Saturday, March 03, 2007

Missional Church 3 or How the Celtic Christians were Tribal Catholics

The ancient Celtic church was missional. This manifested itself in what I call Tribal Catholicism.

I realize that the ancient Celtic church was a not a monolithic reality. The moment one says, "The Celtic church did x," one can find numbers of counter examples. I am going to paint with broad brushstrokes, but I believe there are general characteristics of the Celtic church that can distilled from its story.

One of those characteristics was its tribal and decentralized nature. Much of this might have happened because of the unique socio-cultural context of ancient Ireland. Nevertheless, the Celtic church is, I think a picture of church that is tribal and decentralized and catholic at the same time.

Here are some characteristics -- a bit overstated, but they help us see the reality of the Celtic movement.

The Celtic church was episcopal without being hierarchical. Rather than dioceses, the Celts organized around monasteries. Evidence points to Bishops being under the oversight of Abbots. A Bishop had a sacramental role, but he might actually be a blacksmith in the monastic community. When new priests needed to be made, the Abbot would call the Bishop and have him do an ordination between making nails. There was not a highly organized chain of command flowing from the Bishop. The Bishop was an important node on the network of the church and a touchstone of catholicity, but other clergy were unleashed for ministry by Bishops, not held in hierarchical check by them

The Celtic church was sacramental without being sacerdotal. The Celts had priests. Priests ministered the sacraments. But a vast majority of ministry was carried out by leaders who were not ordained. Ever heard of Saint Brigid? She was a great leader in the Celtic church and was not a priest. Also, priests were recognized and set apart in a more organic manner. No long bouts with seminary. No series of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. A person demonstrated the kind of life to be lived and then was identified and set apart.

The Celtic church was organized without being centralized. There were marks of the Celtic church. One knew when one encountered the church and its clergy. But it was a diffuse movement that infiltrated tribal Ireland like a virus. The ministers carried out ministry where the Spirit opened a door. They looked for what God was doing and then they got in on it. Starting a monastery was a very simple process. Find a few folks that want one, and presto there was one. What marked the Celtic monastic communities as part of one movement was shared values and ethos along with a few common practices. Bureaucracy was not what guaranteed its integrity.

I could write more, but this is a start.

5 comments:

Christ John Otto said...

Hey Pete,
I just read a that was an historical study of Celtic Christianity and I agree with everything you said, and even would take it farther. St. Bridget was considered a bishop in her own time, much to the consternation of Christians outside of Ireland. This is a radical departure from our understanding of authority in the church following post reformation models.

I think God is doing a new "old" thing in many parts of the church, and we are watching it shake out.

Christ John Otto said...

I just read a "book." Somehow forgot to type that word.

Peter said...

What book? I like to read it.

Adam Gonnerman said...

The first two posts in this series were good, and this third post is a nice overview of the ancient Celtic approach to ministry.

For a long time the church (in all forms from evangelical to Orthodox) has held to a pastor-centered, vendor mentality rather than a "laity" driven, missional focus. With a renewed commitment to God's mission, combined with a fresh understanding of what that mission is (the new creation, rather than an abolition of this world and disembodied heaven for the saved) great things can happen for the reign of God, perhaps in our generation.

Christ John Otto said...

It was called Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers.

The book wasn't that good, and I didn't finish it. It was the ramblings of a retired teacher who loved wandering throughout the English countryside. If it had been more organized, I would have kept up with it.