13 January 2010

Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity

I was recently invited on an internet radio show, The Black Fridays, to talk about Christianity as it existed in the Pre-Norman period of British history. The title links to the Fridays' webpage, where you can listen to yours truly expound on the topic for a bit. While the information I gave out was sound, I fear I was a little scatter-shot in the approach. It was much more conversational, and less informational, than I might have preferred. So, I thought that I'd give a little outline, more or less, to make things make more sense (if people bother to read this at all).

Despite all the craziness and weirdness that has been published about the Celts in the last few decades, the truth is we really do not know all that much about their indigenous religion. There is a good reason for this; they didn't write things down. It was only after the Christian era that Celtic myths, legends, and stories were compiled by Christian monks, for the reason of preserving them. The Celts are a curious people, though, because of their seeming uniqueness in Christian history. With few exceptions, the Celts converted to Christianity without suffering martyrdoms or conquests. They simply embraced the religion--and it flowered in the British Isles in beautiful ways for centuries.

The indigenous Celtic Church seems to have been, from its beginning, eastern in orientation. Legend has it that St. Joseph of Arimathea brought the Christian faith to Brittania near the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. These early Christians, many of whom knew Christ and the Apostles, brought with them the Johannine traditions (liturgical and calendrical) that marked them as having continuity with the other communities founded by the beloved disciple. The Celtic Christians also kept to some of the same customs as the Jewish Christians, even into late period, such as the matrilineal descent of kings, and the vocation of priesthood passed down through families.

It is into this world that one of the most famous of the Celtic Christians was born--St. David, who became the Patron of Wales. His mother, St. Nona, was a nun who had been raped by sea-raiding pirates, probably from Ireland. She gave birth to him at the spot known now as St. Non's Well, in modern Pembrokeshire, and a stream of water sprang up from the earth. St. David is connected, also, to the legends of King Arthur; while the sources do not agree on their exact relationship, they all agree that he was a relative of the historical Arthur. Indeed, at least one of the legendary accounts say that he presided at the Mass at Arthur's coronation as King of the Britons. St. David was renown for the strictness of his asceticism, and for his love for his flock. He lived a life of astounding holiness, and was known to have been responsible for the rebuilding of the chapel at Glastonbury--where St. Joseph had first brought the Christian Faith to the Isle centuries before. So strong was the connection between St. David and these early Jewish Christians who came to Brittania seeking refuge from persecution at the fringes of the Roman Empire, that he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was consecrated as a bishop. Thus it is that, alone of episcopal sees in the West, the bishops of St. David's could trace their apostolic succession, not to Rome, but to the mother church in Jerusalem at St. James the Just, the brother of the Lord.

The next century and a half following the repose of St. David saw much trouble in the Isles. The Western Empire had fallen; the Legions, that for so long had protected the British Celts, had been recalled to the continent, never to return. Raiders, first from the pagan Irish, then from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians began to pillage the Isle of the Mighty. Then, as the European continent became embroiled in warfare through the migrations of the Goths and the Vandals, these Germanic invaders came to Britain to stay. Eventually, over the next century or so, there were established the Heptarchy--the seven kingdoms of Old England: Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, and Essex.

After years of struggle with the indigenous Celtic Britons, the Anglo-Saxons kingdoms were, one by one, brought into the Christian fold...mostly through the missionary activities of their Celtic neighbors. Christianity flourished under the Christianized Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until the year 1066.

It was then that William the Bastard (whose good press would later label as "the Conqueror") landed in England, with the backing of the Roman Pope, launching a proto-crusade to bring the local church in Britain firmly under Roman domination, where it was to stay until the English Reformation, which established the English Church as its own entity apart from both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions. The systematic repression of the indigenous church in Britain was carried out with exceptional thoroughness; Celtic and Anglo-Saxon churches were demolished, and new, Norman-styled churches were constructed over their ruins. The local clergy were cast from office, and new bishops from Normandy were brought in to replace them. In fact, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop died in 1069, anathematizing the Pope of Rome.

Of the curious links to the Orthodox east, aside from the foundations of the Church in Britainnia with St. Joseph, and the introduction of monasticism from the Egyptian desert fathers, the links to Constantinople, curiously, come precisely through the Scandinavians who caused so much grief during the period of the Heptarchy. The viking trade routes through what is now Russia, with their major center of power being in Kiev, provided a vehicle for Eastern Roman trade and contact to Britain. This is proved by the fact that, in so many of the Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds, the golden byzant, the official coin of the Byzantine Empire, is found more than any other foreign coinage. Indeed, when the last Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson, was defeated at the Battle of Hastings, his wife and son fled to, of all places, Kiev Rus to live out their days in exile.

Hopefully, this will help you make some sense of the podcast. I hope you enjoy! If you do, please be sure to leave some comments on The Black Fridays' message board.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic! Thanks for shedding light on the Celtic Church, and what a sad loss for the Orthodox.

Justinian said...

