BORN 1500 years ago in Donegal, Columba has proved to be a remarkably enduring, adaptable, and ecumenical saint. Admired by Roman Catholics and “Wee Free” Presbyterians alike, he is consistently more popular in Scotland than the apostle who — thanks to the support of the ecclesiastical Establishment —eventually pipped him to the post as the nation’s patron saint.
He continues, too, to be a significant figure south of the border. There are 24 Church of England churches dedicated to him, most in the north, but also as far south as Truro, Fareham, and Leytonstone. This tally puts St Columba on a par with St James the Less, and above such quintessentially English saints as Hugh of Lincoln, Richard of Chichester, and Augustine of Canterbury. He is also a popular choice for United Reformed Church and Roman Catholic church dedications.
Through his life and witness, Columba speaks to several of the particular concerns of our age. He was 42 when, in 563, he made the fateful journey — which was to lead him eventually to the island of Iona — from his beloved Ireland as an exile. It may have been enforced, imposed as a punishment for his involvement in a dynastic battle, or for illegally copying a psalter; but it may also have had a voluntary element.
Inspired by two biblical texts — God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 12.1 to leave his country and his kin, and Jesus’s words in Matthew 8.20 that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head — Columba and his Irish monastic contemporaries sought peregrinatio, or pilgrimage, a life of perpetual exile from the comforts and attachments of home, as a key element of the costly witness or martyrdom to which they felt called as followers of Christ. Columba the exile stands alongside refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants, and others who have left their homelands today.
At a time when we are rediscovering the power of poetry in our worship, and realising that we can, perhaps, better embrace and approach the mystery of God through image and allusion than through proposition and credal statement, there is much to draw on from Columba’s writings and his defence of the order of filid (bards) in Irish society when their status was threatened. The surviving poems and prayers attributed to him reflect a wonderfully rich and vibrant spiritual imagery, as in his affirmation: “The flame of God’s love dwells in my heart like a jewel of gold in a silver dish.”
Coming from noble stock, he might well have ended up as High King of Ireland, had he not become a monk. He never lost his interest in politics, and intervened in both Irish and Scottish affairs, establishing close relations with several kings and princes. He saw his part as a leading churchman as that of speaking truth to power, championing the principles of peace and justice in a way that anticipated the actions of George MacLeod, who founded the modern Iona Community in the 1930s. Those who campaign for these principles and take an active part in lobbying and political engagement today are very much following his example.
COLUMBA is often portrayed as the evangelist of Scotland, who, almost single-handedly, converted much of the country to Christianity. There is no evidence to support this view. Most of the evangelisation of Scotland was carried out in the 150 years after Columba’s death, in 597.
As one would expect from someone steeped in the monastic tradition, his ministry was one of presence rather than mission. It is doubtful that he even saw himself as a missionary, or ventured more than once or twice into the territories of the pagan Picts in an effort to convert them. Rather, he based himself on Iona, running his growing monastic family, praying, administering the sacraments, and exercising pastoral care of the many who came there.
It seems to me that the current lively debate about the future direction of the Church of England stems from a clash between two very different ecclesiologies: that of mission, and that of presence. The former — which expresses itself in mission statements and audits, a focus on growth, numbers, targets, and outcomes — seems to be in the ascendant in the Church, just as it is in the business and educational worlds.
The quieter, gentler ecclesiology that emphasises the Church’s being present and alongside people, exemplified in the Church of England by the parish system, appears to be less favoured by the current leadership. All my research on his life and work leads me to see Columba as an exemplar of this ministry of presence rather than a missionary, as he is so often depicted.
There is a further message that, I venture to suggest, Columba has for the Church of England today. He has given his name to the agreement signed, at the end of 2015, by representatives of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The Columba Declaration, approved in 2016 by the legislative assemblies of both churches, is a recognition of the common bonds between the two “national Churches” exercising a broad, territorial, parish-based ministry of presence.
It is also a vote of confidence in the United Kingdom. It has been somewhat neglected as the Church of England has appeared to espouse missional ecclesiology and focus on narrower English identity, encouraged in the recent Daily Telegraph article by the Archbishop of York.
Perhaps, besides calling us to poetry, pilgrimage, politics, and a ministry of presence, Columba can also encourage us to explore and affirm the rich mixture of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and other strains that constitute Britishness and make the UK an embodiment of the Christian notion of perichoresis, with its mutual indwelling and interpenetration of different elements, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Could the latest part played by this ever adaptable holy man be to serve as patron saint for both exiles and Unionists?
The Revd Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. His book Columba: Politician, penitent and pilgrim was published by Wild Goose Publications earlier this year at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).