Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Celtic Christianty Historic Overview (part 3)

The Council of Whitby

In 597 the Roman mission to Britain under Augustine of Canterbury began to clash with the Celtic mission. There was considerable disagreement between the two communions. At one level the conflicts appeared superficial such as the dating of Easter, or the style of clerical tonsure, but at a deeper level it was due to their radically different ways of seeing.
In 664 a Synod or council was called to be held at Whitby. This council was to decide once and for all which form of Christianity would be followed in Great Britain. Representatives of the Celtic mission argued from the authority of St John, who was "especially loved by Jesus". The Roman mission appealed to the authority of St Peter to whom Jesus said "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church".

Northumbria had been mainly converted by Celtic missionaries and their influence was great. The Roman party, consisted of Queen Eanfled, Bishop Wilfrid, and other influential people. The Celtic party was led by the bishops Colman and Cedd and Abbess Hilda. Wilfrid made Rome's presentation and Colman spoke for the Celtic mission. Eventually King Oswiu decided in favor of Rome because he believed that Rome followed the teaching of St. Peter, the holder of the keys of heaven.

Two accounts of the synod survive. One is in Bede's " History of the English People" and the other in "The life of Wilfrid" by monk Eddi. King Oswiu of Northumbria, as a good Celtic Christian, kept Easter according to the Celtic cycle. His wife, Eanfl├Žd, was the daughter of the King of Kent, and so followed the Kentish (Roman) cycle . Bede explains the dilemma this way: "It is said that the confusion in those days was such that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year, so that when the King had finished Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday.

As Melvin Bragg's puts it in his 1996 book Credo, "Conflict between the Roman and Celtic Churches in Britain was inevitable. During its long period of isolation the Celtic Church had developed in complete independence and had diverged considerably from the paths followed by Rome, not merely in the matters of form and ritual, but more fundamentally in its whole organization. Rome could not readily brook the continued existence of what it regarded as schismatic ways and still less could it contemplate so large a Christian community which showed remarkable missionary zeal... But on the other side, the Celtic Church, as some of its members realized, could not afford to ignore the benefits which Rome, representing by far the greater part of Christendom, had to offer."

The tragedy of Whitby was not the affirmation of the way of St Peter, but that the way of St John began to be displaced in the spirituality of the British Church. Celtic monastic communities were replaced by Benedictine monasteries, and strict uniformity to Rome was enforced.

On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, where the Celtic community had worshiped outside around high standing crosses, or in simple wooden structures, the four stone walls of a Roman church were built. It symbolized the ascendancy of a religious tradition that increasingly was to separate the mystery of God from the mystery of creation. Gradually, the "holy" places came to be identified with the indoor Roman church sanctuary, rather than the outdoor Celtic sanctuary of earth, sea and sky.

complied from a number of sources
Graphic: Synod of Whitby Mural by Juliet MacMichael in the St. Hilda Room St. Hilda's Priory

living water reprint from 2009

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