Autumn/Winter Edition 1996 (Part Two)
CELTIC SPIRITUALITY: "A New Way of Being Church"
Did you watch the performance of "Riverdance" on TV? Admittedly, it was visually and musically pleasing, but would you say it was a good advert for the Christian faith? More like a new-agey mishmash of sentimental folksiness plus a strong dash of mysticism.
The sequel to Riverdance has just been announced. It is called "Spirit of the Dance" and looks even more doubtful.
But something very similar in essence is happening right now in charismatic fellowships in this country. The droning of pipes, the insistent boom boom of a drum, and the cryptic warbling of folk groups like Iona is the latest fad to hit the church scene.
Celts are the in thing right now, all in the name of unity and revival. When a dance troupe tapdances across a national stage in the name of commercial success, you can take it or leave it. But when elders appear on the church platform decked out in kilts, dance an jig and bang sticks in the name of Christian worship, you know it's time to ask "whatever next"?
The Pioneer network [Gerald Coates et al] is in the forefront of the Celtic revival, with Roger Ellis being something of a prophet of the new thing. He has staged a presentation of neo-Celticism focusing on the symbolism, music and spirituality of the Celtic Church, both at his home church and at a large meeting for leadership held in March of this year.
There he introduced the concept to hundreds of church elders both from this country and overseas.
Unfortunately, what Ellis promotes is an ill-informed smorgasbord of suppositions, myths and half-truths. Rather than stick to the historical facts about the Celtic Church, he uses Celtic spirituality and holism as a springboard for launching Pioneer ideas about modern-day restoration and revival.
Mixing fables about the lives of the saints with supposed Celtic symbolism such as the wild goose, he informs the enthralled crowd that:
If research into this new wave is correct, that "destiny" may mean overturning the Reformation and returning to the faith of Rome, literally or otherwise.
Writing in the Pioneer magazine 'Compass', Roger Ellis reminds us how the media, from Time magazine to Radio One and the Eurovision Song Contest has picked up on all things Celtic. He notes that the Celts pre-Christian spirituality "engages fully with the recent upsurge in paganism and new age spirituality". This he claims is God's trump card.
Ever eager to ride the latest wave, he proposes using Celtic spirituality in this "post-Christian" society to attract a whole new generation to charismatic churches. He has an even more ambitious plan. He calls the Celtic Church "a prophetic symbol" because he sees them as a unifying force in the Church and the nation as a whole. All denominations and national groups could unite in a return to the roots of our culture. We are left to ask - what exactly was that culture and religion? Is there anything about the Celtic spirituality and Celtic Church that deserves such adulation?
Without doubt there was true faith amongst the Celtic Christians. Also, there are definite traces of paganism to be found in their practices and beliefs. Several books point out the influence of druidism on the Celtic churches:
A set of books containing a collection of Gaellic songs, poems, hymns, chants and prayers reputedly based on the old Celtic originals is being recommended by Michael Mitton. 3 It has "much to teach our ...world".
In a footnote he adds that some reading the contents might struggle with terms such as incantations, and charms and talk of fairies, and in his view some of the poems are occultic - but "it is absolutely essential that we don't apply rationalistic evangelical presuppositions to our study of these writings". A clearer signal of the way things are going could not be found.
Remember that Michael Mitton's book is on the reading list of those who are following the Celtic trend - and that means many in both traditional and charismatic churches!
ROMAN CATHOLIC ROOTS
Much is being made of the supposedly pre-Roman "pure" faith of the Celtic Christians. Christianity reached these shores shortly after the death of Christ, if legends are to be believed. That aside, there is evidence of a Christian presence here from early centuries. A researcher writes:
Although this Eastern/Celtic version of Christianity had a distinctive flavour, it was only a variation on a theme. Chris Seaton 5 whose 1993 paper on the Celts moulded the views of Roger Ellis and the Pioneer network correctly points out that the differences between the Celtic and Roman churches have tended to be exaggerated.
