more doubtful.

But something very similar in essence is happening right now in charismatic fellowships in this country. The droning of pipes, the insistent boom boom of a drum, and the cryptic warbling of folk groups like Iona is the latest fad to hit the church scene.

Celts are the in thing right now, all in the name of unity and revival. When a dance troupe tapdances across a national stage in the name of commercial success, you can take it or leave it. But when elders appear on the church platform decked out in kilts, dance an jig and bang sticks in the name of Christian worship, you know it's time to ask "whatever next"?

The Pioneer network [Gerald Coates et al] is in the forefront of the Celtic revival, with Roger Ellis being something of a prophet of the new thing. He has staged a presentation of neo-Celticism focusing on the symbolism, music and spirituality of the Celtic Church, both at his home church and at a large meeting for leadership held in March of this year.

There he introduced the concept to hundreds of church elders both from this country and overseas.

Unfortunately, what Ellis promotes is an ill-informed smorgasbord of suppositions, myths and half-truths. Rather than stick to the historical facts about the Celtic Church, he uses Celtic spirituality and holism as a springboard for launching Pioneer ideas about modern-day restoration and revival.

Mixing fables about the lives of the saints with supposed Celtic symbolism such as the wild goose, he informs the enthralled crowd that:

"... the Celts may hold many keys to reconciling the divisions that have come in due to the persecutions of Celtic tribes by the Saxons and the English... I believe that a rediscovery of Celtic spirituality can tap us into something that preceded all of that. And I see that it's the Celtic flow that will unlock the key... a discovery of some of the things that they did will help us and propel us into our future, and into our destiny." 1

If research into this new wave is correct, that "destiny" may mean overturning the Reformation and returning to the faith of Rome, literally or otherwise.

Writing in the Pioneer magazine 'Compass', Roger Ellis reminds us how the media, from Time magazine to Radio One and the Eurovision Song Contest has picked up on all things Celtic. He notes that the Celts pre-Christian spirituality "engages fully with the recent upsurge in paganism and new age spirituality". This he claims is God's trump card.

Ever eager to ride the latest wave, he proposes using Celtic spirituality in this "post-Christian" society to attract a whole new generation to charismatic churches. He has an even more ambitious plan. He calls the Celtic Church "a prophetic symbol" because he sees them as a unifying force in the Church and the nation as a whole. All denominations and national groups could unite in a return to the roots of our culture. We are left to ask - what exactly was that culture and religion? Is there anything about the Celtic spirituality and Celtic Church that deserves such adulation?

DRUIDIC ROOTS

Without doubt there was true faith amongst the Celtic Christians. Also, there are definite traces of paganism to be found in their practices and beliefs. Several books point out the influence of druidism on the Celtic churches:

"From the earliest times, the Celts appear to have been a deeply religious people and there are many remains of their pagan cults...their religion was very much a nature religion. It would seem that for the Celt every spring, river, lake, mountain and forest was a sanctuary so that they dwelt in a sacral environment...When Christianity came to the Celtic realms, there was no sharp break with the past. The old sanctuaries continued to be frequented, though now [dedicated] to Christian saints. A good example is the widespread cult of St. Bridget among the christianized Celts, for it is clear she had inherited the prestige that had belonged to the pagan Brigitta. Perhaps the most important heritage which Celtic Christianity received from the old religion was their profound sense of the immanence of God in the world...they remained very much aware of a divine presence in all nature and it is this sense of an all-pervading presence that is characteristic of their Christian piety" 2

A set of books containing a collection of Gaellic songs, poems, hymns, chants and prayers reputedly based on the old Celtic originals is being recommended by Michael Mitton. 3 It has "much to teach our ...world".

In a footnote he adds that some reading the contents might struggle with terms such as incantations, and charms and talk of fairies, and in his view some of the poems are occultic - but "it is absolutely essential that we don't apply rationalistic evangelical presuppositions to our study of these writings". A clearer signal of the way things are going could not be found.

