Friday, 28 February 2014

Icon exhibition brings the plight of
the Middle East to Lichfield Cathedral

‘Our Lady who Brings Down Walls’ ... the concluding display at the Elias Icon Exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

While I was visiting Lichfield Cathedral yesterday [27 February 2014], I also had the opportunity to catch the last day of the “Elias Icon Exhibition,” which included icons and works by the well-known icon-writer Ian Knowles, Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre on the West Bank.

Ian Knowles has been the artist-in-residence in Lichfield Cathedral this month, and I missed his lecture a day earlier at lunchtime on Wednesday afternoon, ‘Fire from ashes: Icons and the Holy Land.’

But his working area was set up at the entrance to the Lady Chapel, where I was attending the mid-day Eucharist, and his exhibition was on display on its last day in the north and south transepts. The exhibition included two lectures and a five-day course on icon-writing.

The exhibition told the story of Ian’s own pilgrimage in life, and of his work today in Bethlehem and the West Bank.

Icon of the Old Testament Trinity (2011) by Ian Knowles ... inspired by Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity and now in Keble College, Oxford

The exhibition opened with his Icon of the Sacred Heart (2011), inspired Teilhard de Chardin’s devotion to the Sacred Heart.

It worked through icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Old Testament prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and an icon inspired by Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity and now in Keble College, Oxford.

Christ Pantocrator (2007) ... this icon by Ian Knowles shows a halo is tooled with a Celtic cross derived from the Book of Kells, while the cover of the Book of the Gospels is also of Celtic origin

His icon of Christ Pantocrator (Παντοκράτωρ) shows Christ as Almighty Sustainer and Saviour of All, holding the Book of the Gospels, his hand raised in blessing. The image is inspired by the mosaic of Christ in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the sixth century icon of Christ in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

The figure is of Christ is radiant with the Divine Light, bearing witness to Jesus as true God and true Man. A figure of strength and directness, Christ here is the Righteous Judge and the Lover of Humanity, who comes bearing the blessing of forgiveness and redemption for all who turn to him.

This icon was a private commission from the Ewings, a London family of Irish ancestry, so the halo is tooled with a Celtic cross derived from the Book of Kells, and the design on the cover of the Book of the Gospels is also of Celtic origin.

Modern saints and martyrs in his work on display included Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a 20th century martyr at the hands of Taureg Arabs in north Africa, but who had a love for Muslims; and Saint John Vianney, a 19th century Roman Catholic saint who is the patron saint of parish priests.

The exhibition came to an end in the south transept with a stark representation of which is perhaps his best-known work, ‘Our Lady who Brings Down Walls.’ This icon of the Virgin Mary was inspired by a speech by Pope Benedict XVI on the suffering facing the Church, particularly in the Middle East, and the original icon is painted on the West Bank wall built by the Israelis, separating Bethlehem from its natural surroundings.

This icon is of the Virgin Mother of the Church but has become popularly known as Our Lady of the Wall. It was written at the request of local Arab Christians from the Palestinian side of the Israeli separation wall and has become a focus for prayer and has been visited by many thousands of pilgrims.

In this icon, the Theotokos is shown as she is described in the Book of Revelation, clothed in the sun and pregnant, with the dragon chasing her into the desert – the great beast was already on the wall, which the pope says refers to the suffering of Christians today. It is close to the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint beside the gates to the Emmanuel Monastery.

Ian Knowles has worked for much of his time in the Holy Land since 2008

Ian has worked for much of his time in the Holy Land since 2008, supporting the beleaguered community there through restoring churches and doing new works, in Palestine, Israel and Jordan.

In 2010 he began to run a short course at the Emmanuel Greek Catholic monastery, and this developed into the Bethlehem Icon School, a project to promote iconography in the Holy Land, and especially to form iconographers from among the local Christian population.

In 2012, it became the Bethlehem Icon Centre, a non-profit company, linked with the Tantur Ecumenical Study Centre in Jerusalem, with the support of Bethlehem University, and with Archbishop Jules Zerey, the Melkite Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem, as its patron.

Ian is the Director and principle tutor, and the centre runs a three-year professional training programme in iconography with 10 students, men and women, from the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic churches.

Most of Ian’s work is commissions, with icons in churches and private homes from Colombia to London and across the Middle East. He was born in 1962, and was raised an Anglican, but he became a Roman Catholic in his late 20s. His love for icons began in his late teens as he explored the way art could relate to and express his faith.

A visit to Greece at the age of 18 opened the door of the world of icons for him. His interest grew and developed and, after stepping down from ordained ministry, he became apprenticed to Aidan Hart., the most-accomplished English-speaking iconographer, with a combination of deep Orthodox spirituality and a profound technical grasp of many aspects of painting and sculpture.

Ian became a professional icon-writer in 2007, and continued to work with Aidan Hart, especially in the development of the Bethlehem Icon School in Palestine, which became the Bethlehem Icon Centre in the Holy Land.

I bought some copies of Ian’s icons in the Cathedral bookshop in the Close, and Ian’s own website includes many examples of his work.

Lichfield Cathedral in the sunshine yesterday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The next exhibition coming to Lichfield Cathedral is “Holy Writ: Modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic Calligraphy.” This exhibition, from 28 April to 15 June, promises works by contemporary calligraphers and lettering artists working in the traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths and using modern techniques and ideas to convey the written word.

The exhibition includes sculpture, woodcarving, digital animation and textile art, as well as two-dimensional work. Leading calligraphers are creating work specifically for the exhibition and some work will be borrowed from the British Museum. The historical context will be provided by Lichfield Cathedral’s own Saint Chad’s Gospels and by ancient Jewish and Islamic documents from the British Library.

A programme of lectures, discussions and practical workshops, with activities appropriate to all ages and levels of interest, will accompany the exhibition.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

‘I do not like thee, Doctor Fell’ … but I like your
deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield

The Deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield this morning … a 17th century dean was the father of Dr John Fell of nursery rhyme fame (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield today [27 February 2014], to complete a portfolio of photographs in the Cathedral Close in preparation for a lecture and walking tour I plan to lead later in May.

One of the fine architectural works in the Close is the Deanery, a two-storey Queen Anne-style house built ca 1707, with substantial alterations in 1807-1808, and further alterations in 1876, 1893 and 1974. But the Deanery stands on a site more ancient than this house, to the west of the Bishop’s Palace.

An earlier deanery on this same site became home .in 1637 to Dr Samuel Fell (1584-1649), who had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford. At first Fell was a Calvinist in his religious views, and he complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, about the excessive number of alehouses in Oxford. But he later changed his theological position and became an active ally of Archbishop Laud.

