An Geadh Glas - The Wild goose

Introducing the Celtic Church

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W Who Are We Talking About ?

WSo Itís All Men, Then ?

W Where Did This All Start ?
W What are the Celtic Churchís Distinctives ?
W Why Should 21st Century Believers Be Interested in Sixth Century History ?

W A Rune Before Prayer Translation of a Gaelic prayer

What Is the Celtic Church?

The term `Celtic Churchí is used to describe almost the earliest native form of Christianity in the islands of Britain and Ireland, extending to the Celtic region of Brittany in France ; it dates from the time of the leaving of the Romans around 400ad up to the amalgamation of the Celtic stream with the Roman Catholic church after the Synod of Whitby in 664ad. The Celtic Church continued to exist after this time, in Scotland and Ireland, but in a weakened form, and was finally disbanded , in Scotland at least, by Queen Margaret around 1080ad.

Why Does It Have Significance Today?

The Celtic Church established itself as the most successful evangelistic movement Britain has ever seen. During a period of history when these islands were subjected to constant invasion, petty wars, and tribal feuds, the Celtic saints saw the gospel spread from Ireland, through Wales, Scotland, and England, reaching as far south as Tilbury on the Thames.

The Celtic evangelists faced powerful occult and pagan opposition, and backed up the preaching of the gospel with prayer for healing and signs and wonders. The renewal of interest in the Celtic Church is sourced in the need to learn from their indigenous spirituality and their powerful evangelistic zeal.


Who Are We Talking About ?

The Celtic Church had a galaxy of names honoured as saints among them. Those most known to us would be Martin of Tours, who had a Celtic community in Gaul, which so influenced Ninian , the first known evangelist in Scotland, David, who had such an influence on Wales, Patrick, a Scot who evangelised Ireland, Columba, an Irishman who led many in Scotland to Christ, and founded the abbey of Iona as his headquarters; from there came Aidan at the request of the Northumbrian king, Oswald, to found the mirror-image of Iona on the east coast, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and from there the whole of England and southern Scotland was evangelised by men such as Cuthbert, Cedd and Chad.

In Wales, Illtud had founded the Celtic evangelistic base which is now known as Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major), from which came Samson of Dol, who carried the gospel across to the Celts of Cornwall and Brittany, known then as Armorica.

Further afield, Columbanus, an Irish monk, got into his coracle and founded Celtic monasteries in France, at Luxeuil, and in Italy at Bobbio, to which in a later century St Francis of Assisi came to be influenced so profoundly by the Celtic attitude to creation. And the voyage of Brendan with his companions has become legendary with its discovery of far nations, and its evangelistic zeal.


So Itís All Men, Then ?

Not at all ! Women held a high place in Celtic communities; among them, some of the most well known in the British Isles were Brigid of Kildare, Ebba, after whom St Abbís Head in Berwickshire is named, and who oversaw the men and women of the Coldingham communities, and Abbess Hild, who acted as the hostess of the great Synod of Whitby in 664ad.

Both marriage and celibacy were held in high esteem, and members of communities were encouraged in their giftings.

Where Did This All Start ?

The Celtic Church traced its roots back to the Desert Fathers in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.

After the adoption of Christianity as the state religion by Emperor Constantine in 318ad, the institutional Church deteriorated rapidly, with political wrangles and power struggles rife on every side. A number of radical Christian believers rejected this watering down of the gospel, and `dropped outí of official religion. They went into desert places, where they battled in prayer, fasted and formed communities of like-minded people. Whilst some of these people were extremist in their practices, there were many shining examples of faith among them. They tended to look back to the Apostle John as their inspiration, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the visionary of Revelation.

St Anthony is a good example of the Desert Fathers; he spent nine years in hermitage, battling demonic attacks, and then emerged into a powerful healing and miracle ministry. His biography was written in the late 300's ad by Bishop Athanasius. Men and women like Anthony were the models for the Celtic church, and there was a strong link between east and west because of this, and a strong continuity with the radical Christianity of the Early Church.

What are the Celtic Churchís Distinctives ?


The Celtic Church was not a monolithic organisational hierarchy; because of this, some historians have doubted whether we can even talk about a homogeneous Celtic Church, since it had no central control. However, itís clear to see a line of descent from Ninian through Patrick and Columba to Aidan and the Evangelists of Lindisfarne, even though there may be differences in practice as the church adapted to different cultural patterns around it.


The Celtic Church had no parish system. Instead, believers gathered into communities, usually around leading teachers and gifted men, such as Columba, Aidan and Illtud of Wales. A common term for these communities was muinntir (pronounced mine-cheer), meaning people of an extended family, with their leader being called the Ab or father (as later, Abbot).

As well as the monks and nuns of these communities, bishops were appointed, to oversee the spiritual welfare of the Church. But they were not seen as princes of the Church; rather, they were seen as servants, known for their humility and self-sacrifice. And when they were in the community, they were subject to the Ab, as the rest were.

Members of a muinntir were encouraged to form close relationships with someone to whom they could be accountable and with whom they could pray and share their hearts ; these were known as anam-chara (soul-friend), and gave great strength to the communities.

Prayer and Fasting

The power-house of the Celtic Church and mission was their commitment to a life of prayer and fasting. The written prayers we have from their era indicate a strong devotion to the Trinity and a constant invocation of Godís powerful presence.

Spiritual warfare was a constant reality for them, and often men and women would devote themselves to long times of prayer, even years, as in the case of Cuthbertís nine years on the Isle of Farne.

Contemplative prayer was a common experience among Celtic believers; that is, prayer which listened, which waited for God rather than constantly bringing requests to Him.