Remember that Michael Mitton's book is on the reading list of those who are following the Celtic trend - and that means many in both traditional and charismatic churches!

ROMAN CATHOLIC ROOTS

Much is being made of the supposedly pre-Roman "pure" faith of the Celtic Christians. Christianity reached these shores shortly after the death of Christ, if legends are to be believed. That aside, there is evidence of a Christian presence here from early centuries. A researcher writes:

"It would seem that Christianity first came to Britain indirectly from the Church of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Syria. Through the work of these Eastern Christians, Churches had been founded at Lyon and Vienne in Gaul (modern France). Christians were persecuted at Lyon and Vienne and some of them came, as exiles for their faith, to Britain, where they arrived about AD 175-178.

At the time, Britain was ruled by a local Roman delegate, and many Romano-Celtic aristocrats - some of whom were Christians - lived throughout the land. Yet Christianity was not introduced on a widescale by these aristocrats, but entered independently from Gaul. In 200 the African lawyer-theologian Tertullian (c160-c225) wrote: "Places of the British not approached by the Romans, are made subject to the true Christ." [Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca ...Christo vero subdita. (Adversus Judaeos 7). 4

Although this Eastern/Celtic version of Christianity had a distinctive flavour, it was only a variation on a theme. Chris Seaton 5 whose 1993 paper on the Celts moulded the views of Roger Ellis and the Pioneer network correctly points out that the differences between the Celtic and Roman churches have tended to be exaggerated.

Some distinctive features of the British churches such as autonomous government were the result of cultural adaptations and others, like hermitages, sprang up in response to a physical or psychological need. It does not seem that the Celtic Christians made a conscious effort, in developing independently, to distance themselves from the doctrines of what developed into Roman Catholicism. Indeed, they had much interaction with their European counterparts and for the most part they were in agreement with them. One historical study states:

"It is clear that, early on in the history of Christianity, Celtic representatives took an important part in the discussion of Church policy and questions of doctrine. There is no question that, in the main, the British Church had adopted and kept to the faith which at that time was accepted as orthodox by the universal Church. It is also evident that the organisation of Christianity largely adapted itself to the prevailing social customs wherever it was planted, and Britain was no exception."

Roger Ellis cheerfully pronounces the Celtic Church 'pre-Roman' as if that one fact exonerates the Celtic Christians from any erroneous teachings.

He implies that the Celtic Christians were closer to biblical truth and akin to modern Evanglicals and Charismatics in their doctrine.

That is far from true. The divisions between the Roman and Celtic Churches were about structure and authority rather than belief. By the 6th century the divisive issues were such things as the dating of Easter and the proper shape of the monastic tonsure, not doctrine.

Thus to use the Celtic Church as a model for today's faith, evangelism and church practise is to drink from a polluted well.

In the book that is rapidly becoming the Celtic handbook for the restoration network, "Restoring the Woven Cord" by Michael Mitton, we read of purgatory, prayers to and for the dead, salvation by works, relics, invocations to Mary and St. Brigid and other such practises now excluded from the Protestant Church.

This is not accidental. Read this statement from the introduction to the book and consider if there is not some kind of agenda to the Celtic revival that is being hidden by all the hype about evangelism and revival:

"As a Protestant, I had never felt entirely comfortable with finding my spiritual roots in the religious and political protests of the sixteenth century [The Reformation], particularly as I am good friends with a number of Roman Catholics and have a great respect for their church. I have always felt an awkwardness about our history and a pain at our separation. But here, in the Celtic Church, there are common roots that go back long before our days of separation... Whilst it had its faults, I believe the early Celtic Church was the nearest thing we get in our Christian history to a complete expression of faith in this country...Extraordinarily, many of us have been brought up on the notion of the "Dark Ages".... for Britain, the period from the 5th to the 9th centuries should be seen as the "LIGHT Ages" where arguably a light shone that has been brighter than any since". 6

Michael Mitton makes it plain that he sees the pre-Roman, pre-Reformation Celtic Church as a model for healing the divisions between denominations, cultures and nations. By utilising a belief system that (supposedly) both Roman Catholics and charismatics can agree upon, he predicts that the untangled cord of church history can be rewoven.

