20 January 2014

Anglican studies (2014) 2.1: The mission
of Patrick and early Irish Christianity

Church history and the sands of time ... learning lessons from the past for today and the future (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Patrick Comerford

Mondays: 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Monday, 20 January 2014

2.1: The mission of Patrick and early Irish Christianity

Part 1: Church history: the hows and the whys

Many of you may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual, pastoral and liturgical training. But let me first begin by challenging some of our understandings of history:

Is the present economic, political and constitutional crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic?

Did Bertie Ahern make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon, too judge any of these, it may be too early. I know a Byzantine historian who says that everything that happened before 1453 is history, everything after that is politics and current affairs

What a later generation may describe as historic may not be what we see as momentous now, for it may not be seen as historic by a later generation.

Group work:

Most of us have learned history in a way that has been routine, boring, and irrelevant, with dates and lists.

Think of how some of us may have learned lists of monarchs, with names and dates from 1066 to 1952. If the dates went back earlier, we hardly ever knew why Ethelred was Unready. Who did William conquer?

We are well into a decade of centenaries and dates, events and names are being thrown around like feed before chickens, without asking why we are consuming them, and questioning their relevance. History serves no purpose without considering both cause and effect.

As an exercise, let us take the years 1912-1922, and ask which dates are relevant.

What do you think was the most momentous event of that year?

Why? What caused it?

What were its consequences?

What legacy has it left for you?

The decade of centenaries … Which events would you name for each year? How would you fill in the blank spaces for causes and consequences? (Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Did you come up with any of these events?

For example, last week [16 January 2013], the Guardian looked at the legacy of World War I provided a list 15 ways in which 1914-1918 “changed the world for ever” under the following headings:

1, Poisonous gas

2, Shell shock

3, Conscription

4, Military technology

5, Pacifism

6, The Middle East legacy

7, Nation states

8, Filmed propaganda

9, Workers of the world

10, The planned economy

11, The broken faces

12, Blood banks

13, The decline of aristocracy

14, Christian democracy

15, Women’s emancipation

An American soldier lies dead, tangled in barbed wire on the western front (The Guardian, 16 January 2013)

Why do Church history?

Why should we study Church history on course such as this? The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

Woody Allen has asked: Why does history keep on repeating itself? He says it’s because people refuse to listen the first time round.

Quite a lot of us refuse to listen not so much to history, but to the presentation of history the first time round, particularly if it is presented in a dull, boring, pedantic and condescending way. And it’s dull and boring if it’s only about dates and battles, kings and generals, a chronology listing merely dates and names, without relevance to the present.

No! History is about how we have been shaped and how we are moving into the future. History is about a legacy. And if we don’t learn from the lessons, we can’t own the good and say goodbye to the past.

In his book on Church history – Why study the past? The quest for the historical church – Archbishop Rowan Williams argues cogently that Church history deepens our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our present problems.

The Church depends in many areas on an understanding of its history. And so Church history is used by theologians not just to prove arguments but to clarify what we are as human beings.

Is that how you have perceived church history in the past?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to your understanding of theology?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to today’s Church?

Church history and theology:

Church history and theology … learning about the sands of time from walks on the beach (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

You probably know by now that I try to enjoy a walk on a beach once a week ... in places such as, Skerries, Donabate, Portrane, Bray, Bettystown or Kilmuckridge.

If you live on the coast or a beach, you know that lots of flotsam and jetsam are washed up every day. Sometimes this includes living creatures, such as seal pups, baby dolphins, or even the occasional beached whale.

We could joke that the approach of the dogmatic theologian to the beached whale or baby dolphin might be to see how it breathes, how its heart beats, whether the main part of the tail is three-in-one or one-in-three, to carve it up to find and examine its component parts, and finally express surprise that it is dead.

The approach of the church historian, on the other hand, might follow this course: ask where it came from; ask which tide brought it in; ask whether this tide was influenced by the phases of the moon; ask is it like previous whales or dolphins seen on this, or neighbouring, beaches; and while going to the county library to find the cuttings for the last sighting of one these in 1927, the creature heaves a last sigh and dies.

