There are some small groups of people in America, Europe and Britain who call themselves by titles such as "The Celtic Church" or "The Celtic Orthodox Church". None of these groups has any real historical links with Celtic Christianity. Nor are they part of the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches. They may do things in a "Celtic" style, or even use ancient Celtic services, but they are not in communion with the Holy Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church does not recognise the bishops, the priests, or the sacraments of these groups.
On the Internet it is often quite difficult to see if a group or parish or web site is genuinely Orthodox. The presentation may seem attractive; it may reflect a warm and friendly group of Christians. The literature can be quite deceptive. People will claim something vague, such as being Celtic Christians who follow the teachings of the early Church councils. They may even be using genuine Celtic services translated into English from surviving Celtic documents. You should look carefully at the claims of each group.
On the homepage I have indicated that our parish is in the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. This (Greek) Archdiocese is in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. We are part of the Holy Orthodox Church, having historical and personal links right the way back to the early Church.
There are other Orthodox in Britain, Europe and America who are in one of the Russian diocese belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Orthodox Church of America (which was established by the Russian Orthodox Church). Other parishes have clergy who are guided by other patriarchs, such as the Patriarch of Antioch. All these people will be able to show how they belong to the Holy Orthodox Church. Sometimes they will call it the Eastern Orthodox Church.
There are also people in America and Europe who belong to the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria. These Christians belong to the Oriental Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox both have their roots in early Christianity, and generally enjoy friendly relations nowadays. In my community we welcome Oriental Orthodox from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Indeed, in some parts of the world there is often informal intercommunion. At the end of the 20th Century, Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain issued an official letter saying that the assumption of the title "Orthodox" by any other groups was offensive to the canonical Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches alike. Both the laity and the clergy of the Orthodox Church in Britain were warned about other bodies which have no canonical standing.
So, what is Celtic Christianity?
There were Christians in Britain from the 2nd Century - possibly as early as the 1st Century. By the 4th Century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman troops and government officials withdrew from Britain round 400 A.D. Many of the citizens of Britain were Christians. From this date onwards we generally refer to them as Celtic Christians. They were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, for no such divisions existed in their day. The Celtic Christians were simply members of the one Church of the Roman Empire, the undivided Orthodox Catholic Church.
In the 5th Century, when the Roman troops had been withdrawn from the British Isles, the Eastern part of Britain was invaded and conquered by pagan Germanic tribes. We call these invaders the Anglo-Saxons. In the year 597 A.D. Christian missionaries from Rome came to Britain. They were sent to convert the pagan Anglo Saxons. These missionaries followed the customs and traditions of the Patriarch of the West, the Pope. They found Celtic Christians in Ireland and the West of Britain already. These Celts had a tribal society, with few towns. Their love of nature and the environment reflected a respect for all of God’s Creation. These people had been largely cut off from developments and changes in the rest of the Roman Empire. They seemed old fashioned and obstinate to the new missionaries. Nowadays we can see that the Celts retained many customs which have survived in Eastern Christianity, and that they had simply not kept up with changes in the West.
Disagreements soon developed between the Roman and the Celtic Christians. The most famous disagreement was about how to calculate the date of Easter. The Celts used a very early system that they had learned centuries before from Eastern Christians. Apparently no-one else still used this system. The Roman missionaries used a newer system that had been agreed for the whole Church at a great Church Council (the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.). This is the calculation which the Orthodox Church still uses. The parties disagreed about the style of tonsure for monks, and the order of service for baptism. Again, the Celts used a service similar to the Orthodox service, but the missionaries brought customs which had developed later in the West. The Celtic Christians had monks and nuns, as well as married priests (keeping the ancient tradition which still exists in Orthodoxy) but the Roman mission only had celibate, monk priests. The Celts wanted to keep customs and ideas that they believed were unchanged from the early days of the Church. There was no independent “Celtic Church”, simply very traditionalist Celtic Christians within the undivided Church. Centuries later, it seems that some Celts from Ireland and Scotland were driven into an independent “Celtic Church”. There is no evidence whatever that this survived as an independent body beyond the Middle Ages.
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ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CONTACT WALES
Father Luke Holden
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