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The missionary outreach of the Celtic Church in Britain Essay

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The missionary outreach of the Celtic Church in Britain was a big success. This was mainly due to the work of a number of important peregrini. Peregrination is “the pilgrimage for Christ”. This follows that the peregrine were “pilgrims for Christ”. However, Gougaud rightly warns us against this literal translation, as it implies that they make a pilgrimage to a shrine, and then once the visit has been made, the pilgrim returns home and “resumes his normal life.” In this case then, the early Celtic peregrini were not, strictly speaking pilgrims, because in the vast majority of cases, they were leaving their homes, never to return, in a state of permanent, voluntary exile. The peregrini worked by either re-evangelising those who had lapsed into pagan ways, or converting the polytheists to monotheism.

Colmcille turned his back on what could have been an illustrious political career in the U� N�ill dynasty. He was forever faithful to religion over politics, and was first and foremost a priest and a monk, before a political leader. His Church was very much a missionary Church and he aimed to create a living and vibrant faith throughout the land. Colmcille was a man of incredible pragmatic gifts. He knew that where there was faction and political instability, his mission was impossible, and by establishing a Christian Church, he also gave peace to two tribes who were at war. Long after the death of Colmcille, Iona was the outpost of the Celtic Church in the area and the “citadel and retreat” of Celtic missionaries. Ad�mnan, a hagiographer at the time of Colmcille, and author of Colmcille’s Life, tells us that “He could not pass the space of even a single hour, without applying himself either to prayer, or reading, or writing, or else to some manual labour.”

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His desolate asceticism is well attested to in Ad�mnan’s Life, to the extent where he even said that Colmcille used stone as a pillow. He also tells us of Colmcille, “He endured hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labours would seem beyond the powers of man.” He was a very simple monk, and he served his people faithfully, with sincerity and humility. He used whatever ambition he possessed to the good of his people and his Church. His strong desire for peace is very evident in his final words to the monks, “This, dear children, is my last message to you- that you preserve with each other sincere charity and peace.”

Colmcille was the pioneer of this missionary outreach. The Church he established was endured to centuries after his death. According to Bede, Columba “left successors distinguished for their great charity, divine love and strict attention to disciple.” The island of Iona became the mother house to a number of monasteries that were created by her sons, least of all Lindesfarne. This was mainly seen in the seventh century, which was at the height of their fame. Colmcille had spearheaded the great missionary outreach of the Celtic Church. In Kenny’s view, the achievement of Colmcille’s followers in Christianising their Anglo-Saxon neighbours “is from the viewpoint of world history the most momentous achievement of the Irish section of the Celtic Church.”

As the Christian faith was beginning to flourish in Ireland, with this paganism was beginning to evaporate. Britain was suffering from invasion from the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and other pagan tribes, from Northern Germany. While paganism had taken root in large parts of Britain, Christianity had been reduced to small pockets in Wales, Cornwall and some places in Scotland. The Christians were desolate, and their morale was too low to try and engage in evangelisation with their pagan invaders. They began to lapse into their pagan ways in the same way the people of Israel did when Jeroboam 1 was their king. However, the invaders were to receive the faith from two different sources, the mission of Saint Augustine in 597 (the year that Colmcille died); and his successors, and the missionary outreach of the Celtic monks in Iona. Unlike Colmcille, whose main evangelising took placer in Pictish territory, the monks of Iona moved south to focus on evangelising the Saxon territory.

In terms of Aidan’s life and achievements, he can be very much composed to Colmcille. According to Finlay, Aidan “marks the period of the great expansion of the Columban Church” Oswald, the son of a Bernicia king was banished with his brothers after his father was slayed. Here he became Christian, and is said to have spent time in Iona. After praying for a victory, Oswald regained his father’s throne. He immediately sent for a monk who would be willing to preach the Word of God in his kingdom. Corman was initially chosen, but failed. A monk spoke up, saying that too much had been expected of the pagan Angles, and that St Paul’s maxim regarding “milk for the babes” needed to be applied, in that before any real change could take place, they would have to be weaned and nurtured. This monk was Aidan, and after boldly speaking out, he was immediately chosen to replace Corman.