Fasting was regularly practised twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday, from rising until the afternoon prayertime (about three oíclock). This became so much a part of their lifestyle, that in the Gaelic language, the words for Wednesday and Friday are still Diciadaoin (Day of the First Fast) and Dihaoine (Fast Day), with Thursday being Diardaoin (Day Between Fasts) !

However, there was no great legalism attached to the practice, which was broken if guests were being entertained or if physical need required.

This lifestyle, then, was the source and engine of the dynamic outreach which the Celtic Church undertook.


The Celtic mission was unstoppable in its zeal and fervour; monks would travel, on foot, or across seas in small leather coracles, to find those who had not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ. They preached to Kings and Chieftains without fear, and saw them turn to Christ, and open the doors for the gospel to their peoples. ( At Bamburgh, in Northumbria, King Oswald translated into Anglo-Saxon for the Gaelic-speaking Aidan when he first arrived from Iona.)

The missionaries were not just preaching, either, but powerfully demonstrating, often against pagan occult powers, the authority of Jesusí name. So at the court of King Brude of the Picts, near Inverness, Columba was pitted against the evil druid Briochan, who called up a storm to engulf Columbaís boat; Columba showed Godís power by sailing into the storm and through it, convincing the onlookers of the power of God to deliver His people.

In Brittany, Bishop Samson came across a group of peasants dancing around a pagan standing stone; he warned them of the dangers, and was laughed at until a young boy was thrown from a horse, seriously injured. Samson prayed for the boy and saw him healed, and then proceeded to carve a cross into the standing stone, to mark Christís victory at the place !

Not long after the founder of the Roman Catholic mission abbey at Canterbury, Augustine had arrived in 597ad, the year Columba died, Ireland, Scotland, Wales , Cornwall and Brittany had been reached by the Celtic mission, and by the middle of the seventh century, the Lindisfarne base had sent out Cuthbert to Northumbria, Chad to the Midlands, and Cedd to East Anglia, with his base at Othona (Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, where Ceddís original building still stands ) and a house at Tilbury, looking across the river Thames to Kent, base of Augustine!

Spiritual Gifts

The Celtic Church was no stranger to Godís supernatural intervention. Prophecy, healing, angelic visitations, words of knowledge and wisdom and miracles were all seen as part of Godís economy, especially in a society where evil supernatural powers were also at work.

The Celtic Church adopted the Wild Goose ( An Geadh-Glas) as their symbol of the Holy Spirit, a motif which can be seen in much of their art work. Patrick experienced the reality of the Holy Spirit praying in him, as he relates in his Confessio.

In addition, the Celtic church believed that echoes of Godliness and divine power survived the saints, and thus miracles were seen at places and graves connected with wonder-workers such as Cuthbert, after their lifetime.

Creation as Sacrament

Because the Celtic Church had not been infected with a dualistic outlook on creation, they did not see matter as evil, nor the spiritual world as divorced from the material. Thus, they looked on Creation around them as one great hymn of praise to its Creator, reflecting His nature and character, whilst not actually being God itself.

Because the Celtic believers lived in a rural world, life was lived in rhythm with creation and was made up of work, worship and rest, with everything cloaked in prayer. Thus, many Celtic prayers are associated with simple events such as rising in the morning, lying down at night, cleaning a hearth or baking bread.

They saw the creatures around them as fellow servants of God. So, on one occasion, Cuthbert chided a young companion for not sharing a fish with an eagle who had just miraculously presented it to them for food.

On another, Columba instructed a brother on Iona to give shelter to an injured bird which had fallen on the shore on its flight across the water, as an expression of Godís love for His creatures.

And there is the famous story of Cuthbert being warmed at Coldingham by sea-otters after he had come out of the cold North Sea where he had been singing psalms during the night.

Creation is therefore seen as an outward expression of Godís nature and character, sustained by His upholding Word, and declaring His visible glory. It is not seen as a decaying, disposable utility to be exploited by man, which came with the later dualistic thinking.


Why Should 21st Century Believers Be Interested in Sixth Century History ?

History is prophetic; it is the unfolding chronicle of Godís purpose - it is His-story.

To know the Celtic Church is to uncover the roots of faith in the nations of the British Isles. At a time when narrow nationalism threatens to divide us , the Celtic Church holds up the vision of a network of strong international relationships which saw Scots blessing Ireland, and vice-versa, Gaels preaching to Englishmen, and Welshmen becoming key founders in French churches, yet still relating to people on the basis of their cultural allegiances, even to what we might regard as petty fiefdoms.

The Celtic Church teaches us

- community over institution,

- word together with wonders - creation as sacrament,

- prayer as the power house.

We should therefore be encouraging folk to know more of these important facets of our spiritual heritage, in a time when we face many of the same threats, because of the resurgence in paganism , which they faced in first bringing the good news to these shores.

Further Reading

Restoring the Woven Cord
Michael Mitton

An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality
Ray Simpson

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Ven. Bede (pub. Oxford Classics)

Life of St Cuthbert
Ven. Bede

Life of St Columba
Bishop Adomnan of Iona

Various Collections of Prayers in Celtic style
Rev David Adam, Vicar of Holy Island.

Life of St David

Life of St Samson of Dol
Bishop Tigernomail

Carmina Gadelica; Highland Prayers
Collected by A Carmichael


A Rune Before Prayer

I am bending my knee
Before the Father who made me,
Before the Son who saved me,
Before the Spirit who cleansed me
My shelter and shade,

Through your own Anointed One,
O God,
Meet from your bounty our need ,

Godís love
Godís grace,
Godís smile,
Godís peace,
Godís mind,
Godís fear
And Godís desire

To do on the earth of the Three
As the angels and saints do in heaven

In shade or in brightness,
In day or in darkness,
Each hour in your kindness,
Show us Your face.

Old Gaelic Prayer from Carmina Gadelica

adapted by Colin Symes


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