THE Synod of Whitby in 664 is one of the defining dates in the history of Christianity in the British Isles. Its outcome in favour of the Roman rather than the local custom and practice secured the survival of the Church. This wise, though perhaps not unilaterally popular, decision did, however, not mean that local Christianity disappeared overnight. On the contrary, Celtic Christianity remained and has been a critical presence ever since. But what is “Celtic Christianity”?
Besides being a critical friend, it has also been rather hard to identify or define, beyond a limited number of characters and characteristics that suggest a different and, at times, more appealing approach to Christianity, belonging to a “golden age” — something that fits with those who can cope with spirituality but don’t want religion: devotion without doctrine.
Ian Bradley’s work in the 1990s identified this tension. On the one hand, the Celtic tradition is what some might call “a thing”, but, on the other hand, it has been reinvented time and time again to offer an answer to what was lacking or being missed in the mainstream Church of different times.
The Celtic Way, published by Darton, Longman & Todd in 1993, was a short but beautifully written book. Bradley made the case for a distinct Celtic tradition with its key characteristics of a non-dualistic sense of the presence of God in all things, universalism, and a monastic spirituality of prayer and pilgrimage which appealed to many at the time, as it had done throughout history. And he identified how and why it appeals.
The Celtic Way was reissued in 2003 with a new preface, while the main text remained unchanged. It was, and still is, an important contribution to the historically informed section of the spirituality bookshelf.
Twenty-five years on, in Following the Celtic Way, Bradley revisits his earlier work, and what we find is not a recantation, but a reflection that leads to a more nuanced, cautious, and refined engagement with this concept. He offers a narrower, geographic, definition of Celtic Christianity as “the faith and practice of Christians in the Celtic-speaking regions of the British Isles in the early Middle Ages”, and roots some of his caveats in this definition. It is essentially spirituality that is monastic (and thus male-dominated and elitist), austere, and demanding. And that may not be what those who appeal to the Celtic way find appealing at all.
And yet there is something there that remains worth engaging with. In the last chapter, Bradley goes as far as saying that, in a post-denominational age, “many are indeed already on the Celtic way.” Following the Celtic Way is a rare and, therefore, welcome example of a spirituality book with a gentle health warning, but it is that which then enables him to identify ways in which some of the characteristics of Celtic Christianity which he identifies in the book may, indeed, offer ways in which this somewhat elusive tradition may still chime with Christians today.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, writer and editor living in Peterborough.
Following the Celtic Way: A new assessment of Celtic Christianity
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