The Archbishop of Canterbury rewarded Fell’s loyalty by securing his appointment as Dean of Lichfield in 1637. But Fell returned quickly to Oxford when he became Dean of Christ Church a year later in 1638. Back in Oxford, he also became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a prominent royalist, and was deprived of all his offices by the parliamentarians. He died in Oxford on 1 February 1649, two days after the execution of King Charles I.

His son, John Fell (1625-1686), was a prominent Oxford academic, and he too would become Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and later Bishop of Oxford.

Bishop John Fell ... was 12 when his father became Dean of Lichfield (from a portrait by Peter Lely)

John Fell was a 12-year old when his father became Dean of Lichfield. By then, despite is age, he was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, and he was ordained deacon in 1647 and priest in 1649.

During the Civil War, he fought on behalf of King Charles I with a commission in the royalist army.

After the Restoration, Fell became a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and a chaplain to King Charles II. Later, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1666-1669). He was consecrated Bishop of Oxford in 1676, and remained Dean of Christ Church. Some years later, he turned down the opportunity to become Archbishop of Armagh.

Fell rebuilt much of his college, finishing with the great Tom Tower gate, to which the “Great Tom” Bell was moved from the cathedral in 1683 after being recast. At his own expense, he also rebuilt Cuddesdon Palace.

Fell had a reputation among his students for being a disciplinarian. He pardoned one of his students, Tom Brown (1663-1704), author of The Dialogues of the Dead, who was about to be expelled from Oxford, on condition that he could translate ex tempore the 32nd epigram of Martial:

Non amo te, Sabidi,
nec possum dicere - quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere,
non amo te.

To which Brown immediately replied with the well-known lines:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.

The story is referred to by James Joyce in Ulysses.

Fell, who had never married, died on 10 July 1686. Neither Brown nor Fell could have imagined that the son of a Dean of Lichfield would be remembered by generations to come because this witty composition became a well-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

The author Thomas Harris uses the name of Dr Fell as a pseudonym by Hannibal Lecter in the novel Hannibal when he poses as a library curator in Florence. The Irish playwright Bernard Farrell also gave one his plays the title I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell in 1979.

However, the deanery we see in the Cathedral Court in Lichfield today is not the deanery that would have been known to either Dr Fell, father or son. Samuel Fell’s deanery was badly damaged during the Civil War in 1640s and 1650s, when the Cathedral Close came under siege three times in rapid succession.

The damaged deanery was assessed for tax on only two hearths in 1666. Dean Thomas Wood (1663-1671), who would later become Bishop of Lichfield, dismantled what remained of the hall with the intention of rebuilding it. The house had been restored sufficiently by 1687 for a later dean, Lancelot Addison (1632-1703), to host King James II during his visit to Lichfield.

But this next deanery did not remain standing for too long. William Binckes, who succeeded Addison as Dean of Lichfield in 1703, built a new deanery in the early 18th century. The southern part of the long range was taken down, because it was ruined and it obscured the view from the new episcopal palace. A front was built at a right-angle to the remaining portion of the range with a central doorway flanked by three windows on either side. The new deanery was completed in 1707.

The doorway was moved to its present position on the east side of the house in 1807-1808, and internal remodelling was carried out at the same time. Additions and more alterations were made in 1876 and 1893. The northern part of the mediaeval range, which had been converted into outbuildings, was demolished in 1967.

The entrance has fluted Tuscan pilasters. Some of the original windows have been blocked, and it seems one of the original doors may have been moved. The 18th century gate is attached to rebuilt brick piers.

Although the house has been much altered, it retains an impressive facade and some interior features of interest. Inside, many early 19th century details survive, including a fireplace, cornices, doorways, the round arches connecting the front rooms, and the elliptical arch to the right of the stair hall. But the open-well stair was altered in the early 19th century and again in 1974. Queen Elizabeth stayed here in 1988 when she was distributing the Maundy Money in the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday.

It is worth pointing out that the frontage of the Deanery is 120 ft; next door, the frontage of the Bishop’s Palace is twice that length, 240 ft, while the frontage of the canon’s house on the other side is half the length, 60 ft. … so the bishop was twice as important as the dean, and the dean was twice as important as a residentiary canon.

These are some of the stories, some of the buildings and some of the characters I may be referring to during my walking tour and lecture in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in May.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Is ‘Celtic Spirituality’ worth rescuing
from ‘Celtic Sensuality’?

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Affirming Catholicism Ireland,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


It is interesting that the recent debate on celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin this year [2014] focussed on whether it was appropriate to have a fun fair outside Government buildings as the main artistic highlight of the day.

This debate was about the artistic merits of a Fun Fair. But there was no mention of Saint Patrick, about his spiritual message, or about the uniqueness of the experience of Christianity in Ireland and the Church in the centuries afterwards.

Similarly, the debate is about the AOH’s role in organising the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, the exclusion of the LGBT community, and the decision by Irish dignitaries not to attend.

Saint Patrick’s Day is less than three weeks away [17 March 2014], and most of the fun will be at parades, at fun fairs, at the green lighting up of public buildings and monument, and – inevitability – the quaffing of copious litres of Green Beer.

No-one will worry that once again places like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin will be hermetically sealed off so that only the most adroit of churchgoers will be able to attend and continue the real traditions that we say were established by Saint Patrick.

We do this constantly in this country: Saint Patrick’s Day is hijacked by parades and pints; Easter Day is hijacked by the 1916 commemorations; and Celtic Spirituality is relegated to the ‘New Age Spirituality’ shelves in our bookshops, or the glossy souvenirs in Dublin Airport’s duty-free ‘shopping experience.’

But is there such a thing as Celtic Spirituality? And is it worth rescuing from ‘Celtic Sensuality’?

Some years ago, I spent an autumn’s afternoon in Glendalough, looking for what I thought would be the remains of a great Celtic monastery.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross I was taking photographs of – one that stands beneath the Great Round Tower – was a gravestone erected in the late 19th century.

A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon: the Great Round Tower was capped in the late 19th century too, so as we see it today is not as it once stood; even Saint Kevin’s Church is an 18th century church, built according to plans derived from an earlier sketch by a French or Swiss artist.

Our images of Celtic spirituality are often shaped by Victorian romanticism. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, as we know it, is based on a manuscript from the late 11th century now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. But it was only published in 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).

The hymn Be Thou My Vision (Church Hymnal 643) refers to Christ as “my high tower” ... the Round Tower at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sometimes, our images of Celtic Spirituality are intricately linked with the nation-state-building myths created by an Irish nationalism that was often narrow in its vision. Yet, Be thou my vision, Hymn 643 in the Church Hymnal, was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, using another translation of an earlier poem or prayer.

