It has been rightly observed that Christianity came to Ireland at a time, not unlike our own, when European civilisation was undergoing change and decay. The great Roman Empire was breaking up and society was on the verge of collapse. The forces of law and order seemed powerless, and there was the ever present threat of the gathering barbarian hordes. Yet this period became known as the golden age of the Celtic Church, and Ireland itself of the Land of Saints and Scholars.
What was Ireland like before the Gospel came there?
The country was far from united. It was ruled by a number of provincial kings who owed a nominal allegiance to the High King of Tara. The religion was pagan, and in it Druids were the recognised teachers and lead the people in the worship of the sun and probably in the practice of divination. This ancient paganism, fuelled by popularity of New Age teaching, is making a reappearance today. There is an increasing interest in the practices of the ancient Celts. Our interest, however, is in the Celts who were delivered from pagan darkness and brought into the light of the glorious Gospel.
The Separation of the Celtic Church
Though Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, they do seem to have carried on a trade to Ireland as witnesses by the discovery of Roman coins from the first five centuries AD.
It is probable that Christianity was carried to Britain by ordinary people such as traders from Gaul and other areas of the Empire. It may also have been that Britons who visited other parts of the Empire came under influence of the Gospel and made that Gospel known when they returned to their own land. At this period travel in the Roman Empire was unrestricted. By the early fifth century, however, the roman Empire was under attack, and, as a consequence, Roman forces were withdrawn from Britain around 407 AD.
Britain was invaded by Angles and Saxons, and consequently a completely new pattern of civilisation imposed itself over almost the whole of the land. Christianity was subsequently confined to the territory in the north and west of the land and was cut off from the Continent by a wall of paganism.
Ireland remained outside the Roman Empire, and the Church in Ireland developed independently of that on the Continent. In the providence of God this proved to be of great significance and the Celtic Church was protected from many of the errors and much of the declension which affected the continental Church. As a result, says F F Bruce, When darkness fell over a great part of Western Europe, as it began to do even before the death of Patrick, the true light continued to burn brightly in the island of Saints and Scholars and was carried forth from there to rekindle the lamp which had been extinguished.
The Organisation of the Celtic Church
After Patricks death, the Irish Church was organised on a monastic basis. We can identify much about the monastic system which is erroneous. We need to understand the nature of those early monastic settlements which were at the centre of the life of the Church.
Edmund Curtis in A History of Ireland describes them like this - In the abbeys and their many daughter houses not only was the peaceful life possible, but religion, learning and education flourished, and the Irish monasteries were at once the schools, the libraries and the universities of the land. Because of their sanctity and security they became also the capitals, the markets, the art and craft centres of Ireland, and such monastic cities as Glendalough were, till the Norse period, the nearest thing to towns that Ireland had.
Monasteries were ruled by abbots who were presbyters or elders. The organisation of the monasteries then could not strictly be described as Episcopal. One historian comments on the absence of a central authority and organisation in the Celtic Church. Indeed, one of the missionaries of the Church, Columbanus, who studied at Bangor, was not untypical in his refusal to acknowledge that the Bishop of Rome had any position of supremacy in the Church. N K Chadwick suggests that Irish Christianity in the sixth century was monastic in organisation and to all intents and purposes independent and self-governing, though perfectly orthodox in belief,
The Presbyterian historian, J S Reid, is more enthusiastic in his description of the Church in this period. It is now generally admitted that the primitive Church in Ireland, though not free from error, differed most materially, and for a length of time, from that of Rome. He adds that the important points of doctrine and discipline which were maintained and practises in the ancient Irish Church (free use of Scripture, marriage of the clergy, rejection of papal supremacy) clearly indicate its opposition to the papal system.
The Mission of the Celtic Church
Christianity in Ireland is, of course, popularly associated with the name of Patrick. It was as a slave in Ireland that he was converted, but even after his escape he found he could not evade an inner compulsion to return to Ireland with the Gospel. Professor A M Renwick suggests that it was from the arrival of Patrick in Ireland that the Gospel flourished in the land. One old writer described his work like this: He brought the men of Ulster by the net of the Gospel into the harbour of life. As a true missionary he came to identify with the people among whom he worked. One sympathetic writer gives a glowing and probably fair assessment of Patricks work: He was a good man, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit and an untiring missionary. He organised the Christianity which already existed and evangelised the kingdoms which were still pagan. This is his undying memorial.
The Celtic Church itself was marked by a missionary vision and sent out many men to various places in Britain and Europe with the Gospel. In the sixth century Columba sailed to Iona and established a mission to preach the Word of God to the provinces of the northern Picts. Towards the end of the century and into the next, Columbanus travelled with the Gospel message to France, Switzerland and Italy.
Columba is, of course, best remembered for the founding of the community was to be the centre of an evangelistic effort. From this centre, says G T Stokes, well planned attacks could be made on surrounding districts and to this centre wearied evangelists could retreat for rest, sympathy and meditation.
Does that description of a sixth century community not sound like a good pattern for any congregation at the beginning of the 21stCentury?
The writer, Knox Hyndman is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland