A few years back I visited the town of Glastonbury in England. It’s a wonderful place, full of ancient mystery and genuine historical interest. Not only is it supposed to be the burial place of King Arthur, but ancient legend has it that during the silent years, Jesus Christ himself visited Glastonbury with his wealthy relative Joseph of Arimathea.
The town is now a New Age center for Britain. The main street is bursting with shops promoting goddess worship and alternative therapies. As I walked around, I was pleased to see a Christian bookshop. I discovered that it was Eastern Orthodox. The fellow at the desk had the obligatory black robe, stovepipe hat, long beard, and holy expression. I asked him what branch of Orthodoxy he belonged to.
He replied in a solemn English accent, “The Celtic Orthodox Church.”
I’d never heard of such an outfit, but, happy to acknowledge my ignorance of the complexities of Eastern Orthodoxy, I asked him where his patriarch was based.
He gazed on me with a lugubrious expression, stroked his beard, and said, “Alas, we have not had a patriarch for thousands of years.”
It was my first encounter with the eccentric world of Celtic Orthodoxy. Its adherents believe that the church in Britain was founded by Coptic Christians from Egypt before the turn of the first century. This ancient Celtic church existed in sublime isolation from the Roman Church for six hundred years before St. Augustine was sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in 597 A.D.
Coptic and Celtic
The most mainstream theory supposes that Celtic Christianity was established as early as 37 A.D. by “wandering clergy” who followed the Roman trade routes through Gaul (present-day France). Other Celtic-Coptic believers think that the first evangelists came to western Britain by boat from Egypt. The most popular legend says that the apostle Philip, along with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimathea, took a boat to Marseilles. Mary Magdalene stayed in France and Joseph of Arimathea went on to establish Christianity in Britain. This pre-Nicene, monastic form of Christianity is supposed to have been spiritually and serenely unconcerned with troublesome things such as hierarchy, dogma, and doctrine.
The most important.aspects of “Celtic Orthodoxy” seem to be its British-ness, its antiquity, and its historical independence from Rome. As the web site of the “Holy Celtic Church” claims, “Because of its autonomy and geographical isolation, the Celtic Church remained uniquely uncorrupted by Hellenistic Greek philosophy or Roman jurisprudence.”
Anglicans and the “Celtic Church”
I thought the Celtic Orthodox church was nothing more than one of those eccentric forms of Christianity that inhabit the twilight zones of Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. A brief search reveals over seventy-five independent Anglican churches and innumerable Eastern Orthodox derivations. They all have their eparchs and archbishops, their patriarchs and bishops and archdeacons, their synods and their councils. They rarely have more than a handful of congregations.
I discovered that an increasing number of mainstream Anglicans believe the Celtic Christianity myth. I was surprised to hear my Anglican and Episcopal friends say, “Of course Anglicanism comes from the Celtic church. It was established long before Rome interfered.” They may not buy into the whole theory of Joseph of Arimathea coming from Scotland or the Coptic monks importing their religion to Wales and Cornwall, but Anglicans have a vague but certain feeling that their church has its roots in a spiritually sublime, ancient church that was always independent of Roman authority.
This theory allows Anglicans to sustain the myth that there are three ancient apostolic churches: Rome, the Orthodox, and themselves. It also helps them to defend their continued independence from Roman authority: “We are descendents of the first British Christians. They existed happily for six hundred years independent of Rome, and we are simply part of that same stream of ancient apostolic Christianity.”
Just the Facts, Ma’am
There is no evidence that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain. Nor is there any evidence that Coptic monks founded Celtic Christianity. The best the supporters of this theory can do is to point out similarities between Celtic manuscript illumination and Coptic manuscripts. The idea that Celtic Christianity sprang up on its own, independent of Rome, just doesn’t fit the facts.
But we do have clear evidence that Christianity in Britain was, from the first, Roman Christianity. To pin it down we have to look at what happened in the Roman Empire the first few decades after the death of Christ.
Ten years after the Crucifixion of Christ, Emperor Claudius successfully invaded Britain. Over the next 350 years, the Romans established a thriving colony in virtually the whole of Britain. With the Roman armies came Roman religions, and one of them was the new religion of Christianity. The first Christians in Britain, therefore, were Roman Christians.
Christian inscriptions found on crude Roman pottery in Britain dating from this period suggest that the first Christians were poor people—probably Roman soldiers or slaves. The documentary evidence comes from Tertullian and Origen, both writing in the second century. That they knew of the Church in Britain shows that it was sufficiently well founded, large, and connected with the rest of the Church that Catholics in northern Africa knew of it.
The evidence for Roman Christianity in Britain is overwhelming by the time of the fourth century. The first British martyr, St. Alban, was killed for his faith in 304. There must have been a well-established hierarchy because it is recorded that the bishops of London, York, and Lincoln attended the Council of Arles in 314. The British bishops were also present at the Council of Rimini in 359.
The archeological evidence for Roman Christianity in this period is found everywhere in Britain. There are Chi-Rho monograms scratched in third century pottery, a ceramic plaque with thePater Noster inscribed on it, mosaic floors with Christian symbols, even an image of Christ. There are remains of Christian chapels, Romano-British Christian burial sites, and the discovery made in 1975 of a fourth-century silver chalice with Christian markings, which shows that Mass was not only celebrated in Roman Britain but celebrated in sumptuous style.
Declaration of Independence?
Anglicans of all stripes cling to the notion of their independent Celtic Christian origins because it seems to ratify their continued independence from Rome: If the ancient British church was independent, then they have a right to continue that tradition. Unfortunately, all the evidence shows that the first Christians in Britain were Roman. As such they would have looked homeward—Romeward—for their cultural allegiance and their religious allegiance.
Roman British Christians converted some of the locals, but what happened after the Romans withdrew from Britain around the year 410? Did the British church suddenly declare independence from Roman authority? Is this when the independent Celtic church was established?
On the contrary. After the departure of the Roman legions in the early fifth century, British Christians relied even more on their Roman Church contacts. This is the time of the Pelagian heresy, and in 429 a British deacon appealed to the Pope for help combating it. Pope Celestine commissioned St. Germain of Auxerre to go on a mission to Britain, accompanied by St. Patrick. He stayed there and established seminaries. This is clearly an example of not only Rome asserting authority in Britain but also the British church asking for that authority.
A Man on a Mission
Around 450, the Saxons started to invade a weakened Britain, and for the next 150 years (until 597) the pagan Saxons persecuted the Christian Britons. The persecuted Christian minority fled west to Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland, and south to Brittany in France. It was only during this period that the Celtic church existed in isolation from the authority structures of Rome.
Even then, the missionary endeavors to Ireland continued from Roman origins and not from Coptic Egypt. St. Patrick, the great apostle of Ireland, was born in Scotland of noble Roman parents. His mother was a relative of the great St. Martin of Tours. His origins and training were all from the Catholic Church, always loyal to Rome. When he went to Ireland in 433 he didn’t discover an “ancient Celtic church” but bloodthirsty Druids who needed converting.
It is true that Patrick’s Celtic church developed in relative isolation from Rome for about 150 years, but in Britain it was soon to be reconciled. In 597, St. Augustine arrived in southeast England, sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great. Eventually his missionaries encountered Patrick’s missionaries, who had been evangelizing England from the north and west.
When they met, there were some differences of discipline. At the synod of Whitby in 664 the matter was debated, and the Celtic contingent bowed to the authority of St. Peter in the person of the Pope.
Submission to Peter
There is no evidence that the Anglican church was founded on some pure, serene, and ancient apostolic church that existed in Britain for 600 years before the arrival of St. Augustine. On the contrary, it was started by Romans, it converted the locals, and it remained linked to Rome even after the legions departed from Britain. After that, the missionary efforts to the British Isles were of Roman origin.
For about 150 years the Catholic Church in England, like the Church in China today, existed under persecution and in isolation from the seat of authority. But as soon as they had the opportunity to submit once again to Peter, the Celtic church did so. The question for Anglicans and Episcopalians who see the Celtic Christians as their ancestors is: If the Celts submitted to Rome the first chance they got, why don’t you follow their example?