But often the vision of the nation myth-makers was of an Ireland in which anything they regarded as “Celtic” was wrapped up with a narrow, exclusive concept of being green, Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist and Irish.

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The popular images of Saint Patrick at that time in stained-glass windows, road-side statues and popular postcards show him standing on a bed of shamrocks decked in the robes and mitre of a truly Tridentine bishop. Of course, I would point out that green is the wrong liturgical colour both for Lent and for a saint’s day. But why was he never seen in those popular portrayals in convocation robes or in a simple alb and stole? Because the message was clear: Celtic Christianity was for Roman Catholics only, and at that for a particular type of Catholicism.

And yet we did something similar in the Church of Ireland in the 19th century. antiquarians posing as historians claimed Patrick, and every other Celtic saint they could find, for Protestant Christianity, as opposed to Roman Christianity … as if Christianity in Ireland before the 12th or 13th centuries was pure from heresy, undefiled by superstition and out of touch with the Continental European Church.

Nor was Celtic Christianity the only formative influence on the Church in Ireland as it moved from the mediaeval period towards the Reformations. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland” – what a title. But that ancient and catholic church is not just Celtic; it was influenced and shaped too by other cultural forces, including the Vikings, Anglo-Normans, and many others. Hopefully this will continue in the future, with the Romanians, Nigerians, Chinese, or others.

It may be that the economic woes of the past year or two have made us despise the Celtic Tiger. But Celtic Spirituality is still a fashionable commodity when you look at the shops around Christ Church Cathedral or go shopping for small presents in Dublin Airport before a flight.

Much of what passes as “Celtic” and as “Celtic Spirituality” is tatty and second-rate. But there are compelling reasons to have a sound grasp of Celtic spirituality in the context of ministry in Ireland today.

The Cathedral ... the largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Firstly, many of the cathedrals and churches of the Church of Ireland stand on ancient Celtic monastic sites. If you have ever wondered why so many Church of Ireland cathedrals – Achonry, Ardagh, Clogher, Clonfert, Elphin, Emly, Ferns, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh, Kilmore, Leighlin, Raphoe, Rosscarbery – are in small villages or remote locations, or why it took so long to build cathedrals in Belfast, Enniskillen, or Sligo, or why still we have no cathedral in Galway, then you begin to realise the lasting influences of the Celtic monasteries.

Secondly, Celtic Christianity is popular and marketable – it’s a lifestyle choice. The three most popular categories of books on religion or on “Mind, Body and Spirit” shelves in Irish bookshops are on Buddhism, new age-type books on angels, and new age-style books on “Celtic Spirituality.”

It is important to know the minds of people, to know what engages them spiritually, what passes as religion for many if we are going to be incarnational in our ministry and mission.

But much of the writing about Celtic spirituality today is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example: “Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today ... It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim: “Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald describes this as “... ‘new-age’ paganism,” based on notions of some sort of “Celtic spirituality,” allegedly distinguished by a unique “closeness to nature.”

And thirdly, modern spirituality, in a dynamic way, has drawn on and has been enriched by many resources associated with Celtic spirituality, enriching the life of the Church of Ireland at every level.

There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal, and many more tunes with a Celtic air to them. We have all been enriched by the prayers of the Iona Community, the hymns of John Bell, Graham Maule and the Wild Goose Worship Group, the active and engaged spirituality of the Corrymeela community, or the resources of the Northumbria Community near Lindisfarne.

The global reception of the hymns of John Bell and Graham Maule show how there is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland.

At an academic level, this interest has been stimulated by scholars such as James Mackey, Ian Bradley in the Church of Scotland, the Jesuit Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire (1915-2001), the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin, and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died about six years ago [4 January 2008].

The Celts: who were they?

‘As the deer pants for the water’ … the base of the ‘Market Cross’ in Kells, Co Meath, has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, I should begin with caution: it is difficult to say if there was such a group of people as Celts. The name for Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But scholars differ when they answer the question: Who were the Celts?

Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? Or did they come from the Pontic-Caspian region? Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain. But how did they reach the remote Atlantic coasts and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

“Celt” is a modern English word. There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. The names used by Greek (Κελτοί, Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of similar languages, but not to a people. The one group of Biblical Celts are named in two New Testament letters: the Letter to the Galatians, and also I Peter (see I Peter 1: 1). Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

Romantic antiquarian interest popularised the term “Celt,” but only from the 17th century on. Because of the rise of nationalism and Celtic revivals from the 19th century on, the term “Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany. But the term “Celtic” also applies to Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but no Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

“Celticity” refers to shared cultural indicators, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But does that shared culture and family of language imply a shared ethnicity?

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large inward Celtic migration. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already here? As one writer in The Irish Times argued, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are decked out by Versace and Gucci, does not make us Italian, even culturally. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and cultures adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Can we talk about a Celtic Christianity?

Saint Kevin’s Church, Glendalough ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Can we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity” broadly refers to early mediaeval Christian practices that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially in Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of the churches on these islands diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences even between rival Irish traditions.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. The term “Celtic Church” is inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples. Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin or Western Christendom as a whole. But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The flowering of Celtic Christianity

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford … Saint Edan was once claimed as pre-Patrician bishop in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, perhaps between 283 and 304, certainly long before Saint Patrick’s time in Ireland.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407, Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the aftermath, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal sees, with their own traditions and practices. Key figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius and Saint Patrick, the “Apostle of Ireland.” Ireland was converted through the work of missionaries from Britain such as Patrick and others.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, and Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland worked among them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus, and exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory sent a mission to the English, led by Saint Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.

Distinctive traditions

Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity were distinctive or gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included the monastic tradition, fixing the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

1, The monastic tradition

The ‘Market Cross’ in front of Kells Heritage Centre once stood within the monastery grounds in Kells, Co Meath, associated with Saint Columba and the ‘Book of Kells’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monks and priests had become fully integrated with Latin culture. Apart from their Latin texts, these Irish monks also developed a written form of Old Irish.

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.

Episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from that in the sub-Roman world. Apart from parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities, and so different ecclesiastical structures were needed, especially in Ireland. This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities and their abbots.

2, Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, using a calculation similar to one approved by Saint Jerome.

Eventually, most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new methods for calculating Easter, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby until 716.

3, Monastic tonsure

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting their hair, to distinguish their identity as monks. The “Celtic” tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

4, Penitentials

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and penance was given privately and performed privately as well. Handbooks, called “penitentials,” were designed as a guide for confessors and to regularise the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual, but had fallen into disuse. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, and Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul.

