When Rt Revd George Carey was enthroned as the Archbishop of Canterbury, a commentator on television declared that “the new Archbishop was the successor of St Augustine who brought Christianity to Britain in 597 AD”. The commentator was right in one sense – that the roots of the Anglican Church (the word Anglican comes from ecclesia anglicana, a Latin phrase from the time of the Magna Carta in 1215, and means ‘English church’), are from centuries before Henry VIII and the English Reformation (1)
However, that same year, (597 AD), when St Augustine of Canterbury arrived, St Columba died – recalling that there had been a significant Celtic Christian Church in the north of England and in Scotland, established by individuals from Ireland.
St Columba (2) was part of an ongoing Irish missionary movement which was spreading the Christian message across parts of Britain and Europe. His story begins in 521 AD, in County Donegal which is part of the Province of Ulster. He was born on 7th December to a mother called Eithne – and Columba was to become someone to travel far and bring many souls into the Kingdom…he shared about, as Titus in the New Testament writes: “the grace of God that brings salvation.” At a young age he was nicknamed Columcille which means ‘Dove of the Church’. At age of 19, he was a deacon at Molville in County Down and moved to Clonard in County Meath where St Finnian had founded a monastery. When Columba arrived it had 3000 students. Later he travelled north back to his home province of Ulster where he founded a monastic settlement (3) at what is now known as Londonderry. Columba was a man who loved God’s creation, that he made sure the monastery was built without one tree being cut down.
Over next 15 years he planted another monastery in Durrow (in central Ireland) and at least 40 churches – one writer suggests as many as 300. In AD 560 Columba, who was also a great scribe, was accused of copying a very precious book of Psalms, from a version held by St Finnian in a monastery he was visiting. The High King of Ireland Diarmit accused him publically and demanded he return this copy, stating any copies should go to the owner of the original. He refused. Columba’s kin took offence at this charge, and in addition they as a tribal group did not recognise this Diarmit’s claim for authority over them. That same year, Diarmit killed another kings son. And so, these growing tensions led to a major battle, at Cul Dreimne, in North West Ireland in Co Sligo. This High King lost. Columba was known to be involved in the opposing forces. A church synod was called and judged that Columba was wrong to have become so involved in that battle. He sought advice from his soul friend who said “he must win as many souls for Christ as had been lost in the battle at Dreimne (4). It is not clear if the synod forced Columba to leave or if it was his own remorse at the deaths he had caused because of his refusal to do what the king had asked. Columba left on his journey, 563, with 12 others – who were later called the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. It was a journey not into seclusion but one into mission. Columba was one of the great Celtic Christian saints and his approach to mission and his style was copied or it inspired much of that Celtic Mission over the coming centuries. Missiologist Scott Moreau shares: “Much of the evangelisation of Ireland, England, Scotland, and continental Europe came about through the itinerant ministry of Celtic monks moving eastward from Ireland to the continent. (5) Moreau suggests that a far greater impact was made in these regions by these monks, than by the other Roman influenced and led missions. It’s been said: the Celtic missionaries “went where others would not go, without credentials and without material support, self reliant, trusting in God, and accomplished much more than their numbers would warrant. (6) Another writer states: “They were conscious they had received Christianity by Mission and were determined to do the same for others. (7) From the start, the Irish missionary movement was especially mobile. The name given to these Irish monks were peregrinati, (‘wanderers’).
These peregrinati led to the fast spread of Celtic Christianity, primarily in the form of monasteries being established. The monk (s) would come to an area, continuing their lifestyle of prayer and reflection, and engage in evangelism. If people converted then a monastery would be founded. A monastery could begin and continue with only a few people. As a monastery was established, it sought to further evangelise in that region, which would lead to further monasteries being started.
Columba himself, in 563, who had already established two previous monasteries, continued this practice when he established the monastery at Iona. It was a community that was to grow in size to 150. He formed the monastery which was to become “one of the most influential mission centres ever to exist. (8) From Iona, “missionaries when out all over the north of Britain, preaching and founding monasteries. (9) After the founding of Iona, Columba travelled throughout Western Scotland evangelising among the pagan Picts and the Irish related Scotti. Columba died on Iona on June 9th, 597. At St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, in Downpatrick Co Down, his bones were laid to rest, next to St Patrick and to St Brigid, Ireland’s three great Christian saints.
His 8th Century biographer Adamnan, who was an abbot of Iona, wrote of Columba: “he was a man gladdened in his inmost heart by the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Columba: church and monastery Planter, missionary, lover of God’s creation, a man who served God away from his native land, a man filled with the joy of the Spirit of God. He is one of the important ancestors of the Anglican Church.
- For more about the historic roots of the Anglican Church, read the articles in the October and November Newsletters by Revd David.
- Over the coming months, to supplement the course on Angli- canism that we are running across the Chaplaincy, we’ll share some portraits of key / influential figures from the history of Angli- can church. Some of these portraits come from a monthly com- munion series we had been running at All Saints.
- MacCulloch, Dairmaid, The History of Christianity, (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 333
- Mitton, Michael, Restoring the Woven Cord: Strands of Celtic Christianity for the Church today, (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2010) 79
- Moreau, A. Scott, Corwin, Gary R. & McGee, Gary B., Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 104.
- Pierson, in Moreau, Evangelical Dictionary, 170
- (MacCulloch, p341).
- Mitton, 79
- Culling, Elizabeth, What is Celtic Christianity? Spirituality series, (Nottingham: Grove Books Limited, 1994), 8