Nick Park: Learning from Celtic Christianity

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Nick Park, Executive Director of EAI, looks back, and also looks forward, to the best days of Irish Christianity.


The Irish-American historian, Thomas Cahill, refers to certain key events as ‘the hinges of history.’  These are periods in time when the world changed forever in a fundamental way, with no going back to the old order of things.  Such events might include the Renaissance and the Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution.

One such ‘hinge of history’ was the collapse of the Roman Empire. A system that had imposed its will upon most of the known world began to collapse, and the uncertainty and chaos which resulted impacted on everyone’s lives. Economic crises were accompanied by barbarian invasions and widespread predictions that the end of the world had arrived.

In the midst of such widespread fear and instability, Ireland assumed a place in history way out of proportion to its tiny size and population. Cahill has written about this in his popular book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

On Easter of 433 AD, Patrick stood on the Hill of Slane in the Boyne Valley.  The druids had decreed that no fires were to be lit in the Kingdom that day until the King himself lit a fire in honour of his pagan gods.  Patrick lit a bonfire, causing the druids to cry out, “This fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.” The fire continued to burn and Ireland experienced a national revival.

A Celtic Church grew out of Ireland and established monastic centres in Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in Northern England that would exercise great influence across Europe for several centuries.  These monastic centres were not places of retreat from the world, as in Eastern Christianity, but rather missions stations that prepared missionaries to go out into the world.  This missionary effort coincided with a period of confusion and lawlessness in Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and invasions by various barbarian tribes.  Pioneers such as Columba, Aidan, Columbanus and Kilian spread the Gospel far and wide.  Celtic missionaries travelled as far as Iceland and Russia, and it is even thought that one missionary, Brendan the Voyager, may have reached America in the Sixth Century.

Some historians have questioned how much the Celtic Church was really distinct from Rome in matters of doctrine, but that is to miss the point of what made the Celtic Church so significant.  The uniqueness of the Celtic Church was not its doctrinal differences, but its distance from the seat of political power.  The Celtic monasteries were perched on the edge of, and even beyond, the Empire’s crumbling borders.  This meant that their energies were able to concentrate on the conversion of unbelievers to Christ rather than in justifying or supporting Christendom’s Church/State project.  The Celtic monasteries became centres of learning where the Scriptures, and indeed many other manuscripts, were copied, distributed and preserved.  Eventually, as Christendom re-established itself across Europe, Celtic Christians were persuaded to toe the line and lost their missionary zeal.  In the Twelfth Century King Henry II of England was authorised by the Pope to invade Ireland and to force the Irish Church to conform to the rule of Rome and to adopt the practices of the English Church.  This was officially achieved at the Synod of Cashel in 1172.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2017. Once again we find ourselves in a place where Irish Christians have fundamental choices to make. We are living through one of those ‘hinges of history’ – witnessing the collapse of Christendom and the onset of secularism.

It is important that we do not confuse Christendom with Christianity. ‘Christendom’ refers to the Church’s domination of society and culture, often through an alliance with the political powers. It refers to Christians enforcing their will upon others. True Christianity is something very different. Christianity does not need political power or the patronage of the State in order to flourish. Indeed, some of the greatest periods of Christian growth have occurred in the face of outright hostility and persecution.

Europe, for a variety of reasons, finds itself at the cutting edge of secularisation and the collapse of Christendom. This has led some to refer to ‘Post-Christian Europe.’ However, it may well be that true Christianity, by which we mean the faith of those who have chosen to follow Christ rather than just conform to an outwardly Christian culture, is healthier in Europe than it has been for many years.

So where do we fit in? Do we believe that God still has a place in history for the Irish Church? This question has particular relevance to Irish Evangelicals who, if we are honest, have often been content to copy what seems to be working for our brethren in other countries, particularly the United States. What should an authentically Irish expression of the Church look like today?

I would suggest that it should have some of the following characteristics:

  1. A radical commitment to putting Jesus first, laying aside every other loyalty based on nationality or ethnicity.
  2. A consistent emphasis on sharing the Good News about Jesus in ways that genuinely care for people. Not just getting people to pray a ‘sinner’s prayer’ – but showing them how to follow Jesus in ways that are life-changing and transformational.
  3. The humility to listen to other people, even when we find what they say to be profoundly uncomfortable.
  4. The ability to ask the right questions, instead of trying to always be the people with the right answer.
  5. Identifying with the weak, the marginalised and the oppressed.
  6. A servant spirit, rejecting the temptation to corrupt the Gospel by building our own power and prestige.
  7. An emphasis on inspiring, equipping and releasing every Christian to fulfil their purpose and calling.

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