If they systematic theologian and the church historian had co-operated, they might have first pushed the creature back into the sea, and it might have lived, and we might have more of an idea of why it lives.

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Let me share some examples:

The Book of Common Prayer … how does Church History inform our understanding of the development of Christian doctrine?

Church history and doctrine: Here, church history helps us understand the way doctrine has developed. For example, you may have to deal with the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the construction of liturgy in the past that has led to our present liturgical experiences.

Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle, one of Pugin’s great architectural masterpieces … how does Church History help us understand the arts? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and art: How can we understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals – or Pugin churches – without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say? How can we appreciate these works without an awareness of how they shape our images of God and of Biblical figures, or culturally form our expectations of sacred space?

The Ladder of Divine Ascent … how does Church History make the great works of spirituality accessible to us today?

Church history and spirituality: Church history opens and makes accessible the writings of the Desert Fathers; the development of monasticism; how early Irish monasticism, in a short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans?

History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church on a retreat with the Augustinians in Orlagh, or with the Benedictines in Rostrevor or Glenstal.

The Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral … how does Church History explain our different understandings of the Cross and Salvation? (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

Church history and our essential understanding of salvation: Much of what passes as a Protestant understanding of salvation is Augustinian, and is based not so much on Scripture as on an Augustinian reading of Scripture. And that sense it is Western as opposed to Eastern. The Eastern Church is without that emphasis on original sin, and so does not have the same emphasis on personal salvation, nor asks the same questions about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the Church, and so people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us understand that.

Church history teaches us that the Reformation was not a unique event. There were other Reforming movements. It begs questions such as why did Francis of Assisi remain in the church, but Luther was expelled?

How does Church History help us to understand the connection between music and theology?

Church history and the other arts: The monastery played a crucial role in the development of western understandings of music, through chant and organ. In literature, Chaucer was the first person to write in modern English, and Dante was the first person to write in modern Italian. But who can separate these developments in western understanding from the spiritual and theological directions of their work?

The importance of Florence and the flowering of the Renaissance are essentially grasped through understanding the patronage of the Church. Much popular understanding today of about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper comes not from the Gospels but from Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. But art is important in understanding theology.

When it comes to music, church history and theology, think of Mozart and Bach. Bach died in 1750, but nobody realised then what historical significance he would have – his Saint Matthew Passion was not performed until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted it in Berlin. Yet Bach is an example of how we can do theology through music: he inscribed the scores of his religious music with the letters JJ (Jesu, juva, Jesus help) at the beginning, and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory) at the end.

Church history and our Christian neighbours:

Achill Island … how can we reconcile Catholic memories of ‘souperism’ with the positive legacies of Nangle’s mission? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

History is read differently by different Christian communities.

The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we displaced them from churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves. Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is also untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we’re often seen as an Irish branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance. Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising.

Methodists too believe in their memories that we forced them out of the Church.

Think of Catholic memory of “souperism” and the Achill and Ventry missions. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

Church history and interfaith dialogue:

The crescent and the minaret at the mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin … Church History helps us understand the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls in interfaith dialogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country. On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country. And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of Saint John of the Cross or Saint Theresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

We can deal properly with our neighbours if we first accept them as our neighbours. And Church history teaches that Muslims and Turks have always been part of Europe, ever since we constructed the concept of Europe.

Church history and our understanding of the political world:

Church History and politics … how do you think Muslims reacted to George Bush’s use of the word “Crusade”?

Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom. Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory. In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savonarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy. Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain. The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania. The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the church teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour. We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood. When it comes to assessing recent American political history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush and the Obama presidencies without understanding the religious beliefs of their closest advisers or apocalyptic theology?


Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we do not do it properly, people will think we are irrelevant, or covering up. And because we have done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it is a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over these few weeks, as part of this module, let us throw aside your old ideas about history, and let us ask searching questions about the Church of Ireland and Anglicanism in general: how were we shaped, and how did we get to where we are today?