He says "This is none other than a discovery of a new way of being Church". In Ireland, for instance, where the divisions between Roman and Protestant churches are deep, people who are excited about the Celtic new way of being Church speak of "their conviction that the rediscovery of their common Christian experience prior to the divisions of the Reformation has great potential for healing". 7

Roger Ellis means to use the Celtic Church as a prophetic symbol, for "through them God is prophesying something dramatic which will...have a powerful effect on many aspects of our spirituality". 8 This has to do with national and religious unity. The restoration churches are not the only ones to have pointed this out. One author that Michael Mitton refers to in "Restoring The Woven Cord" has this to say about the unifying power of the new Celtic movement:

"God is at work making his world whole. That, finally, is what we gain from a re-discovery of the Celtic tradition. The inter-relationship and the inter-connectedness of all things has been an underlying theme of this book. Everything, all those dualities of heart and mind, of time and eternity, of East and West, of pagan and Christian, of the inner and the outer all come under the sway of a creator God whose all-inclusive love allows everything the freedom to be itself and yet also brings all together into one whole. A world made whole; a world in which the divides go down, and the barriers are crossed, becomes a world which integrates and heals. 9

Ellis and others are emphasising several perceived ingredients of the Celtic Church as useful in their quest for unity and revival. These include harmony with creation, spiritual warfare, an emphasis on the supernatural and signs and wonders evangelism.

They have sewn together from various sources (some of them tendentious, spurious or liberal in style) enough pseudo-information to make their case sound effective. The result is a comparison list between the Celtic churches and the charismatic movement that may or may not have any foundation in historical fact but which is useful in providing a hook on which to hang their beliefs about the destiny of the Church in the 21st century.

WHAT THE CELTIC CHURCH OFFERS

Let's look briefly at some of these points to see what the Celtic spirituality offers to the new churches:

  • the challenge of converting the nation using a 'culturally relevant' and 'people-friendly' message that integrates with modern ways of thinking.
  • the presence of God in nature: caring for the environment and developing a holistic view of the world.
  • Integration with society, instead of separation from the world, and no division between sacred and secular.
  • radical forms of worship including poetry, symbolism, the visual arts, chanting and music based on the rhythms of the earth.
  • the awareness of the supernatural including open visions of angels and demons.
  • guidance from the spiritual realm: visions, dreams and prophecy.
  • the use of signs and wonders in evangelism.
  • discipleship, mentoring and having a personal spiritual director - the Celtic "soul-friend".
  • a new model of Church with lay apostleship, plurality of elders and independence from the existing Reformation structures.
  • the role of women as leaders and elders.
  • social concern as part and parcel of the gospel - political action for a better world.

A CELTIC MODEL FOR EVANGELISM

Even Chris Seaton in his paper on the Celts admits that there is a difference between genuine evangelism (where people come to a knowledge of their sinfulness and need of a personal Saviour) and the "christianising" effect of the Celtic and later Roman churches.

Evangelism that results in pagans worshipping Mary rather than the goddess Brigitta is not truly Christian, nor is it any real advance for people to carve a cross into a stone sun-pillar.

Also, although the Celtic Christians emphasised social concern, holiness, self-sacrifice and many other needful things, the gospel of good works is inadequate and wrong.

If allegiance to the Christian religion is all we are talking about, then perhaps the Celtic churches did a good job. They did raise national awareness of the need to honour and worship Christ. But the Bible speaks about being born again as the foundation of faith, not church membership, social action or holiness.

Nonetheless, the Celtic pioneers are held up as models of aggressive, radical evangelism. Ellis gives the impression that the Celtic Church converted the whole country. Certainly some of the Celtic saints had a zeal for mission, but their influence was not as widespread as Ellis claims.

