Christianity Reaches the Far West

Chapter 2

Christianity Reaches the Far West

If we study history carefully enough, it can be a grand teacher of humility. It is so tempting to think of ourselves as superior to the pre-Christian Celtic people, who could not read or write and who had no cars or aeroplanes. We ought to be, with all our advantages; but it is true?

The Romans, who saw the Picts only when they fought them, misled us into thinking they went about covered only in woad; whereas the truth is that this was merely the terrifying battledress of a prosperous, well-dressed people, intelligent enough to prevent the Romans from conquering northern Scotland. It is true that the pre-Christian Scots of Ireland could not read or write; but if we had their memories there would be no scholarship too hard for us to win. For not only were they trained to remember the great store of wisdom and knowledge passed down through the centuries, but they knew how to think creatively. They used their imaginations far more than we do.

It is natural to imagine that people who had mainly to depend on their feet for transport would shun long journeys. But not a bit of it. Christian pilgrims of the sixth century from Britain, Ireland and Scotland walked in their thousands to visit graves of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome. Many more tramped the Roman roads to Jerusalem, through a Europe over-run by Teutonic barbarians, to see the place where Christ died and rose again. By the time they returned home they had walked many thousands of miles.

Of course, the Celts had in them (and still have) a natural love of long journeys. But they were not the only ones to move to and fro across Europe. Christianity reached our Far Western islands with startling speed because the followers of Christ were all missionaries. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they kept eagerly spreading the Good News; and, naturally, Roman soldiers and eastern traders were among those who heard them. It must have been unforgettable to listen to Christians who had been converted to the rule of love by St. James in Jerusalem, or by St. Paul in Asia Minor, or by St. Mark in Alexandria, or by St. John in Ephesus, or by St. Peter in Rome. Many were the travellers who proved that this was so by spreading the amazing story wherever they went.

Britain’s First Church

We shall never know for certain who first brought the story of Christ’s life to these Far Western islands. But I like to think that there is a shred of truth clinging to the loveliest of all the old legends about the coming of the Good News. If you know the story and have been to Glastonbury, I think you will share my wish to believe it. For there, among the ruins of the gigantic Norman abbey, you will find a rounded hollow in the smooth green grass not so very much bigger than those nests children scoop out on the seashore. A tiny British church undoubtedly stood there once; and tradition has it that it was the first church in Britain, built soon after the Resurrection by that same Joseph of Arimathea who asked Pilate’s permission to bury the body of our Lord.

But what, you may well ask, was Joseph doing so far from home? They say he came in his ship, a trader seeking to exchange his goods for the tin that was mined in the Far West. Of course, Joseph may well have been a merchant. But perhaps his story needs connecting with another handed down to us by local people. Christian refugees from Judea are said to have arrived in A.D. 37 by ship from Palestine. Caractacus took them to Glastonbury, where the Druids gladly received their Good News. They called the strangers the Culdees, and housed them in their college while they built this little church. The date of the coming of the strangers is given by Gildas, Britain’s sixth-century historian, and Joseph of Arimathea may well have been among them. But because Gildas had to depend on Celtic memories and not on written evidence, these stories do not form part of history but are legends.

Now historians were writing in many parts of the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries after Christ; but it must be confessed that not one of then mentions that the new religion is spreading to the Roman province of Britain. At the very beginning of the third century, however, Tertullian does write from North Africa to say that ‘the parts of Britain not penetrated by Roman arms (that is Scotland and Ireland) have received the religion of Christ’.

Christianity Established

This is interesting, because it surely means that in Britain there was already a Church strong enough to send missionaries to the Celts outside the Roman Empire, who were further away than Britain from the continent from which converts continually arrived to spread the Faith. In 177, a colony of Celtic Christians in Lyons was scattered by order of the Emperor. Their priest, who was killed, had studied under Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. When he was a small boy in Ephesus, Polycarp had actually been a pupil of St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. The refugees fled north through Gaul; and those of them who reached Britain must have told stories, passed down from St. John, so beautiful that the British Christians never forgot them. For it was St. John, and not St. Peter, who later became the patron saint of the Celtic Church.

None the less, disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul reached Britain from Rome, long before 177. For among the first-century soldiers and civil servants who travelled across Gaul to work in their new Roman province, there must have been some who had actually heard them preach. As you can imagine, Gaul early became a bridge to be crossed by traders from the east and officials from Rome; and because Gaul formed so convenient a route to the Romans; and because Gaul formed so convenient a route to the Roman provinces of Spain or Britain, she had a flourishing Church even earlier than Celtic Britain. Indeed, we know that at first the British Church relied for help and advice on the bishops, priests and deacons of Gaul.