Part 2: Early Christianity and its spread:

Pentecost (El Greco) … Pentecost is seen as the Birth of the Church

As you probably now realise, it is a truism that Christ preached the Kingdom, and that the Church was founded on his teachings. The early history of the Church is still part of the New Testament story, and the canon of the New Testament and Church doctrines did not take their present forms until long after the Apostolic Age.

Traditionally, Pentecost is seen as the Birth of the Church. But despite the reports in the Acts of the Apostles of early conversions after Pentecost, the followers of Christ remained a small group or sect within Judaism – alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes – until two decisive events turned their faith into a mass movement: the conversion of Paul, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Conversion of Saint Paul ... a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray

Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, which we celebrated in the calendar of the Church last week, is such a decisive event that in a real sense he can be said to be the founder of the Church. The name Christian was first applied to a group of believers in Antioch, and Christianity spread quickly through Damascus and Antioch, the capital of Syria and the third city of the Empire, and on through Syria, Cilicia and Asia Minor.

Later tradition would associate many churches with the early Apostles: Alexandria with Mark, both Antioch and Rome with Peter, Byzantium and the Scythians with Andrew, and Phrygia in Asia Minor with Philip. Even the Church in Persia and on the Malabar coast in India would claim it was founded by the Apostle Thomas.

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki … his missionary journeys saw the Church expand throughout the Eastern Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The spread of Early Christianity was due in part to the exodus of Jewish Christians to Asia Minor during the Jewish War in the years AD 66 to 70. But the first real missionary endeavours of the new movement were launched by Paul, whose journeys saw the Church expand throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in what we know today as Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, into Malta, present-day Italy, and (perhaps) as far west as Spain.

The earliest followers of ‘The Way’ were recruited in the synagogues, among the Jews of the Diaspora, and among the ethical, monotheistic Gentiles who worshipped with Jews. For both groups, koine Greek was the common language, and their thoughts were shaped by the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. The sack of Jerusalem in the year AD 70 marked the end of the dominance of Jewish Christians in the Church. Gentiles, who had achieved equality in the Church through Saint Paul’s endeavours, now became the dominant Christians, and the focus switched from Jerusalem to the capital of the Gentile world, Rome.

The bridge between the New Testament story and Church history is provided by the writers known collectively as the Apostolic Fathers, including Justin Martyr and the author of Clement at the end of the first century, and Polycarp of Smyrna and the authors of the Didache at the beginning of the second century.

Justin Martyr, who was born of Greek parents in Palestine, saw continuity between his Christian faith and his Greek philosophical past, and anchored his Christian faith in his Greek heritage. Polycarp, who is said to have known Saint John the Divine, the author of the Book of Revelation, was the last living link between the Apostolic Church of the New Testament and the historic church of the Apostolic Fathers.

With the letter known as ‘I Clement,’ written from Rome to Corinth around the year AD 96, we begin to glimpse common patterns emerging in the liturgy, life and ministry of the Church at the end of the first century. A clearer pattern of Church order and ministry is defined in the early second century by Ignatius of Antioch in his writings. As he was being taken to Rome to be martyred, he write seven letters setting out the threefold pattern of bishop, priest and deacon, with the local bishop as the focus of unity in the face of schism and heresy.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity was under attack, internally and externally, from a number of diverse, competing sects known collectively as Gnostics, who claimed access to secret knowledge (gnosis). For Gnostics, the spirit was good and the flesh was evil, and they believed in a remote, supreme god, sometimes identified with the God of the Old Testament but who was disengaged from the world.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons ... offered first firm challenge to heresy within the early Church

The first firm challenge to heresy within the early Church came from Saint Irenaeus, the author of Against Heresies. A Greek who had learned at the feet of Saint Polycarp before moving to Lyons, he became the first bishop in Gaul (France).

The challenge from Gnosticism and other heresies also led to the Church agreeing on the canon of Scripture, deciding which books were to be included and which excluded from an accepted Bible. Saint Irenaeus was the first to talk about a New Testament scripture alongside the Old Testament. Apostolic teaching, handed down through successive generations, and apostolic structure, in the agreed books, amounted to the common apostolic tradition shared by an increasingly diffuse and diverse Church, now scattered throughout the Empire and beyond.

