The word of life from the north to the south of England

Celtic crossChristian communities continued to indwell the story of God in Jesus during the dark and troubled centuries that followed the collapse of Rome.


Christians were isolated and with few resources to endure the social and political instability that followed the retreat of Roman authority in the ancient British Isles. St Patrick worked wonders in Ireland, but it wasn't until the year 563 that a thriving Christian presence came about in what is now Scotland, as a result of the work of Irish missionary Columba. He planted a church on the island of Iona and for over thirty years it served as a mission outpost to the Pictish tribes.

Another Irish monk named Aidan did much the same thing at another 'holy' island, Lindisfarne, in 635, this time serving the Anglo-Saxon population in northern England. In both places, we see the values of a missionary church put to work, much like the Didache community at Antioch. But the Celtic Christians found themselves in a very different world.

To make Christ known, the church had to think very creatively about his incarnation.The Celts had to live the gospel story in a new way that made sense to themselves and to those they were called to serve.

An adjustment of culture

The Anglo-Saxon culture was not easy to adjust to. It was marked by violent tribal clashes, but also intense loyalty within the tribes and warrior bands. There was a keen sense of the spiritual realm, with nature, the seasons of the year, and particular sacred locations animated with a dazzling array of spirit beings. So the Anglo-Saxons were a bit ferocious and wild-eyed, but they were also a people who valued hospitality and friendship.

As the Celts began to make themselves at home, they found ways to connect to their neighbours, and the result has been called the 'Celtic Way of Evangelism'. We must be careful not to overstate the uniqueness of the Celtic mission because it drew from a spirituality deeply rooted in the Scriptures, in the desert fathers and in existing forms of organised community life - monasticism - popping up all over Europe.

Reflecting its situation

To make Christ known, the church had to think very creatively about his incarnation

The Celtic church had features that reflected its situation. For one thing, it formed highly mobile 'apostolic teams' that could pack up and move out, much as the nomadic people it sought to reach with the gospel. Eventually the Celtic Christians settled down like their 'mother' communities at Lindisfarne or Iona, but missionary monks continued to venture forth on long journeys into uncharted territory, travelling light with flexible itineraries.

When they crossed tribal boundaries or moved from one clan to the next, they set up camp close to where the action was - where the chieftains and their inner circles were gathered. The proximity allowed these missionary monks to establish relationships, offer the hospitality of a meal or render a service. They were great fraternisers! This could be a dangerous operation at times, but the monks were pretty good at winning over their neighbours. Their intentions were clear; the alternative way of life they offered - free of aggression, suspicion and self-interest - was already communicating the love and generosity of their Lord.

Many other distinctive ways of sharing Christ emerged among the Celts, but one of the most tangible legacies of their mobility was not very mobile at all - the great stone crosses that, for centuries, marked the places where the old was made new, where a people were restored and made whole by the powerful symbol of Christ's victory over death. No area of life, nor creation, was beyond the reach of Christ's redemptive rule. Jesus was the Lord of life and the Celts let everyone know this in the shape and story of the cross.

A tale of two evangelisations

How different were Celtic and later Roman models of evangelisation? Too much can be made of the contrasts. Certainly after the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury in 597, a new era of Christian activity began in the southern regions of England and it bore the stamp of Pope Gregory the Great, not Lindisfarne and Iona.

Living in proximity put the Christian way of life on display

But Augustine had permission to adapt Latin tradition to the English people - even in the liturgy - so long as what was most 'pious, religious and correct' remained intact. This meant that Augustine's mission had to learn many of the same lessons previously learned by the Celts. His team of co-workers settled next to the King of Kent, Ethelbert, and quickly established a lasting friendship. Living in proximity put the Christian way of life on display.


The lifestyle of the new Christians has been described by Bede, the medieval historian:

[T]hey began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church: applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptised, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.


A peaceful alternative

Waves foamingThe church provided an alternative to the violence of the Anglo-Saxons. It also cared for the sick and showed the more powerful 'magic' of a God who not only heals, feeds and clothes his children, but redeems them as well.

We're told that the first public introduction of the new faith came at the king's request, in an open-air gathering where Augustine's little community of missionaries sang, carried a beautiful silver cross and a picture of Christ in stately procession. But they carried no weapons! Instead, Augustine preached. They were armed with the word of God only. Now that was, indeed, a very odd way to introduce oneself in the sixth-century world! Pageantry and parade, boldness and beauty and all in full view of the king and his inner court.

Not surprisingly, thousands would eventually be baptised into the new faith, including the king himself... but only because Augustine, like the Celts before him, learned how to live among the lost, bringing light and life, even beauty, into this strange new world.

What can we learn?

What can we learn from these 'fresh expressions' in ancient Britain? As Christians moved from the European continent to the northern British Isles and then from Rome to Canterbury, they learned how to be the Body of Christ in some vital, life-giving ways.

The first point to note is that they moved!

They were drawn, as if by a magnet, to the edges of empire. They encountered people, language and culture unlike their own. They learned that if they stuck to their accustomed ways, they would go nowhere.

Secondly, they didn't leave the past behind

Bot even their own sense of tradition. Instead, these wandering Christians recognised that certain aspects of the Christian story and the history of that story's embodiment in the church were coming alive in new ways. The ancient was future. The deep memory that was born by tradition actually inspired tremendous creativity and energy.

Thirdly, they were sensitive to their surroundings

Bearing the cross in processions and carving stone crosses across the land made them more, not less, aware of their surroundings. That is because it continually stirred the imagination to return to the original source of life - as revealed in the story of the cross - and live it in concrete ways.

Finally, they lived in community

In communities centred on the story of the cross. Aside from this story we cannot fully understand the human condition, we cannot grasp the lifeline that God extends to his children and we cannot engage in the fruitful activity of the Holy Spirit.

All of this was realised by dwelling in the community of faith and acquiring the intuitions, insight and vision that all Christians need when they face outward and move with the gospel.