VICTORIA WHITE: Time for a new Celtic Church aligned with norms of Irish society

This Holy Thursday, I’ll climb the hill from the pier and head east across the island of Inishbofin.

I’ll come to a point in the road when suddenly I can see the sea and behind it, wave after wave of Galway and Mayo mountains in different shades of blue.

I will stop and wonder because it is a wonderful sight. And I will imagine that St Colman felt the same when he first came to this place.

Just beneath me, nestled in the foreground of my view, I will see the ruined steeple of his church, possibly the most beautifully situated church in all of Ireland.

I will remember that is the church founded by the Irish priest who said “no” to Rome Rule.

Born in the West of Ireland around 605 AD, St Colman was educated on the Scottish island of Iona and became Bishop of the island of Lindisfarne, off Northumbria, in the year 661. This honour was short-lived, however.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby in Yorkshire declared that the Celtic Church was to celebrate Easter exactly when the Romans did and not on their own date as had been their practice.

The Easter date business gets incredibly technical. The festival obviously has its origins in a pagan welcome for Spring.

The early Christians celebrated Easter when the Jews celebrated Passover, at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

Following the Council of Nicaea in 325, continental Christians began to place the equinox on March 21, while the Celtic churches, who were further away, stuck with March 25.

The French bishops kicked up when the Irish St Columbanus tried to evangelise them using his own calendar. Columbanus appealed to Rome and received no answer so he kept on doing his own thing.

Things got serious, however, when Pope Gregory sent St Augustine out on a mission to bring the Celtic Church into line.

Not only did the Celts calculate Easter differently, they also shaved their heads in a different shape.

Roman monks and perhaps priests favoured a little bald “crown” at the top of their heads which was said to resemble a crown of thorns.

No one quite knows how the Irish shaved their heads. Most seem to think they were shaved from ear to ear though there is some support for a triangle with a funky point at the forehead.

I suspect the traditions were both born from the different balding patterns of powerful men; the “tonsure” may be a clever substitute for the comb-over.

Be that as it may, you’d have to say that the churches must have had very little to bother them if they were prepared to rip the church apart over a hair-cut.

Clearly, the Easter date is more significant. It does unite most Christians that they celebrate on the same date and arguably, it is a shame that the Eastern Church has a different date — April 7 this year.

The Easter date was hardly worth going into exile for though, was it? That is what St Colman did.

He declared that he would continue to celebrate Easter as he had been taught at Iona, following St John the Evangelist.

He took himself off to the island of Inishbofin with the relics of Lindisfarne, including the bones of St Aidan and a chunk of the True Cross, bringing a retinue of English and Irish monks with him.

Part of what makes this history so interesting is the very different relationship between the islands which it reveals.

Far from Rome and before the Norman invasion, the people of the islands dipped in and out of each others’ cultures, the Saxon names intermingling with the Irish ones.

Colman’s successors at Lindisfarne included an Egbert, a Highbald and a Cynewulf.

The cultural difference was evident even then, though. Colman’s Bofin idyll was broken by tensions between the Irish and English monks, with the latter accusing the former of heading off during the summer to have the craic and then coming back to enjoy the harvest.

The Irish may have been practising Irish agricultural methods by moving with their livestock.

Or they may just have been visiting their friends and families.

Irish monasteries were inspired by the tradition of independence in the Middle Eastern church which fitted our culture better than the centralised, hierarchical continental model.

A fascinating and very attractive attribute of Irish monasticism, according to the scholars
of early Christian Ireland, Máire and Liam de Paor, was that it was “permeable”.

You could start off in the monastery, leave and live your life, and then return for your old age.

The monasteries were firmly rooted in their communities. And their precedence over the priesthood meant women had a major role in the early Irish church, as we can see in the case of St Brigid.

So where is all this going?

I think it’s time for a new Celtic Church which is aligned with the norms of Irish society in ordaining women and ending the discrimination against homosexuality rather than the norms of the Vatican.

I think Irish people would not be slow to reconnect to a spirituality rooted in their reverence for their own landscape: holy wells, holy mountains, pilgrimage paths.

Should Pope Francis be faced with schism when he visits in August? I don’t think so.

The schism of the Reformation has caused five centuries of division, and many of Luther’s reforms have since occurred in the Catholic church.

Given that we will soon have no priests left — six men began their studies last year in Maynooth, half the number which started studying to be priests of the Church of Ireland — our new Celtic Church could happen organically through the work of lay preachers and if the church ever gets around to ordaining them, women deacons.

We could just get on with our own brand of Christianity in the hope that Rome would get with the programme before it got around to excommunicating us.

The Irish church has a proud history which includes periods during which it was out of sympathy with Rome.

Colman put the teachings of Christ as he understood them before the teaching of the Pope of the time, and he was right in that.

He couldn’t solve the problems between the English and Irish monks, however, and he took off to Mayo in 668, where he founded the monastery from which the county takes its name: Magh Eo, “the plain of the yew trees”, subsequently “Mayo of the Saxons”, an important ecclesiastical centre for 1,000 years.

Succeeded by the son of a Saxon Prince, St Gerald, Colman died in Inishbofin in 674.

By 716, Iona had bowed to Rome rule on the Easter date, with the Welsh holding out until 768.

Perhaps if the Celtic Church had maintained its separateness, it would have been harder to force the British people into the Reformed Church.

Perhaps if the Celtic Church regained its separateness, it might save the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Colman put the teachings of Christ as he understood them before the teaching of the Pope


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