Bede was filled with admiration for Aidan, and called him “a man of singular meekness, piety and moderations.” Although Aidan was bishop in Lindesfarne, in his heart he remained a monk, and he ruled his island foundation as an abbot. Due to Aidan, Lindesfarne was to become, in Lightfoot’s terms, “the true cradle of Iona”, after its missionaries penetrated deep into England. Gougaud agrees with Lightfoot’s words, saying that Lindesfarne was “the most powerful centre of religious influence in England.”

Oswald and Aidan remained good friends, with Oswald accompanying Aidan on his mission, and acting as his interpreter. After Oswald died in battle with Penda in 642, it was a personal loss for Aidan, and it is said he even went and retrieved the head of his beloved Oswald from the battlefield, and laid him to rest at Lindesfarne. Aidan “transcended the political basis of his mission…and managed to cross the divide between two feuding dynasties” (Charles Edwards.) This is similar to Columbanus, and how he managed to end the conflict between the Dal Riata, and the Picts. Aidan remained on excellent terms with successive Northumbria kings, without compromising himself or the gospel, which Ryan believes it was his “transparent sanctity which made this possible.” There is a great deal of evidence, put forward by Bede, which shows Aidan’s humility. Aidan travelled throughout his journey by fork, so that he could easily talk to those he met on his evangelising journey.

McNeill noted that by the time of Aidan’s death, on the 31st August 651, the tide had definitely turned against paganism. Lightfoot said “it was not Augustine, but Aidan who was the true apostle of England.” Aidan and his followers restored Christianity to the areas that had lapsed, and won over the new areas that predecessors were unable to conquer.

Finian succeeded Aidan to the bishopric, and abbacy of Lindesfarne. One of his achievements was rebuilding a church in Lindesfarne, which he believed to be more worthy of an Episcopal see. He succeeded in baptising the son of Penda, who slayed Oswald, and the king of the Saxons, Sigebert. Ryan tells us that “in virtue, in zeal, in ability as an organiser, he was worthy of Saint Aidan, so that the church in Northumbria grew and prospered.” Like Aidan, he travelled on foot, rather than horseback. Bede tells us that he was devoted to “keeping the Church in truth and purity.”

Colman succeeded Finian and Lindesfarne. He held the episcopacy for three years, and his leadership is strongly associated with the Synod of Whitby. Colman dealt with the controversy of the date of Easter, the ordination of Bishops, the style of the tonsher, and the use of Chrism in baptism.

Comgall of Bangor, who was himself a Pict, assisted Colmcille in his mission to the Picts. Canice also cooperated with Colmcille in his mission, before he founded his own Church, after which the city of Kilkenny is named.

Blaan was born in 565, near Kingarth, where his uncle St Catan, had founded a monastery. Although there is some uncertainty regarding whether he was a Pict or a Briton, he trained as a monk at Bangor, under the abbot Comgall. There are numerous church dedications to him in Strathclyde, Dunblane, and in the Pictish Highlands. James Hutchinson Cockburn sees these as evidence of a “correspondingly wide and effective ministry,” and they are very evident to the regard in which Blaan was held.

Fursa came from Ireland, and ministered to the East Anglicans. He converted many by example and teaching. Bede tells us that in his desire to be a hermit, he left his brother Foill�n in charge of his foundation.

According to John Richard Green, Irish Christianity “flung itself with a fiery zeal into battle with the mass heathenism which was rolling in upon the Christian world.” And John Ryan acknowledges that although the conversion of Scotland was down to the Irish and the Britons, the contribution of the Irish monks “far outdistanced” that of the Britons. It is very evident from looking at the works of Colmcille, Aidan and many more peregrine that the contribution that Irish monks made to the missionary outreach in Britain was vital.

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