There must have been much building of churches in Britain at the beginning of the third century, for they were certainly numerous by the end of it. Indeed, by that time the Romans were seriously alarmed at the number of Christians in their Empire who would die rather than show their loyalty by worshipping images of the supposedly divine Emperor. In 290 the Roman government deliberately killed thousands of British Christians. But, as usual, they found that persecution strengthened the Church, much as pruning strengthens a plant. Even now we proudly remember the name of one of the Christians killed then – St. Alban, our first British martyr.

We now reach the fourth century, an ominous one for the Roman Empire already hard pressed by barbarians surging westwards, but an exciting one in the history of the Christian Church. The great Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 312 and the very next year his fellow-Christians all over the Empire were freed by his order from the fear of any more persecution. Many people now joined the Church who were too timid to do so before. So many, in fact, that by 324 Christianity had become the State religion and the Emperor had to issue a new order to protect his pagan subjects.

Roman Influence on Celts

If you had visited Britain sometime in the fourth century, you would have found the land and the Celtic people looking remarkably prosperous and peaceful. British chariots rolled along the Roman roads, drawn by fine horses of mixed native and foreign stock. Roman officials, officers and soldiers loved gardening and farming, and by their labours had transformed the rich sheltered valleys in which they lived. The Britons had worked with the Romans from the first; and through doing so had gradually learnt to talk Latin, to read Latin books in the Roman schools, and to use the Latin alphabet to write in British and Latin. ‘Though many Celts married Romans, they never forgot their own language, but enriched it by using the Latin names for some of those things unknown before the coming of the Romans. Even now, many Welsh words relating to building and cooking are really Latin. This shows what an impression the big, comfortable, centrally-heated houses made on the men who helped to build them; and how much British chiefs and princes enjoyed, and tried to copy, the well-planned meals they were sometimes asked to eat in them.

To the people of fourth-century Britain, the Romans were no longer their masters but their friends, since one of the Emperors had decreed that all free men and women of the Empire were to have the rights of Roman citizens. Picts, Scots, and the Saxons from Germany who had begun to invade Kent about 250, were as much the enemies of Britons as of Romans, because they threatened the peaceful, civilized way of life they had built up together. In Wales, the Romano-Britons honoured their just and generous protectors so much that, hundreds of years after their departure at the beginning of the fifth century, they still prayed loyally for ‘the most pious Emperor and all the Roman Army’, though both Emperor and armies had vanished in the west with the coming of the Dark Ages.

Fourth-century Romans and Britons who were Christian worshipped side by side every Sunday, in very much the same way as the first Christians had done in Jerusalem and Asia Minor. Children and grown-ups all attended the first half of the service, during which they prayed together, sang hymns and psalms and heard the Old and New Testaments read in the Latin they often spoke. In those days, you were not usually baptized till you grew up and could make your own promises. It was the custom to prepare for baptism during the forty days of Lent, and to be baptized just before Easter so that you could make your first communion on Easter Sunday, (In the fourth century, Adult Baptism and Confirmation were one service) the most joyful day of the Church year. The second part of the service took place after the unbaptized had left the church. Then, following the commandment of Christ to his apostles, all baptized Christians took Communion. In the Celtic language, they called the service the Offering; and except that it was in Latin, it was much the same as the Communion Service to be found in the Book of Common Prayer.

Long before the fourth century, the Church throughout the Empire learnt to recite what we now call the Apostle’s Creed. The western bishops did not make the Creed part of the Sunday service till the sixth century, but they used it to teach their people the true doctrine it contains because, from the very first, heretics (people who believe false doctrine) were to be found among Christians. In 314, for instance, three British bishops from the Roman towns of London, York and Lincoln, set off for Arles in the south of Roman Gaul to discuss with other bishops of the Church how best to deal with a group of heretics who kept demanding awful punishments for Christians who sinned. These heretics denied the doctrine that God’s Church has the power to forgive sinners who repent. The Church had also to steer her way between second-century heretics who believed that Christ had never had a real body, and fourth-century heretics called Arians (who grew very numerous), who believed that He was not divine but only a very good man.

Pelagius, Celtic Heretic

During the fourth century, the British Church was almost alone in holding fast to Christ’s divinity; but she upset Christian thinkers all over the Empire by producing a brilliant Celtic heretic of her own. His Latin name was Pelagius, and he argued that we are born perfect and have no need of the Grace of God to keep us good. Even those who did not agree with him considered him an unusually good man, and one of the best Latin speakers in the Church. At a Church Council in Constantinople, this Celt defended himself so well in Greek that some of the bishops, who knew that what he said was wrong, doubted whether it could be right to excommunicate such a man. But the Church has succeeded again and again in guarding the truth for us; and this time it was St. Augustine of Hippo, a bishop from North Africa, who championed the true doctrine that we are born with a tendency to sin which we cannot overcome without the Grace of God.

