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Holy Grail 4

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The death of the Celtic Church:
Issues, notes and sources
Celtic Christianity, part 3 of 3

Notes on the historical sources

What is Celtic?

"Celtic" was just a Roman term for "barbarian". So "Celtic" culture was not one homogeneous whole, but represented many different strands. For example, Celts in Britain were not the same as Celts in Germany. Celtic Pagan religion was not the same as Celtic Christian religion.

Nobody is pretending that early British Christianity was the purest form of the faith, but then neither was Roman Christianity. Neither could avoid having many errors, so many years after the deaths of the apostles. But, evolving so far apart, under such different conditions, no doubt each had preserved some of the original truths that the other had lost. But when Gregory the Great came to power, with his plans to consolidate the power of the Roman church, another part of that "gene pool" had its death warrant signed.

Piecing together the puzzle

History is written by the winners. The Roman church defeated the Celtic church, and very little remains to tell us what the Celts did. Langer (encyclopaedia of World History) simply says of the period 350-597, "The history of Britain for two centuries (c. 350 - 597) is obscure".

The greatest British historian was the Venerable Bede. When Bede looked at the available sources, he found that everything really started in the late sixth century - before then, much of the original evidence had either been destroyed, or was lost. What remained was scarce and contradictory. His "verifiable historical horizon" only stretched back to the late sixth century, the "550s at the earliest". (Magnus Magnusson, in "LIndisfarne - The Cradle Island", Stocksfield: Oriel Press, 1984, p. 33)

So something happened to the written records some time on the late sixth century. But writing isn't the only tool at a historian's disposal. There is also archaeology, and oral history, or mythology. What clues can archaeology give us? Archaeology does not have much to say about matters of revelation, but it does indicate that something happened to change things. For example, recent excavations in East Anglia have unearthed burial sites that date from this period. Strangely, women were buried in the main burial sites clearly identified as separate from the men, up to 570/580, but not thereafter. This seems to have also happened in the European Merovingian cemeteries. Why? Why did the religious rituals change? We may never know for sure. But something happened.


To understand what was really going on in the sixth century Celtic church, I strongly recommend "Early Celtic Christianity" by Brendan Lehane (London: Constable, 1994).

Besides general encyclopaedic articles, other books used here include:
"The Holy Grail" by Malcolm Godwin (London: Bloomsbury, 1994).
"The Discovery of the Grail" by Andrew Sinclair (London: Century, 1998).
For a fuller discussion of the lost priesthood, see "The Search for the Grail" by Graham Phillips (London: Century Books, 1995).

Did the Celtic Church know exactly what as happening at the time?

Although the church knew it was losing something important, it probably did not know at the time what that something was at the time. When you catch a disease, you know something is wrong, but you generally do not know the cause until you see a doctor. But if there is no doctor around, you are left to guess. This was how the church was in the sixth century (especially in Britain). It knew there was something wrong, but did not know what. By the time of the reformation most of the church realized, in hindsight, that they had lost what was most valuable. But by then it was too late.

Spiritual leeches

Gildas, for example, could see the country languishing in sin, and all he could see was that they should hold stronger to the Roman faith. He did not see that the Roman faith was the cause of the problem, just as it had been at the time of Germanus.

Spiritually, the medieval world was using leeches. In medieval medicine, when someone was sick, doctors often applied leeches to draw out the infection. In actual fact, the leeches made the patient even weaker. But the medieval experts did not understand.

Gildas was not a Mormon

Hence, when we look at the life of Gildas (or Cassiodorus, or John Malalas, or other church leaders who died in 570), we should not expect to find prophets battling for the truth. They knew something was wrong, but did not recognise the cause. If they had recognised the cause, the church may have struggled on for a while longer. But they had lost the truth. It is quite possible that one of these people was the last person to hold authentic priesthood authority. But they did not appreciate its significance. And when they died in 570, it was lost for good.

The Celtic church in Ireland and Scotland

The crucial difference between the English and Irish churches

The tragedy of the period 547 (the plague) to 570 (the death of Gildas) may not be obvious at first. After all, throughout this period, and even up to the Synod of Whitby, the Celtic church did some great things. The late sixth / early seventh centuries saw such great missionaries as St Columba and Columban. But this was the Irish branch of the church, not the English branch. That difference is crucial.

The English branch claimed apostolic authority through Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. The Irish branch claimed many things - and achieved many things - but it never claimed that apostolic link. (See Lehane, p.106)

The tragedy of the monks

What had happened in Ireland? In a word, monks. The records have now been lost, but it seems there was a kind of revolution in the sixth century:

  • The church was not strong in the third and fourth centuries.
  • Great men appeared, individuals of power and testimony.
  • But instead of the old church being revived, the people started up new churches, built on the memory of these great men.
  • So, whereas before there had been one church, a hierarchy with bishops and priests, now there were a large number of lone churches, groups of monks who remembered their particular saint.

"Something like a revolution took place in the Irish church in the sixth century, as a result of which its organization and administration became predominantly, if not exclusively, monastic."

"The primitive churches have dropped into insignificance, so that it is impossible to tell what was their status. It would seem therefore, that something like a revolution was wrought in the Irish church in the sixth century, and that it was the work of the famous saints of that era."

(For details see p.372 and 293 etc. of "The Early History of Ireland - Ecclesiastical" by Kenney, from the Irish University Press, republished by Octagon Books in New York, 1966)

So although the Irish church was so successful in the sixth and seventh centuries, it was not the same church that had the authority from Bible times. It was led by new (and unbiblical) monks, and not the original (biblical) bishops.

This may also be how the English church finally lost its authority. "We know that monasticism was well rooted in Britain by the sixth century". (Kenney, p.159). Instead of being inspired by the great saints like Brendan (below), to go out and rescue the church, the men of faith instead shut themselves away as monks, and the church died.

The move to a monk-based church was finally completed with Gregory the Great, the first monk to become Pope, and founder of the Medieval church.

But what about Scotland?

If the English church was dying, and the Irish church could not help, what about Scotland? Its version of Christianity came straight from Rome. The first records of Christianity are through St Ninian (circa 360 to 432) who learned his faith in Rome. He was a good friend of Martin of Tours, famous for spreading the idea of monks and monasteries. Ninian's "White House" church became a seat of learning for later Irish and Welsh missionaries. Unfortunately, Scotland could offer no help.

When the last outpost, the English church, died, there was no-one left to replace it.

The Holy Grail was lost. And all that western civilisation could do was mourn.

The bottom line

As the western wall was to the Jews, so the "grail" was to the Christians.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 08:41  

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