The challenge of heresy and schism also marks the beginning of theology, and Tertullian the North African who died in AD 220, is regarded as the father of Latin, western theology, although he later became disillusioned with the mainstream Church. North Africa produced other great theologians at the turn of second and third centuries, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen (also born in Alexandria), and Cyprian, the martyr Bishop of Carthage.

Apart from heresy and schism, the Church also faced regular persecution, often for the refusal of Christians to take part in the emperor cult, to swear oaths or serve in the imperial army, but also because of widespread vulgar charges, originating in Eucharistic practice and the teaching of Christian love, that Christians indulged in cannibalism and incest. During the severe persecution under Marcus Aurelius in AD 177, Tertullian could comment, with sarcasm: ‘If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is “The Christians to the lion”. All of them, to a single lion?’ Despite persecution and martyrdom, Tertullian observed, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’

The Church was thriving, and missionary, social and intellectual advances were preparing the way that would lead to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century, the accommodation of the Church with temporal power, and the consolidation of Church teachings at the great ecumenical councils in the decades that followed.

But the old heresies, schisms and battles would not go away. The theories and beliefs of Gnostics and Arians would continue to resurface in the Church in successive generations, and they continue to appear today. The rift between the Greek East and Latin West would widen throughout the remaining centuries of the first millennium, so that the Church, despite winning the internal battle for orthodoxy, could never succeed in maintaining its unity or a common Church order. The divisions of the 21st century can be traced back to the seeds sown in the first, second and third centuries of Church history.

The rift between East and West:

The Church Fathers … in a Greek Orthodox icon

With the conversion of Constantine 1700 years ago in AD 312, and his subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge near Rome, the imperial persecution of Christians came to an end. Christians were guaranteed freedom of religion, Church goods and property were restored, Sunday became a special day, the Church was free to expand its mission work, and there was a rapid growth in Church membership. But the new freedoms also allowed the growth of internal dissensions and heresies, more complex Church structures were demanded to cope with both expansion and dissent, and the new footing for Church-State relations also gave the State more say in Church affairs.

The first major doctrinal controversy arose in the debate over the Trinity and the teachings of a Libyan theologian, Arius, who taught that the Son was not co-equal and co-essential with the Father, but merely the chief of his creations, that the two persons were substantially similar rather than of the same substance. In an attempt to settle the dispute, Constantine used his powers as emperor to call and preside over the first of the great Councils of the Church. The Council of Nicaea, attended by 300 or so bishops, agreed on formulas that later gave us the Nicene Creed.

Meanwhile, as the Church was reaching a new understanding with the state and the world, Anthony of Egypt and other leading Christian intellectuals and writers were leaving the cities and towns to live on their own in the desert. The Greek word monos (alone) gave us the words monk and monastery to describe how these hermits lived, and the monastic tradition would become a mainstay of Church life and mission for centuries to come.

A perfume brazier in the form of a domed building, from Constantinople... the creed agreed at Constantinople, now known as the Nicene Creed, remains the standard test of orthodox teaching and doctrine (Photograph © Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice)

In the Eastern Church, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus came to be counted as the four Doctors of the Eastern Church or great founding theologians. Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria, but was forced into exile on a number of occasions by the Arians. Unbowed, he was the biographer of Anthony of Egypt, and so introduced monasticism to the West at a time when the rift between east and West was increasing. For the first time, he listed the contents or canon of the New Testament as we know it. Two years after his death, his supporters and the Cappadocian Fathers, including Basil and Gregory, eventually triumphed in 381 in the doctrinal debate at the Council of Constantine. The creed agreed at Constantinople, now known as the Nicene Creed, remains the standard test of orthodox teaching and doctrine.

The first breach between Rome and the four other patriarchal sees in the East came when John Chrysostom (347-407) was deposed as Patriarch of Constantinople in 403. For eleven years, between 404 and 415, there was no communion between Rome and Constantinople – a foretaste of future, deeper divisions in later centuries.