Some distinctive features of the British churches such as autonomous government were the result of cultural adaptations and others, like hermitages, sprang up in response to a physical or psychological need. It does not seem that the Celtic Christians made a conscious effort, in developing independently, to distance themselves from the doctrines of what developed into Roman Catholicism. Indeed, they had much interaction with their European counterparts and for the most part they were in agreement with them. One historical study states:
Roger Ellis cheerfully pronounces the Celtic Church 'pre-Roman' as if that one fact exonerates the Celtic Christians from any erroneous teachings.
He implies that the Celtic Christians were closer to biblical truth and akin to modern Evanglicals and Charismatics in their doctrine.
That is far from true. The divisions between the Roman and Celtic Churches were about structure and authority rather than belief. By the 6th century the divisive issues were such things as the dating of Easter and the proper shape of the monastic tonsure, not doctrine.
Thus to use the Celtic Church as a model for today's faith, evangelism and church practise is to drink from a polluted well.
In the book that is rapidly becoming the Celtic handbook for the restoration network, "Restoring the Woven Cord" by Michael Mitton, we read of purgatory, prayers to and for the dead, salvation by works, relics, invocations to Mary and St. Brigid and other such practises now excluded from the Protestant Church.
This is not accidental. Read this statement from the introduction to the book and consider if there is not some kind of agenda to the Celtic revival that is being hidden by all the hype about evangelism and revival:
Michael Mitton makes it plain that he sees the pre-Roman, pre-Reformation Celtic Church as a model for healing the divisions between denominations, cultures and nations. By utilising a belief system that (supposedly) both Roman Catholics and charismatics can agree upon, he predicts that the untangled cord of church history can be rewoven.
He says "This is none other than a discovery of a new way of being Church". In Ireland, for instance, where the divisions between Roman and Protestant churches are deep, people who are excited about the Celtic new way of being Church speak of "their conviction that the rediscovery of their common Christian experience prior to the divisions of the Reformation has great potential for healing". 7
Roger Ellis means to use the Celtic Church as a prophetic symbol, for "through them God is prophesying something dramatic which will...have a powerful effect on many aspects of our spirituality". 8 This has to do with national and religious unity. The restoration churches are not the only ones to have pointed this out. One author that Michael Mitton refers to in "Restoring The Woven Cord" has this to say about the unifying power of the new Celtic movement:
Ellis and others are emphasising several perceived ingredients of the Celtic Church as useful in their quest for unity and revival. These include harmony with creation, spiritual warfare, an emphasis on the supernatural and signs and wonders evangelism.
They have sewn together from various sources (some of them tendentious, spurious or liberal in style) enough pseudo-information to make their case sound effective. The result is a comparison list between the Celtic churches and the charismatic movement that may or may not have any foundation in historical fact but which is useful in providing a hook on which to hang their beliefs about the destiny of the Church in the 21st century.
WHAT THE CELTIC CHURCH OFFERS
Let's look briefly at some of these points to see what the Celtic spirituality offers to the new churches:
A CELTIC MODEL FOR EVANGELISM
Even Chris Seaton in his paper on the Celts admits that there is a difference between genuine evangelism (where people come to a knowledge of their sinfulness and need of a personal Saviour) and the "christianising" effect of the Celtic and later Roman churches.
Evangelism that results in pagans worshipping Mary rather than the goddess Brigitta is not truly Christian, nor is it any real advance for people to carve a cross into a stone sun-pillar.
Also, although the Celtic Christians emphasised social concern, holiness, self-sacrifice and many other needful things, the gospel of good works is inadequate and wrong.
If allegiance to the Christian religion is all we are talking about, then perhaps the Celtic churches did a good job. They did raise national awareness of the need to honour and worship Christ. But the Bible speaks about being born again as the foundation of faith, not church membership, social action or holiness.
Nonetheless, the Celtic pioneers are held up as models of aggressive, radical evangelism. Ellis gives the impression that the Celtic Church converted the whole country. Certainly some of the Celtic saints had a zeal for mission, but their influence was not as widespread as Ellis claims.
However, It is their methods rather than their message that the new churches seek to emulate.
One author (10) says that since evangelism has now got a bad name in the West for being culturally destructive and intrusive we should find a new way of presenting Christ to people that does not threaten them.
