Behind the Celtic Fringe

A FEW YEARS ago someone commented to me that any book would be published (and would sell) if it had the word Celtic in its title. The Anglo-Saxon world had become fascinated by what it took to be the distinctive quality of its fringe neighbours. Of course, there was more than mere fascination in this engagement with things Celtic. There was often a barely concealed ideological motivation. The Celtic outlook, even in its Christian guise, was deemed to be environmentally green, inclined to recognise and honour the feminine principle, focused upon the joys of creation rather than the sin-ridden complexes which call for redemption, free of grandee hierarchs because led by local holy men (and women!) whose liberal credentials were matched only by their eye for selecting places of outstanding natural beauty in which to spend their care-free lives.

This is, of course, a caricature of the claims made by what we may call “the Celtic industry”, but I fear that it is not too wide of the mark. Historically, of course, such a picture borders on nonsense. While it is true that Irish and Welsh poetry often evinces a deep appreciation of natural beauty, and equally true that Celtic-speaking peoples have found refuge from incoming invaders in areas remote and wild and therefore (since the time of Wordsworth) deemed outstandingly beautiful by those from flatter, more populous places, that is about all the substance there is to claims of this kind. The reality of Christian history is otherwise. The early Irish penitentials are quite ferocious in the degree of ascetical discipline they require and impose. Early Celtic monasticism, so redolent mutatis mutandis of the deserts of Egypt, was calculated to break down the indulgence of the flesh. Later Welsh religious thinking is strongly Augustinian in its understanding of the Fall, sin, and redemption. It is significant that the eighteenth century evangelical revival in Wales favoured the Calvinist understanding of God’s grace in preference to the Arminian theology of the Wesley brothers. A glance at the great Welsh hymns of William Williams of Pantycelyn (e.g. “Yn Eden cofiaf hynny hyth”) will soon show that this is the classical Evangelical world of the redemption of fallen man through the blood-shedding of the Son of God on the cross of Calvary. Those of us who actually minister in the Celtic lands, and sometimes through the medium of a Celtic tongue, have long since had the false romance of “the Celtic industry” removed by the realities of pastoral experience. Yes, we have known the affection and appreciation of God’s people, we are not blind to the sheer beauty of where we live, or of the amazingly rich inheritance in which we stand. It is simply that we know the truth of those religious observers who place Wales among the most secularised lands in Europe. The great era of the chapels, with all that can be said in praise or blame of it, is at an end.

So what (genuine) lessons can we learn from the distinctive past experience of the Welsh church? For there are such, and perhaps paradoxically in view of the readily-absorbed fantasies of “the Celtic industry”, English speakers have always been slow, for whatever reason, to learn from their near neighbours. If this sounds rather like the proverbial chip-on-the-shoulder, it is worth asking why BBC newscasters go to great lengths to pronounce with reasonable accuracy the names of remote places on the other side of the globe, but take no trouble whatsoever to pronounce Pontypridd correctly when meningitis breaks out there.

Let me suggest but one area (there are others!) of Celtic Christian experience which may be of interest to Traditionalists in the wider Anglican world. It is becoming increasingly likely that the severe strains within the Communion between adherents of traditional orthodoxy and advocates of revisionist innovation can only be contained by a readiness to accept parallel episcopal jurisdictions. Parallel episcopates already exist in Europe (English, American, Lusitanian and Spanish Reformed), South Africa (the Order of Ethiopia), and New Zealand (on an ethnic basis). The nature and extent of episcopal authority is going to need re-thinking unless recourse is to be had to merely legalistic views of pastoral authority and an appeal to a kind of monepiscopal fundamentalism – and that by men who reject fundamentalism in any other guise! It cannot be tenable that all Christian belief and practice is fair game as the target for reform in the light of contemporary fashion except the nature and extent of episcopal authority.

But back to Wales. Celtic Christianity in its earliest phase appears to have known a distinctive pattern of episcopal authority over wide areas. There can be little contention that bishops were numerous by comparison with what was later to be the case (only four dioceses in Norman times and subsequent centuries, only six in the Church in Wales at the present day). Early Welsh laws provide us with the names of seven escoptai (“bishops’ houses”) over a very limited area of south west Wales, so that if a similar pattern obtained over Wales as a whole, the total number must have been considerable. Regional variety there may well have been. Some have held that Gwynedd was from the beginning a large territorial diocese with but one bishop (though the description of Elfodd as “chief-bishop – archiepiscopus, archesgob – in the land of Gwynedd” in chronicles recording his death in 809, may suggest that he was one, albeit the leader, among several). It certainly seems the case that bishops retained their seniority over the abbots of large monastic institutions, or that both offices were held by the same man, in contrast to the organisation that seems to have prevailed in Ireland and areas under Irish influence. Nevertheless, if in this respect the Welsh episcopate followed the conventional western pattern, in other important respects it may not have done. Some have interpreted the data as indicating that a bishop’s pastoral authority was based not on a defined geographical area but on the relationship of pastoral responsibility which he had for individual churches; thus it is possible that “jurisdictions” (if that be not an anachronistic term) might well have overlapped. No one would suggest that there was any doctrinal distinction involved, but the point remains that Wales may well provide the precedent of an episcopally ordered church which organised its life other than on a narrowly geographical basis. After all, for Christians, mere geography can hardly be regarded as a major theological category (John 4:21-24)!

Peter Russell Jones is Vicar of Conwy and Canon Treasurer of Bangor Cathedral