However, It is their methods rather than their message that the new churches seek to emulate.

One author (10) says that since evangelism has now got a bad name in the West for being culturally destructive and intrusive we should find a new way of presenting Christ to people that does not threaten them.

The Celtic approach is to "go with the flow". This means that the Celtic missionaries " adapted their methods to the social and cultural mores of the people". (11) Since those mores were rooted in paganism, it meant respecting and adapting pagan symbols, customs and holy sites.

Roger Ellis tells this story of culturally relevant mission:

" What a wonderful story where there was a whole tribe worshipping a river deity and the Celtic missionaries arrive and they led the tribe to Christ. And, er, the first thing they did was, they cleansed the site, and then they set up a festival. And instead of a festival for worshipping the river deity they had a festival to celebrate the God who created all things, who has given us living water that flows from within us. And they immediately were able to get in and identify with that people. And as a result their evangelism was sensitive and relevant culturally." 12

Ray Simpson writes that the new Celtic communities like the Community of Aidan therefore "seek to develop people-friendly models of mission" that harness existing beliefs such as alternative medicine, meditation or ecology. (13) Roger Ellis in his address says this:

"And when they got into mission they kept alive the native traditions that were around them. They preserved poetry, they preserved song, they studied classical authors... And they didn't so much convert culture, they kind of incorporated, they stressed the morality of culture. They respected the environment and they looked to release the divine spark in the people they were evangelising. They looked to fill out the life of the seeker, those that were hungering after God. They looked to fill that out, rather than to dominate it...."

It is important to note that the phrase "the divine spark" is one that betrays the Gnostic origins of certain Celtic teaching. Some taught that all things were fundamentally good and we needed only to rediscover the god-element in man and nature in order to redeem it. They denied original sin, so did not direct seekers to the death of their human nature in Christ. Rather, they sought to develop the sparks of spiritual longing found in pagan sacrifice and the worship of false gods in order to "complete" these in Christianity.

This was not typical of Celtic belief, but there was certainly an element of heretical thought, some of it based on the teachings of Pelagius (c350-c420), in the Celtic Church. Indeed, various measures had to be taken by Rome to try and stamp out this heresy in the British Isles:

"As far as can be gleaned from his writings, Pelagius taught that God would not command people to do what they were unable to do by their intrinsic human nature.... And although Pelagius denied this, Augustine characterised this position as teaching that people could save themselves and that they were not in need of grace... A British delegation visited bishops in Gaul in 429 and reported that, over a large part of Britain, the heresy of Pelagius had taken hold. The visitors asked that urgent and powerful external support be given to orthodoxy within their own Church. At the same time, it appears that a man called Palladius persuaded Pope Celestine I (422-432) to send Germanus (c378-448/445), to stamp out the Pelagian heresy in Britain....". 14

DIGGING UP OUR ROOTS

In reference to his Celtic presentation at the Leaders' meeting, Ellis says: "Oh, that's what we're discovering tonight, a church without roots is going to die."

I'd like you to ponder that statement a moment. ARE we a "church without roots?" Those who bewail the separation between Rome and the Protestant churches may indeed feel the loss of what they perceive to be the roots of the True Church - but are they correct?

To be brief, the roots of the Church of God are primarily in Jesus Christ her Redeemer, but in Jesus they share the taproots of the Old Testament Hebrew congregation. According to the scriptures, we Gentile believers have been "grafted in" to the olive tree of Israel whose roots are holy. (.Rom 11:16-18) This is the ONLY national identity the Church has or needs.

Secondly, what keeps the Church alive is the sap of that tree which is and always has been the life of God in Christ. To use another biblical metaphor, as Christians we are joined to the Vine. (John 15:4-5) It is the life of Christ that circulates round the veins of the Body of Christ, and that eternal supernatural life is far from needing a national identity to keep it moving!