The Celtic approach is to "go with the flow". This means that the Celtic missionaries " adapted their methods to the social and cultural mores of the people". (11) Since those mores were rooted in paganism, it meant respecting and adapting pagan symbols, customs and holy sites.
Roger Ellis tells this story of culturally relevant mission:
Ray Simpson writes that the new Celtic communities like the Community of Aidan therefore "seek to develop people-friendly models of mission" that harness existing beliefs such as alternative medicine, meditation or ecology. (13) Roger Ellis in his address says this:
It is important to note that the phrase "the divine spark" is one that betrays the Gnostic origins of certain Celtic teaching. Some taught that all things were fundamentally good and we needed only to rediscover the god-element in man and nature in order to redeem it. They denied original sin, so did not direct seekers to the death of their human nature in Christ. Rather, they sought to develop the sparks of spiritual longing found in pagan sacrifice and the worship of false gods in order to "complete" these in Christianity.
This was not typical of Celtic belief, but there was certainly an element of heretical thought, some of it based on the teachings of Pelagius (c350-c420), in the Celtic Church. Indeed, various measures had to be taken by Rome to try and stamp out this heresy in the British Isles:
DIGGING UP OUR ROOTS
In reference to his Celtic presentation at the Leaders' meeting, Ellis says: "Oh, that's what we're discovering tonight, a church without roots is going to die."
I'd like you to ponder that statement a moment. ARE we a "church without roots?" Those who bewail the separation between Rome and the Protestant churches may indeed feel the loss of what they perceive to be the roots of the True Church - but are they correct?
To be brief, the roots of the Church of God are primarily in Jesus Christ her Redeemer, but in Jesus they share the taproots of the Old Testament Hebrew congregation. According to the scriptures, we Gentile believers have been "grafted in" to the olive tree of Israel whose roots are holy. (.Rom 11:16-18) This is the ONLY national identity the Church has or needs.
Secondly, what keeps the Church alive is the sap of that tree which is and always has been the life of God in Christ. To use another biblical metaphor, as Christians we are joined to the Vine. (John 15:4-5) It is the life of Christ that circulates round the veins of the Body of Christ, and that eternal supernatural life is far from needing a national identity to keep it moving!
The Celtic heritage of this country may be interesting or even relevant in various ways, but it certainly does not add an iota of life to the Christian Church. However, the concept of needing to rediscover our national roots is one that Roger Ellis repeatedly pushed during his presentation. After mentioning historical members of the Celtic Church like Brendan, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, Brigid, Aidan and Patrick, Ellis refers to them as "our aboriginal apostles". (15)
Presumably then the doctrines of these people should be the creeds of the British Church yet so often they fall very far short of biblical truth!
This seeking for national roots goes further than just the Celts. Ellis suggests that all nations will have to "find their source":
I have to disagree. Despite the work of Christian missionaries, Jordan is a Muslim land, India is sold out to Hinduism. The only way to change that is to change the beliefs of the people by the preaching of the Christian gospel - and NOT by digging up their past.
If you know anything about history, you will know that nations are founded on pagan beliefs, not biblical Christianity. In the years before Jesus was born, and for centuries afterwards, nations worshipped the natural elements and demons. The only national group upon whom God moved in light and truth was Israel; later upon the Remnant of Israel called the Church.
Ellis refers to a "deposit of God" in the nation that ought to be dug up and used. But It seems to me that the only real result of looking back to the Celtic Church is to add Roman Catholic corruptions to our biblical belief and practice. But is this the real purpose of the new Celtic movement, and is this why it is being so vigorously promoted not only in charismatic circles but simultaneously through the Media?
Pioneer certainly means to reap a harvest in the nations, as exemplified by this strange prayer performed over John & Christine Noble at the Pioneer Leader's Meeting in March this year:
But somebody or something else is hoping for a pay off. Do I see the flash of a Roman mitre off there in the wings, waiting for the Celtic movement to become so popular that all considerations of doctrine are submerged beneath an exciting revival of supernatural ritualistic religion? If so, the Dark Ages so favoured by Michael Mitton may be about to return.
ON THE TEXT