It is sad, in a sense, but there is also something valuable in remembering our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon fathers among the saints. They have not, after all, ever stopped interceding for us, just because they have been largely forgotten. There are some wonderful examples of Orthodox people recovering their stories; St. John Maximovitch, for example, was instrumental in returning so many of them to the Orthodox calendar of commemorations. They are powerful intercessors, and their righteousness still avails much for us sinners. Personally, since the majority of my ancestry is from the British Isles (most of it, at least romantically Celtic)I feel as much at home in the Orthodox Church as any Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serb or Arab--because my ancestors were just as Orthodox as them, and far earlier than most of them. :D

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope to share some more interesting things from the Celtic Spirituality book...and I'm already eying the one on Anglo-Saxon spirituality (not that I need to buy any more books, since the semester just started a week ago).

Anders Branderud said...

This post uses the term “Jewish Christians”.

(le-havdil), A analysis (found here: www.netzarim.co.il (that is the only legitimate Netzarim)) of all extant source documents and archaeology using a rational and logical methodology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

Judaism and Christianity have always been two antithetical religions, and thus the term “Jewish Christianity” is an oxymoron
The mitzwot (directives or military-style orders) in Torah (claimed in Tan’’kh (the Jewish Bible) to be the instructions of the Creator), the core of the Judaism, are an indivisible whole. Rejecting any one constitutes rejecting of the whole… and the Church rejected many mitzwot, for example rejecting to observe the Shabat on the seventh day in the Jewish week. Examples are endless. Devarim (“Deuteronomy”) 13.1-6 explicitly precludes the Christian “NT”. Devarim 13:1-6 forbids the addition of mitzwot and subtraction of mitzwot from Torah.

Ribi Yehoshuas talmidim Netzarim still observes Torah non-selectively to their utmost today and the research in the above website implies that becoming one of Ribi Yehoshuas Netzarim-followers is the only way to follow him.

Justinian said...

First of all, this post makes two glaring errors of fact. The first is that archaeology itself can "prove" anything; this is not the case. Archeology is only the finding and cataloging of old things. It is, at its best, a compliment for the study of history--but it is not a replacement for history. Archaeologists presume too much when they offer definitive-sounding statements in conjunction with finds. At best, what they can come up with is a theory that happens to fit the facts--which is speculation, and nothing more. Second, this post assumes the Judaism (qua Judaism) is a single, monolithic religious tradition, and that it has always existed as it does now. This is, quite simply, utterly ridiculous.

Judaism, in any meaningful sense, simply did not exist before the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. In that sense, yes, Judaism and Christianity are antithetical religions; but that is not because Judaism is the religion of old Israel. People have argued that Judaism is as much of a deviation from the "pure" religion of the Israelites as Christianity. (For the record, that's not my opinion, but it illustrates the point that Judaism as it has developed is not the Hebrew religion.) Any scholar of biblical history worth his salt will tell you that the Hebrew religion experienced three major "shifts"--one, from the institution of the Monarchy over and against the Judges; second, after the destruction of the first temple and the captivity in Babylon; finally, after the rebuilding of temple. After that, Christianity and Judaism emerge as separate institution, each claiming to be the continuation of ancient religion. Where you fall in that debate is not any of my business, but making intellectually dishonest claims about Judaism is one of those things that irks me.

And, to say that there weren't Jewish Christians is an absurdity. "Jew" does not universally mean a practitioner of Judaism, but can refer simply to the ethnicity of Jews; therefore, the first Christians were all Jews. There certainly were Jewish Christians. And if the non-observance of elements of the Law precludes one not only from being religiously a Jew, but ethnically a Jew also, then a great deal of modern Jews would probably be surprised. As I understand it, the sects of modern Judaism known as Reform and Conservative do not totally observe every element of the Law--and yet they are still considered "Jews." I'm sorry, but the argument is simply absurd.

(cont'd below)

Justinian said...

And since you bring up Sabbath observance--the Orthodox Christian tradition still holds the seventh day as holy in accordance with its place within the ancient Hebrew religion. The ancient rubrics for Saturday services (still kept in most Orthodox Christian monasteries) parallel almost exactly what is known for ancient synagogue services, prior to 70 A.D. There are chantings of Psalms, the reading of the Pentateuch, and of the Prophets. Great Vespsers on Saturday evening are a wonderful experience, and one that I love greatly. The Orthodox Christian observance of Sunday as a holy day is in addition to Saturday; it is the 'Eighth Day' of mystery, where the creation is restored and perfected through the coming of the Kingdom of God in grace.

Deuteronomy 18:15-16 specifically authorizes Christianity, if you're going to quote scriptures. Read the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews--Matthew and Paul explain this far better than I can--but the truth is, not only is Christ the new Moses, since He is also God (the very God who gave the Law), he is in the unique position of being authorized to alter it at any time. This could itself become a post on the failures of the Israelites to live up to their part of the old contract, but I don't really have time for that this morning. All I can tell you is that, while you are entitled to your opinion on the matter, I think you have not carefully examined all the evidence or thought about it critically enough.

And, btw, "the above website" was one of the funniest things I've seen recently.