The Celtic heritage of this country may be interesting or even relevant in various ways, but it certainly does not add an iota of life to the Christian Church. However, the concept of needing to rediscover our national roots is one that Roger Ellis repeatedly pushed during his presentation. After mentioning historical members of the Celtic Church like Brendan, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, Brigid, Aidan and Patrick, Ellis refers to them as "our aboriginal apostles". (15)

Presumably then the doctrines of these people should be the creeds of the British Church yet so often they fall very far short of biblical truth!

This seeking for national roots goes further than just the Celts. Ellis suggests that all nations will have to "find their source":

What about India?... They have roots that need to be redeemed. I was with a Jordanian a while back and they were praying, and they were asking God about their nation. And do you know what the Lord did, He reminded them of their Christian roots. That is not a Muslim nation, it's a Christian nation. And we could go on, we could talk about Ethiopia, we could talk about Turkey, we could talk about nation after nation, that not only have history in Christ, but also have histories way back in God. [NB pre-Christian history] And what we're seeing acted out here is a redemption which is going to take place in culture after culture, in tribe after tribe, because every tribe, every tribe, every tribe is going to find their source..."

I have to disagree. Despite the work of Christian missionaries, Jordan is a Muslim land, India is sold out to Hinduism. The only way to change that is to change the beliefs of the people by the preaching of the Christian gospel - and NOT by digging up their past.

If you know anything about history, you will know that nations are founded on pagan beliefs, not biblical Christianity. In the years before Jesus was born, and for centuries afterwards, nations worshipped the natural elements and demons. The only national group upon whom God moved in light and truth was Israel; later upon the Remnant of Israel called the Church.

Ellis refers to a "deposit of God" in the nation that ought to be dug up and used. But It seems to me that the only real result of looking back to the Celtic Church is to add Roman Catholic corruptions to our biblical belief and practice. But is this the real purpose of the new Celtic movement, and is this why it is being so vigorously promoted not only in charismatic circles but simultaneously through the Media?

Pioneer certainly means to reap a harvest in the nations, as exemplified by this strange prayer performed over John & Christine Noble at the Pioneer Leader's Meeting in March this year:

"We're going to pray for John and Christine tonight. There's a new anointing coming on John, and it's to do with the redemption of the nations. This is your time, John...Oh it is your time... Your sons and your daughters are coming Christine, your sons and your daughters are coming, Christine. They're coming, from the East, from the West, from the North and the South....The sons and the daughters are coming. The sons and the daughters in the prophetic schools. The sons and the daughters in the dance. The sons and the daughters and the apostles. The sons and the daughters are coming, Christine. They're coming. The rhythm beats for them. The rhythm calls for them...They are coming home..."

But somebody or something else is hoping for a pay off. Do I see the flash of a Roman mitre off there in the wings, waiting for the Celtic movement to become so popular that all considerations of doctrine are submerged beneath an exciting revival of supernatural ritualistic religion? If so, the Dark Ages so favoured by Michael Mitton may be about to return.


NOTES ON THE TEXT
1 "New Celts" programme by Roger Ellis.
2 "A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality" editor G. S. Wakefield SCM Press 1983
3 Mitton refers to the "Carmina Gadelica", Alexander Carmichael, Floris Books 1992, first published in 1900
4 Unpublished research paper, DireXions, PO Box 7672, London NW10 0NL (1996)
5 Pioneer leader and head of the environmental 'Whose Earth?' organisation.
6 "Restoring The Woven Cord" Michael Mitton DLT 1995. Mitton is the Director of Anglican Renewal Ministries.
7 Ibid.
8 "New Celts" presentation.
9 "A World Made Whole - Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition" Esther De Waal.
10 Ray Simpson "Exploring Celtic Spirituality - Historic Roots For Our Future" Hodder & Stoughton 1995
11 Ian Bradley, "The Celtic Way" DLT 1993
12 "New Celts" presentation.
13, Ray Simpson "Exploring Celtic Spirituality", page 173
14 DireXions.
15 This phrase was taken from Seaton's paper