By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirement for confession at least once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

A replica high cross from the 19th century beneath the Round Tower of Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes. It coincided with a similar revival in political and artistic circles.

Hymns mentioning high towers were written in the same decades in the late 19th century as the Round Tower was restored and capped in Glendalough, a Round Tower was erected at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Glasnevin Cemetery, and, as part of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, my great-grandfather decorated the top storey of the Irish House, a pub that stood beneath Christ Church Cathedral, with a series of rising round towers.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, in 1893. Our most popular English-language version of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, Frances Alexander’s I bind unto myself today (Irish Church Hymnal, 322) was first sung and published as late as 1889. The English-language version of Be thou my vision by Mary Byrne and Eleanor Hull (Irish Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as “my high tower,” was only translated and versified in 1905, and was first published in a hymnal in 1915.

The pediment of the Irish House, on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, was decorated by James Comerford in 1870 with a series of Celtic motifs, topped by a collection of rising round towers

In Scotland, many ‘Celtic’ poems and prayers were collected and edited by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have become widely popular, as has a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries, the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child’s birth, or at a loved one’s death. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place.

1, Creation:

David Adam says: “Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre.”

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Long before Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick called Christ the “True Sun.” Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”

2, Humanity

Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

3, Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” ... the North Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare, depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images on a Celtic high cross from this time of an Irish harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

4, The Trinity

Celtic Christians placed a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ; the left arm is the Spirit:

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me
. – (Carmina Gadelica)

5, Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hate without.

6, Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Christ, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.
I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.
Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun

7, Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611 in the Church Hymnal), the writer imagines that he is Saint Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) says:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

8, Blessing prayers

The Celtic way blessed everything in life (except evil), however earthy or every-day, all around the clock, including animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep
. – Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

9, Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

10, The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others.

Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Apart from Saint Patrick, we ought to be familiar with some other Celtic and Irish saints from this period and tradition.

1, Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid ... one of the three patrons of Ireland

Saint Brigid, whose feast day fell earlier this month (1 February), is second only to Saint Patrick (17 March) as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, new-born babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. Her practicality and resourcefulness were shown by fetching well water that tasted more like ale for a sick servant, or picking up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man. Her generosity frequently relied on prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century (ca 451 or 453) and baptised Bríd or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preaching, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At about the age of 14, instead of accepting marriage, she opted for the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

The chancel of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make her final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick, and he is said to have mistakenly ordained here.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521-528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle, often with a cow in the background, and sometimes wearing a mitre. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for the flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them

2, Saint Columba

The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century, is associated with Saint Columba and his followers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Columba (9 June) is intimately associated with Iona, off the west coast of Scotland – and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he is also linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells, Co Meath, and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to Saint Finian, Columba secretly copied a beautiful Psalter that Finian brought back from Rome. In doing this, he devalued the original book. Columba refused to return his the copy and Finian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Finian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

When Columba still refused to give back his copy, a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and a shamed Columba accepted “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance. In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to Iona, where they settled and founded a monastery.

Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks, and later became a centre for missionary outreach to the highlands of Scotland.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

Iona Abbey, and the Iona Community founded in the 1930s by George MacLeod, continue to inspire Christians today throughout the world.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687)

Pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels are projected onto Durham Cathedral. Artist Ross Ashton collaborated with Robert Ziegler and John del Nero to create a 12-minute Son et Lumiere, projecting pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels across the Durham Cathedral, as part of Durham Lumiere in 2011

Saint Cuthbert was born in the Scottish border country near Melrose. One night, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when he accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled throughout Northumbria. In search of a solitary life, he built a round cell and chapel south of Lindisfarne, and he lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer. Following in Saint Aidan’s footsteps, he was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in York on Easter Day, 26 March 685. He died in 687.

During the Viking raids in Northumbria in 875, Saint Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor centre, which tells the story of Saint Kevin.

The monastery of Holmpatrick stood on the mound in the graveyard behind the present parish church in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Skerries: a monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off the shore, before moving to the site of the present Church of Ireland Parish Church, Holmpatrick, where the ruined tower behind the church stands on the height of the monastic site.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by the patron saint of Wales. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where Saint David’s mother, Saint Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” From Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out on the cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral.

The Book of Chad or Lichfield Gospels show clearly the combination of Celtic and Saxon culture in the eighth century ... Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Lichfield: Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery ca 651-664, established the church in Mercia, the pre-Norman Kingdom of the English Midlands, and died in 672. The Book of Chad, now one of the great treasures of Lichfield Cathedral, predates the Book of Kells by about 80 years.

The detail and beauty of Anglo-Saxon metalwork in the exhibitions in Lichfield Cathedral are evidence of the intimate cultural links between the ‘Celtic’ Ireland and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Over the last few years, I visited on a number of occasions exhibitions in Lichfield Cathedral of recent finds in a large Anglo-Saxon horde near Lichfield. This discovery points to an interesting interaction between the Saxons of Mercia and the Celtic church in Northumbria and perhaps even Ireland before the arrival of Saint Chad.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

Concluding Prayer:

As we prepare for Saint Patrick’s Day next month, my concluding prayer is the Collect of the Day for 17 March, which corrects our priorities, if they have been parades, pints and fun fairs:

Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Resources and links:

Web resources:

The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales has an on-line-library
The Iona Community.
The Island of Lindisfarne.
Saint Hilda’s Priory, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, Whitby.
Wild Goose Resource Group.


David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward) … the best of David Adam’s Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.

David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle) … the reader is taken through the hymn, Be Thou My Vision, in a search for the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.

Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993) ... the Revd Ian Bradley, a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland, has lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.

Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000) … an introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.

Elizabeth Culling, What is Celtic Christianity? (Nottingham: Grove Books, Grove Series No 45).

The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).

Lemuel J. Hopkins-James, The Celtic Gospels, their story and their text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934/2001) … Hopkins-James transcribed the Book of Chad in 1934.

Marian Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.

Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (London: Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.

James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995 ed) … a collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.

Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and blessings (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996/2004).

Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986) … a useful anthology of poetry and verse.

Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981) … the story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.

Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998) … a collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996) … a useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.

George Otto Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions

Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press) … how many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.

Ray Simpson, The Celtic Prayer Book (Kevin Mayhew) … The Celtic Prayer Book is published in four volumes: 1, Prayer Rhythms: fourfold patterns for each day; 2, Saints of the Isles: a year of feasts; 3, Healing the Land: natural seasons, sacraments and special service; 4, Greater Celtic Christians: alternative worship.

Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (Hodder & Stoughton) … the chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.

Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing) … the whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a meeting of Affirming Catholicism Ireland on 26 February 2014.

This one is only for ABU fans
... and for Wexford fans

Patrick Comerford

British television crews have been following the comings and goings of one amazing football fan.

Last Saturday, they saw this man dejected and crying at Crystal Palace, after Manchester United had a 2-0 away win. Ten days earlier he was picked up on cameras muttering to himself: “Arsenal didn’t win, but at least Man U didn’t get an away goal.”

Before that, there he was at Old Trafford, cheering on Fulham, obviously filled with glee even though they the only managed a draw.

And, at the beginning of the month, he was in the Potteries, overcome with joy at Stoke’s 2-1 win over United.

Now he’s been caught on Greek Television. There he was in Piraeus last night, cheering on Olympiakos, sitting in the front row in Karaiskakis Stadium, just behind that red and white banner.

His heart was in his mouth as three minutes extra time turned to 3½, and he was overcome with joy when extended extra time and a corner still refused to give Man U that coveted away goal.

The English cameras and journalists rushed to interview him. He had fluent English.

No, he wasn’t Greek, he told them. No he’s not from Stoke or London, he insisted.

“But you have fluent English. Where are you from?”

“I’m Irish. From Wexford. I’m an ABU Fan.”

“You’re from Wexford?”

“Yes, and I’m an ABU fan?”

“And are there no circumstances under which you would support Manchester United?”

“Well yes, maybe.”


“Well, yes, perhaps if they were playing Kilkenny in hurling.”

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Fifty tips on writing better English

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few years, I have been involved in seminars on academic writing. Here are 50 tips on writing better English that have been forwarded to me in recent months and that I have collected:

1, Avoid Alliteration. Always.

2, Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3, Avoid clichés like the plague. They’re old hat.

4, Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

5, Be more or less specific.

6, Writers should never generalise.

Seven, Be consistent!

8, Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

9, Who needs rhetorical questions?

10, Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

11, Employ the vernacular.

12, Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

13, Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.

14, Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.

15, It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

16, Contractions aren’t necessary.

17, Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

18, Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

19, Profanity sucks.

20, Understatement is always best.

21, One-word sentences? Eliminate.

22, Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

23, The passive voice is to be avoided.

24, Avoid colloquialisms … at all costs.

25, Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

26, It behooves us to avoid archaic expressions.

27, Avoid archaeic spellings too.

28, Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.

29, Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.

30, Avoid hyperbole; only one in a million can do it effectively.

31, Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.

32, Subject and verb always has to agree.

33, Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.

35, Use youre spell cheque appllication to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errars.

36, Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.

37, Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.

38, Always end a sentence with a full stop

39, Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.

40, Don’t never use no double negatives.

41, Hopefully, you are learning to use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

42, Eschew obfuscation.

43, No sentence fragments.

44, Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.

45, A writer must not shift your point of view.

46, Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

47, Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.

48, Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.

49, If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.

50, And always be sure to finish what

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Does anyone understand why so many priests
are to the forefront of the protests in Ukraine?

Praying priests standing between protesters and police in central Kiev (Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford tries to answer some questions about the role of priests and churches in the rapidly-changing and turbulent events unfolding in Ukraine

Priests have been very visible on the streets of Kiev, praying over the bodies of dead protesters, setting up prayer tents and leading prayers at protests in Independence Square in Kiev, standing on the front line between police and protesters. Is this a Christian country?

Ukraine, with a land area of 603,628 sq km, is the largest country in Europe. Kiev is the capital, and the country has a population of about 46 million people.

A survey eight years ago showed 62 per cent of people are atheist or do not go to any church. But among Ukrainians with religious affiliations, the most common religion is Orthodox Christianity.

Well, is the Orthodox Church playing a role in bringing the people together?

Well, not really, because it’s deeply split itself into four different groupings: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (38.9 per cent of Christians), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (29.4 per cent), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (2.9 per cent) and the Old Believers’ Church. Indeed, five if you count the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (14.7 per cent), which sounds, looks and smells like an Orthodox Church, but is in full communion with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

It all sounds very Byzantine …

To compound matters, there are at least three Ukrainian denominations in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church: alongside the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church there is the Ruthenian Catholic Church, which also has Byzantine liturgies and customs, and the Latin-rite Roman Catholic dioceses.

Does that create a crisis of identity?

Of course. Over the course of history, these Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches have been closely identified with the struggles for Ukrainian national self-identity and Ukraine’s turbulent relations with its neighbouring states. It is impossible to explain the divisions between these Eastern Orthodox Churches and different Catholic Churches without discussing the tense relations and territorial wars Ukraine has had over the centuries with its neighbours, especially Russia but also Poland, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia, Germany, Lithuania and Romania.

Has Christianity been in Ukraine for a long time?

Christianity in Ukraine dates back to the earliest centuries, and became a dominant presence since its acceptance in 988 by Prince Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr the Great), who established Orthodox Christianity as the state religion of Kievan Rus.

So how far back can you go?

Ukrainian tradition says Saint Andrew the Apostle travelled along the western shores of the Black Sea, to the area that is present-day south Ukraine, and arrived on the site of Kiev in 55 AD. There, legend says, he erected a cross and prophesied the foundation of a great Christian city. Both the 18th century Church of Saint Andrew in Kiev and an earlier church dating from 1086 are said to have been built on the site where he planted his cross before continuing his journey as far north as Novgorod.

So Ukrainian Christianity had no links with the Pope and Rome?

Well, another ninth century tradition says Clement of Rome, known as the fourth Pope, did not die in Rome but was exiled to Chersonesos on the Crimean peninsula in 102.

But what about actual historical evidence?

Bishops from Scythia on the shores of the Black Sea attended both the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Christianity may have been introduced into what is now Ukraine by the invading Goths, and some Ostrogoths who remained in the region after the invasion of the Huns established a Diocese in Dorus in northern Crimea under the Patriarch of Constantinople, around the year 400.

And in the following centuries?

When Pope Martin I was deposed by the Byzantine Emperor he was exiled to the Crimean peninsula and died in Chersonesos in 655. His relics are said to have been retrieved by the brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who passed through present-day Ukraine on their way to the Khazars.

By the ninth century, the Slavic population of west Ukraine had accepted Christianity. The East Slavs came to dominate most of the present-day Ukraine, beginning with the rule of the Rus. The Eparchy or Metropolis of Kiev is mentioned as early as 891. By 900, Saint Elijah’s Church had been built in Kiev, modelled on a church of the same name in Constantinople.

Christianity gained a vital supporter when Princess Olga of Kiev was baptised with the name Helen in 955. She and her grandson, Vladimir the Great, are venerated as saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

So did Christianity become the state religion?

