Sunday, 21 July 2013

Celtic Christianity and Pagan Survival

 St Peters Chapel

Christianity was introduced to the Celtic Britons around the 2nd Century AD due to the current Roman occupation. Conversion was a gradual process that obviously began to take root with the soldiers and those in direct contact with the Roman Christians. When the Roman's left Britain these new converts were free to develop their own form of Christianity, known as Celtic Christianity which was also adopted by the Anglo-Saxons. 
A main difference between Celtic Christianity and Roman Christianity was the Celtic emphasis on the grace of God's gifts in life and nature. The Celts were very much connected to nature, agriculture and the seasons - their lives revolved around it; it is therefore natural that when converting to a new religion, this important aspect of life would continue to be honoured. Women were also respected and allowed to take an active role in religious services, and clergy could be married. Conversion appears to have come due to peaceful evangelism rather than through warfare, and so the Pagan converts would have made the spiritual decision for themselves. 
The Pagan agricultural festivals were still celebrated but were Christianised, such as the harvest festival, LuchnasadhLammas, or the spring festival, Imbolc - Candlemass. Sacred sites were still believed to be sacred - after all, why would that change? So in the beginning Celtic communities worshipped outside with simple wooden crosses, possibly at these sacred sites, but eventually (perhaps due to rekindled relationships with other traditions putting the pressure on) they mimicked the building of Roman churches in a later attempt to separate God and Creation. Magic and healing crafts were still performed, but again with Christianised with prayers to God, Jesus, Saints and Angels, rather than a Pantheon of Celtic deities.
After hundreds of years in peace, more pressure was put upon the Celtic Church and it was criticised by the other churches and accused of being Pagan in its origins. 
Modern Pagans like to belittle Christianity and boast of Christianity's Pagan origins, commonly seen in the usurped festivals. It is easy to imagine a group of staunch, stiff-necked clergy-man gathering in a dark building and plotting world dominance, and destruction of the Pagan ways, usurping festivals out of desperation for converts and hypocrisy. In some cases, especially later on, I imagine that this was close to reality. True enough, the Pagan ways were hard to eradicate and so compromise was needed on the side of the Christian clergy; but I think it unfair to point the finger this way. A possibly more accurate picture is of a small Pagan farming community who welcome the presence of a missionary and hear what he has to say; some things they think are too alien for them to accept, others seem reasonable and similar to their own current beliefs already. They choose to become Christian and follow the peaceful message of Jesus and celebrate their promised salvation; but they also decide that it is unnecessary to lower the status of their women, and stop celebrating the bounty of the harvest festivals. They were free to continue in their own ways, with their new beliefs too.
This story of the growth of Christianity has captured my imagination. This wasn't the case everywhere and for everyone and every time. But early on this is the story of the conversion from at least where my ancestors originate. I learnt it from visiting two Anglo-Saxon churches recently, one of which was the mesmorising Chapel of St Peter in Bradwell-on-Sea, England. Here is a place that was founded in AD654 and still functions today. I saw prayers written on paper and stuffed into cracks in the ancient stones; I saw handmade wooden crosses and stones at the altar with people's names on for prayers. Outside the North Sea greets you, and fields stretch out behind you. There is no doubting that this place is a sacred one, no matter what religious belief one may have. We're all more similar than we realise, or wish to accept.


St Peters Chapel, inside.

More Information: http://www.st-cuthberts.net/celhist.php
More Information: http://www.celticchristianitytoday.org/
St Peters Chapel: http://www.bradwellchapel.org/
Tour of St Peter's Chapel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi8xpO4Usyw

2 comments:

  1. It is interesting how believes may exist separated from religion (or would it be the other way around?).

    I think, even replaced, religion may be followed by believers when respect is cultivated by them, even ideas, believes and culture "things" change.

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  2. I couldnt find the message link on youtube so Im raiding your article.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vl9bGbv5Cg0&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    ReplyDelete