The excommunication suffered by Pelagius was the most severe of the Church’s punishments, and still remains to-day. An excommunicated person is forbidden to receive Communion, and so is cut off from the full life of the Church. But though this punishment has always been enforced on unrepentant sinners in all Christian countries, lesser penances were devised by the Church to fit the temperament of the different peoples.

But if the whole Church continued to teach the same doctrine, there was naturally much variety in less important things, such as discipline and customs in the churches of the different peoples of the Empire. If you were a fourth-century Briton and went to church in Smyrna or Ephesus while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they would tell you that their kind of service, held in Greek, derived from St. John. In Alexandria, Christians would quote St. Mark as their founder when you remarked that their customs were slightly different again. In Egypt and Asia Minor the people were imaginative. They enjoyed long services with much singing in which they could join. Not so the practical Romans. In fourth-century Rome, they had changed the language of the Sunday service from Greek to the Latin they spoke, but they still kept their church worship short and as simple as in the days when St. Peter or St. Paul had conducted it.

The artistic Celts, in Spain, Gaul and Britain, however, considered these services dull. They liked their priests and bishops to wear gorgeous embroidered coloured vestments, to recite long prayers and to lead them in singing many psalms and hymns. They wanted to offer God a beautiful, symbolic act of praise and thanksgiving, so their bishops took every opportunity to find out what customs they could introduce into their services from the Eastern Church they so much admired. Such variety of discipline and liturgy was a healthy sign of growth.

But when the followers of St. John, St. Mark and St. Peter all calculated the date of Easter by different methods, it was bound to lead to one branch of the Church overpowering the others. As Ephesus, Alexandria and Rome were each sure their method was the right one, there was for hundreds of years no question of the whole Church celebrating Easter on the same day. To the orderly bishops of Rome this seemed so untidy that, as they grew more and more powerful, the discussions of bishops on the right date of Easter, held from the second century onwards, grew less and less friendly.

The British Church versus Rome

Each time that a bishop of Rome excommunicated the whole Eastern Church for her stubborn adherence to the Easter of St. John, not only did the East pay no attention but most of the Western Church naturally looked up to the bishops in Rome as leaders of the oldest church in the West, it took a long time before Western Christians grew reconciled to the Roman pattern of an all-powerful Pope or Emperor of the Church. The bishops of Rome, quoting Matthew 16, 15-20, claimed that they were the successors of St. Peter, and like him held the keys of heaven and hell – that is, they one knew for certain what was right and what was wrong. But most Christian writers of those days believed that the rock on which Christ had built His Church was not St. Peter himself but this tremendous faith, which faith, of course, was shared by the whole Church.

Any interference of the bishops of Rome with the practices of the bishops of North Africa only made them write mockingly of the sinful pride of Rome. It was the same if a bishop of Rome put forward his claim to take the lead at Church Councils, where men still believed that the Holy Spirit guided the whole Church. The Church in Gaul, backed by the British Church, so resented Roman interference in her affairs that she several times defied excommunication in defence of her independence.

As you see, the early Church was democratic in out-look. But the Emperor Constantine, who attended many of the Church Councils he called together, believed that the Church needed an all-powerful head just as the Empire did. He gave this power to the bishops who lived in his western capital, Rome. While he remained in the west, he himself was really head of the Church, calling the councils and giving or refusing permission for bishops to be consecrated, but after he made his home in Constantinople, the Pope became not only the most important man in Rome but the most powerful man in the whole Western Empire. It was even made illegal to disobey him.

Dark Ages Arrive

However, laws are of little use if your country is invaded by lawless men. Only moral courage counts. When Teutonic barbarians first looted and burnt the splendid city of Rome in 410, as they looted and burnt town after town on their march westwards, the Western Empire was as good as finished and the Dark Ages had begun. The Church alone remained to protest against the cruel rule of force. The story of the brave Pope Leo who once, by words alone, prevented the ruthless Attila (the Hun) from harming the people of Rome, is an example of what moral courage can do. When the barbarians met the Church at her best, they were always impressed if they gave themselves time to think. Unfortunately for 150 years after Leo, no Pope was brave enough to tell his barbarian overlords what he thought of them. The missionary spirit that is at the heart of true Christianity died in Rome till the reign of Pope Gregory began in 590.

But though, during the Dark Ages, the Far Western Islands got more or less cut off from the Continent from 400 to 550, the Celtic Church, instead of dying out, grew more and more vigorous. In the next chapter we shall see how the Celts changed the new monastic pattern of Christianity to fit the needs of a missionary Church.