Yes, when Prince Vladimir ordered the mass Baptism of Kiev in the Dnieper River in 988. That year marks the establishment of the Kiev Metropolis under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The first cathedral was built in 996.

Is that the beginning of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine?

After the Great Schism in 1054, most of what is present-day Ukraine ended up on the Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine side of the division. The metropolitans had their seat in Pereyaslav, and later in Kiev, but their seat moved during the centuries that followed, until the 15th century, when the primacy was restored to Kiev with the title Metropolitan of Kiev, Halych and All Rus.

So how did some Orthodox-looking churches end up with Rome?

In the late 16th century, the Bishop of Lviv, Hedeon Balaban, became exasperated by his struggles with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, believing he was under the thumb of the Ottoman Sultan and his court. In 1589, he asked the Pope to take him under his protection. He was soon followed by the bishops of Lutsk, Cholm, and Turov in 1590, and then by the Bishops of Volodymyr-Volynskyy and Przemyśl and the Metropolitan of Kiev. In 1595, their representatives arrived to Rome and asked Pope Clement VIII to take them under his jurisdiction.

Under the terms Union of Brest-Lviv in 1596, this part of the Ukrainian Church was accepted under the jurisdiction of the Pope in Rome and become a Byzantine-Rite Catholic or Uniate Church, known today as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The new church gained many followers among the Ukrainians in Galicia.

Did all Ukrainians follow these Bishops and cross the Tiber?

No, the majority of Ukrainians remained within Eastern Orthodoxy under Metropolitan Peter Mogila (Petro Mohyla) of Kiev, who set about recovering many churches and buildings, including Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. But the Orthodox Church was made illegal, its property confiscated, with persecution and discrimination, and large numbers of Ukrainians migrated to Tsarist Russia.

So, did they look to Constantinople or to Moscow?

In 1686, the Ottomans put pressure on the Patriarch of Constantinople to transfer the Orthodox Church of Kiev from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to the Patriarch of Moscow. And this transfer initially gave Ukrainians a major role for in the Russian Orthodox Church that they held well into the 18th century.

What happened to the Uniates who became loyal to Rome?

Well, the Uniate church meanwhile became so dominant among Ukrainian people that few of them remained Orthodox and most church property remained in Catholic and Uniate hands.

That must have been good news for the Papacy?

Actually, Rome started behaving badly. The Latin Catholic authorities began actively converting the Uniates to Latin-rite Catholicism. One Uniate leader, Bishop Joseph Semashko, was so angry he began to argue for the eventual return of all Uniates to Orthodoxy. He won the support of a growing number of the local priests, but the ruling synod rejected all his proposals.

The Uniate Church supported a revolt by Poles against Russian rule in 1831. However, the November Uprising failed, and in their response the Russian authorities removed the members of the Uniate synod and took away most of the privileges of the Polish magnates. The Uniate Church soon began to disintegrate.

The final blow came at the Synod of Polotsk in 1839, convened by Bishop Joseph Semashko, when the Union of Brest-Lviv was rescinded. All remaining Uniate Church churches in Belarus and Right Bank Ukraine within the Russian Empire transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Uniate clergy who refused to join the Russian Orthodox Church – almost 600 out of almost 1,900 – were sent into internal exile or to Siberia. With mass deportations, persecution and even executions, the Uniates were practically wiped out in the Russian Empire.

How did the Uniate Church survive?

A small number of “Greek Catholics” survived and the Uniate Church continued to function within the Russian Empire until the Eparchy of Chelm was abolished in 1875. In Chelm, the conversion to Orthodoxy met strong resistance from local ethnic Ukrainian priests and parishioners, who were confronted by Russian police, Cossacks, and an influx of Russian-speaking priests from east Galicia. The resistance was so strong that in 1905 up to half of the formally Orthodox people of Chelm were allowed to return to Catholicism ... but only to Latin-Rite Catholicism.

Meanwhile, the south-west region of Galicia, including present-day Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and parts of Ternopil, had come under the control of the Hapsburg Empire. The Austrians granted equal legal privileges to the Uniate Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Church, removed Polish influence, and provided for Uniate seminary education.

A large educated class developed among the Ukrainian people in Galicia and the Uniate Church became an important primary cultural force among the Ukrainian people in what is today western Ukraine.

So the Uniates were happy once again?

Not for long. In the 19th century a struggle developed within the Uniate Church between those who looked towards Russia and those who saw the Galician Ruthenians as Ukrainians, not Russians. The pro-Russian people were mostly led by older and more conservative priests, while the west-looking people found leadership among the younger priests.

All this developed as Austria become entangled with Russia in a power struggle in the Balkans and as the influence of the Ottoman Empire declined in the region at the same time. When World War I, broke out, the Russian Army quickly overran Galicia.

The Uniate Church had become closely linked with the Ukrainian national movement. The majority of its members were so loyal to the Habsburgs they were known as the “Tyroleans of the East” and resisted reunion with the Orthodox Church. A minority, though, welcomed the Russians and returned to Orthodoxy.

The Austrians counter-attacked and regained lost territories. Reprisals followed, and several thousand Orthodox and pro-Russian people died in concentration camps.

So did the Russian Revolution bring more changes?

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church became the victim of repressive actions. In the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the head of the Ukrainian Exarchate, the Metropolitan of Kiev and Halych, was executed in 1918. Churches were closed and pillaged, and many priests were executed.

Paradoxically, however, the Bolsheviks saw the national churches as a tool in their battle with the Russian Orthodox Church.

So more divisions followed?

Indeed. On 11 November 1921, an unrecognised Church Council met in Kiev and proclaimed the formation of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). The Russian Orthodox Church strongly opposed this new church and no bishop would consecrate bishops for the new Church. The priests then ordained their own bishops. In contravention of canon law, they invoked the traditions of Alexandria, and laid their hands on the two senior candidates, consecrating them as Metropolitan Vasy (Lypkivsky) and Archbishop Nestor (Sharayivsky).

That was a break with tradition?

Yes, but they tried to show their desire to continue with tradition, and during the ceremony they used the relics of Saint Clement of Rome – the early Pope who was said to have who died in exile in Ukraine in the first century. Despite the canonical controversy this created, the new church was recognised in 1924 by the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VII.

Under Soviet rule in Ukraine, many Orthodox priests joined the new Church to escape the persecution suffered by those who remained in the Russian Orthodox Church. The UAOC gained popular following too.

Did that save their church?

Sadly, no. The Soviet government abruptly reversed these policies. The mass arrests of UAOC bishops and priests ended almost in the liquidation of the church in 1930. Churches that were not closed or destroyed were transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church. On the eve of World War II, only 3% of the pre-revolutionary parishes in Ukraine were still open, and these were mainly in remote rural areas.

Meanwhile, what happed to the remnants of the Uniate Churches?

The Peace of Riga Treaty had carved up the map of the region in 1921. Some ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian territories were given to the new Polish state. Some areas, such as Polesie and Volhynia, had people who were mainly Orthodox, while the former Austrian Galicia had a mainly Uniate population.

But the Poles regarded the Greek Catholic Ukrainians from Galicia as even less reliable and loyal that the Orthodox Ukrainians. After a visit to Ukrainian Catholics in the US in 1924, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, was denied re-entry to Lviv, Polish priests began missionary work among Eastern Rite Catholics, and many churches were confiscated and turned into Roman Catholic churches.

And what happened to Orthodox Ukrainians in Poland?

The Ukrainian Orthodox priests and parishes who found themselves in Poland were now isolated from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate intervened and took responsibility, and in 1923 the Polish Orthodox Church was formed.

Other Ruthenian people found themselves in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Hungary after the borders were redrawn following World War I, and this has compounded difficulties in disentangling the layers of confusion around religious and ethnic identities in the region.

Did World War II change all that?

When the Red Army attacked Poland in 1939, many of the Orthodox priests in Poland who were ethnically Ukrainian welcomed the Soviet troops and took advantage of the opportunity to restore links with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Under the occupation of Ukraine by Nazi Germany, yet another Orthodox Church emerged during World War II, calling itself the Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church. In addition, the Polish Orthodox Church continued to claim parishes within Ukraine.

After World War II and another redrawing of the maps, the Russian Orthodox Church regained its general monopoly in Soviet Ukraine. The Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church collapsed, while the leadership of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church feared they would be forced to accept the Moscow Patriarchate. In addition, those fears within the UGCC were compounded because many of its members were suspected of collaborating with Nazi Germany.

How did the churches survive?

A small group of Uniate priests began to proclaim reunion with Orthodoxy, and in 1948 at a synod in Lviv, the 1596 Union of Brest was annulled. The ties with Rome were broken, and the links were transferred to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Many of the priests and laity accepted the Russian Orthodox Church, but others adamantly refused, and the Patriarchate of Moscow began to use force to take their churches. For almost 40 years, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church continued to exist in West Ukraine as an underground minority, threatened with prosecution. Many priests emigrated to Germany, the US or Canada, others were sent to Siberia, and some were martyred.

Did things change with the fall of the Iron Curtain?

The millennium of the baptism of Rus in 1988 was celebrated as the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the celebrations were organised by Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev. Meanwhile, perestroika and glasnost brought a softening of attitudes to religion.

The Soviet Government publicly apologised for the oppression of religion and promised to return all church property to the rightful owners. The Ukrainian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church recovered several churches in central, east and south Ukraine.

In those parts of west Ukraine where the Uniate Church once had a strong presence, things were more turbulent. The underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church resurfaced as Ukrainian national movements came to the fore.

The Russian Orthodox Church was now seen negatively by some as yet another arm of Soviet domination. Bitter, violent clashes followed, with the Russian Orthodox Church slowly losing some parishes to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church also re-emerged from its existence as an underground Church.

So things became difficult for the Russian Orthodox Church?

In an effort to counter a growing schism in the former Uniate territories, the Russian Orthodox Church gave its Ukrainian Exarchate the status of an autonomous church in 1990. The Soviet Union broke up in 1991. But once Ukraine became an independent state, the question of an independent, self-governing or autocephalous Orthodox Church arose again.

Seeing the storms ahead, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev and all Ukraine, decided to seek full independent or autocephalous status for his church – with or without the approval of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1966, he was the first ethnic Ukrainian in 150 years to become Metropolitan of Kiev, and he was identified with efforts to suppress both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Critics were quick to point out, however, that Metropolitan Filaret’s determination came on the heels of his unsuccessful attempt to be elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1990.

In November 1991, he asked the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church to grant autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, he convinced Ukraine’s newly-elected President, Leonid Kravchuk, the new independent state should have its own independent church.

At the same time – in case the Moscow Patriarchate refused his demands – he also entered a secret agreement with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), which had no significant following outside Galicia.

Did he get his way?

Most of the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church initially supported Metropolitan Filaret. However, at a synod in March-April 1992 they openly criticised his plans. He was accused of disregarding monastic vows and of improper financial dealings, and they called on Metropolitan Filaret to retire.

Did he quit?

Of course not, and President Kravchuk gave him his support. But another synod was called in the eastern city of Kharkiv in May 1992. At that meeting, Metropolitan Filaret was suspended, and Metropolitan Volodymyr (Viktor Sabodan), a former Patriarchal Exarch to Western Europe, was named to replace him.

What did he do?

Patriarch Filaret of Kiev ... once hoped to be the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow

Metropolitan Filaret now had the support of only three bishops. But he went ahead with his plans for unification with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. In June 1992, a new church was formed as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) with the 94-year-old Patriarch Mstyslav as its leader, and Metropolitan Filaret as his assistant.

Patriarch Mstyslav died a year later and the new Church was divided by yet another schism, with the former UAOC parishes separating in July 1993. Metropolitan Filaret continued to rely on President Kravchurch and state paramilitaries in the battle for the control of church buildings, parishes and property. Finally, he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1997.

Has he any friends outside Ukraine?

Patriarch Filaret’s Church is not recognised canonically by any other mainstream Eastern Orthodox Church.

The UOC-KP is in communion with the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Italy, and the Alternative Bulgarian Synod. They all were apparently in communion with the Orthodox Church of Montenegro until recently, when communion was broken due to certain allegedly uncanonical acts … by the Orthodox Church of Montenegro.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), sometimes abbreviated as UOC (MP), is still the only Orthodox Church in Ukraine in full communion with other Orthodox Churches around the world. The head of the church is Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), who was enthroned in spring 1992 as the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine.

Priests from different churches and traditions pray during clashes with police in central Kiev (Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)

So, who supports whom?

The claims and legitimacy of the rival Churches is a factor in the present conflict.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate says the other Orthodox Churches in Ukraine have “uncanonical organisations.” To generalise, the UOC (MP) has tended to support President Viktor Yanukovich, who seems to have fled Kiev today, while members of the UOC-KP, the UAOC, and the UGCC tend to support the opposition.

To continue that generalisation, Ukrainians in Kiev and the West who support the opposition and are seen as being pro-European tend to support the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate, while those in the East who back President Yanukovich and are seen as pro-Russian tend to support the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate.

The cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) is the Golden-Domed Church of Saint Michael’s Monastery, which has been restored recently. In the past few days, Saint Michael’s has been used to lay out the bodies of many of the dead protesters from Independence Square.

The main stronghold of the UOC-KP is in Kiev and in the Volhynian provinces, with moderate support in the central and Galician provinces. The church also has several parishes in the West, including the US and Australia, and even in Russia itself.

The UOC (MP), under Metropolitan Volodymyr, has its heartland in Russian-speaking south and east Ukraine, but its main base is in central and north-west Ukraine, and it claims to be the largest Church in Ukraine.

The toughest Orthodox rivalry is played out in the streets of Kiev, where the UOC (MP) claims about half the Orthodox parishes. The only places where the UOC (MP) is a true minority are in the former Galician provinces of Western Ukraine. The UOC (MP) does not have any parishes outside Ukraine.

What about the smaller Churches?

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) uses Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s Saint Andrew’s Church in Kiev as its Mother Church. When Patriarch Mstyslav died in 1993, the UAOC separated again from Patriarch Filaret’s Church and reorganised as an independent church. Since that break with the UOC-KP, it has had talks with the UOC (MP).

The UAOC is found almost exclusively in west Ukraine. Its former diaspora communities in Canada and in the US have since formed separate churches that are now under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

In addition, there is a community of Orthodox Old Believers in Ukraine. This community has exploited the politicised schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy and, has over 50 communities scattered throughout Ukraine.

And where are the Ukrainian Uniates today?

Although the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was outlawed in 1948, it continued as an underground church and among the Ukrainian diaspora. It was officially re-established in Ukraine in 1989, and in 1991 Cardinal Lubachivsky returned to Lviv from exile.

The UGCC is centred mainly in West Ukraine. It is led by Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk and is now the third largest Church in Ukraine. Last week, he said it is the role of the clergy to be at the forefront of the demonstrations in order to serve people who have historically faced religious persecution.

However, Saint George’s Cathedral in Lviv is no longer the mother church of the UGCC. The church controversially moved its administrative centre from Lviv to Kiev and built a new cathedral. The move was criticised not only by all the Orthodox churches in Ukraine in a rare show unity.

The UGCC parishes were once confined to the provinces of Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk in West Ukraine. In recent times, parishes have been established in East Ukraine, mainly for people who have moved from West Ukraine. The UGCC also has parishes in Poland, North America, South America, and Australia.

The Ruthenian Catholic Church, another Byzantine-rite Catholic Church in Transcarpathia, re-emerged from the underground after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was restored as a Church with separate structures from the UGCC despite opposition from other bishops in communion with Rome, including the Bishop of Khust, who demanded its integration into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Despite this revival, the Byzantine-rite Ruthenian Catholic Church has not regained its pre-war position as the dominant Church in Transcarpathia, where it has its traditional base.

In 1991, Pope John Paul II officially restored the activities of Roman Catholic dioceses in Ukraine and appointed bishops. Latin-rite Roman Catholicism is practiced mainly by non-Ukrainian minorities, including Poles and Hungarians.

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and protesters near Dynamo Stadium in Kiev last month (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Are there any Protestants in Ukraine?

A number of Protestant minority churches are found in Ukraine also. In the 16th century, small groups of Anabaptists formed in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, but the influence of the Reformation in Ukraine remained marginal for another three centuries. Protestant churches arrived to Ukraine with German migrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. They initially enjoyed religious freedom under the Russian Empire. They were mainly Lutherans, with smaller groups of Mennonites.

German Lutheran numbers fell rapidly with the emigration of most German-speakers during the World Wars. But there are still small remnants in the areas around Odessa and Kiev.

Other groups include Baptists (the All-Ukrainian Union of the Association of Evangelical Baptists), Pentecostals (All-Ukrainian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith-Pentecostals), Seventh-Day Adventists (Ukrainian Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists) and a growing number of charismatic churches. A Baptist pastor, the Revd Oleksandr Turchynov, is a former head of the SBU, Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, and a former acting Prime Minister.

However, despite recent rapid growth, Protestants in Ukraine remain a small minority in a largely Orthodox Christian country.

On the barricades: a priest stands at Independence Square, on Friday morning, as the Ukrainian presidency said that it has negotiated a deal between police and protesters (Photograph: Church Times/PA)

What about Anglicans?

Christ Church, Kiev, opened on Easter Day 1999 to provide an English speaking Anglican community in Kiev. From a small beginning, it has grown into a welcoming and thriving church, with members from the US, Great Britain, Ukraine, Canada, India and around the world.

Although the church currently does not have a Priest-in-Charge they hold regular services and welcome visiting clergy from time to time. The church meets at 3 p.m. on Sundays in a Lutheran Church and is supported by the Intercontinental Church Society, an evangelical mission agency. Christ Church Kiev also belongs to the Diocese in Europe, within the Church of England. The Mission to Seafarers also has a chaplain working in Odessa.

How do Anglicans feel about the present crisis?

For the past 80 days, the first floor of their church building has been used as a First Aid post both for the police and for protesters.

Alla Gedz, a member of Christ Church in Kiev, told the Anglican Communion News Service this week she has seen horrific scenes. “I am not shocked any more when I see dead people, but can cry any time without any reason. Today, we saw how the dead were pulled out of Saint Michael’s Cathedral and piled near those who died during the night.”

She added: “We are very grateful for your prayers, because being in the midst of the revolution we do have supernatural peace in our hearts.”

The Churchwardens, Thamarai and Anita, say they are saddened by the latest developments in Kiev. They plan to continue Sunday worship this weekend and ask for prayers that good sense may prevail between the Government and Protesters.

They say that it seems unfortunately that the opposition has little control over protesters which is why matters have escalated. They add: “Only prayers all over the world can save the country from further bloodshed.”

The Venerable Patrick Curran, Archdeacon of the East (Diocese of Europe), says he is keeping in regular contact with the church leaders in Kiev and reaffirms the appeal for prayer this weekend.

As for all those divisions and those confusing initials ...

... could make a Monty Python movie ...

... if was not all so sad. Does anyone truly understand the Churches in Ukraine?

“There are more than enough smart-alecs offering dubious expertise from a safe distance,” a writer in the Economist said yesterday, admitting “Ukraine’s religious scene is a hard one to grasp.

The writer concludes: “It is a pretty hard situation to understand unless you have a passion for ecclesiology. In any case, the details probably don’t matter to a wounded or dying protester who is receiving the solace and sacraments of his religion.”

And the last word?

Perhaps the last word should go to Alla Gedz in the Anglican Church in Kiev. The leadership of Christ Church has remained neutral about the political position in Ukraine, and she says: “To understand Ukrainians, people either have to be born with a Ukrainian heart and know the history or to serve this nation.”