During that time, the Goths sacked Rome in 410. With the collapse of the Roman Empire at the start of the fifth century, new foundations were needed if Christianity were to be a world force. Jerome (342-420), who moved to Bethlehem, produced a readable Bible translated into the common language, Latin (hence the Vulgate). In North Africa, Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, addressed the doubts of a shaken Church with his Confessions and The City of God, and provided the West with a theology that could survive the centuries. Jerome and Augustine, along with Ambrose and Gregory, would be counted among the Four Doctors of the Church. Later, a rediscovery of Augustine would inspire both the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus ... the Council of Ephesus finally defined the Creed in 431, a year before Saint Patrick began his mission in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Having dealt with Arianism at Nicaea and Constantinople, the Church called another great council at Ephesus in 431 to deal with the arguments about the Virgin Mary and her role as Theotokos or ‘Bearer of God’. The deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, was condemned as a heretic. In the face of efforts by the Emperor Theodosius to reverse the decision, the monks of Constantinople marched through the streets to support the bishops of the council, and the decision was endorsed in Rome by the Pope.

Today, the arguments of the four great councils may appear to be obscure philosophy, but they identified the fundamental issues central to the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is not merely a super creature or the last great prophet sent by God, but in his deity is the foundation of all true Christian faith, and he is the one, unique revelation of God.

Amid the gloom prevailing in the middle of the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) assumed the imperial title of Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Priest), declared his words to be the word of Peter, influenced the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and set to putting the Church of Rome on a new footing.

Leo the Great was a contemporary of Saint Patrick, who is said to have arrived in Ireland as a missionary bishop in 431 and continued his mission until his death (ca 460). Saint Patrick and the early Celtic Church built on the pre-Patrician Church in Ireland, and then, beginning with the foundation of a monastery by Saint Colmcille (Columba) in Iona in 563, the first Celtic missionaries brought new life first to Scotland and a dwindling Church left behind in Britain after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and then into northern Europe. The Celtic monks were breathing new life into the Church in northern Europe, while in southern Europe Benedict was drawing up a Rule that would reform monastic life throughout the West.

In the East, the Emperor Justinian (527-565) had re-established Byzantium’s territorial control, combated a resurgent Arianism followed by the barbarian kings, and the space of six years built the great church of Aghia Sophia, the supreme expression of Byzantine genius. In the West, a recovering papacy under Gregory the Great sent Augustine as the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. But Christianity in the East and West was ill-prepared for the newest challenge about to face it: the rise of Islam.

Part 3: The Church of Ireland, Early beginnings

The monastic site at Monasterboice dates from the sixth century ... but where do we find the origins of Irish Christianity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2014)


The Round Tower in the churchyard in Kells, Co Meath ... the Church of Ireland parish church stands on an early monastic site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brendan Behan once crudely named which part of the anatomy of Henry VIII he thought the Church of England had been founded on. And many of your neighbours probably persist in the popular misperception that the Church of Ireland, in some way, is none other than a branch of the Church of England on this island.

On the other hand, historians in the Church of Ireland, in a very antiquarian approach, tried to prove that the Church of Ireland was the legitimate heir and successor to the Church of Saint Patrick and the Ancient Celtic Church of Ireland, claiming that in some way that early church had been hijacked during the Anglo-Norman invasion, and had recovered its independence at disestablishment.

The truth, of course, is always more subtle and nuanced than popular myth. Of course the Church on this island owes much to the early Celtic Church. But it is also the Church of the Vikings, who gave us new dioceses centres on cities rather than monasteries, such as Dublin and Christ Church Cathedral.

These city-based dioceses often felt closer to Canterbury than their Celtic neighbours, even before the Anglo-Norman invasion. With the Anglo-Norman invasion came French-speaking bishops and clergy, and the Church benefitted from the closer links created not only with the Church in England but with the Church in Continental Europe. Yet we persisted in insisting on our Celtic inheritance, and the Preamble and Declaration, which we looked at two weeks ago, described the Church of Ireland in 1870 as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland,” while also conceding that this same church is “a reformed and Protestant Church.”

Pre-Patrician Christianity

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford ... but what was his role in early Irish Christianity? (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, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. 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 had never been 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.

In romantic tradition, Saint Patrick converted the entire island of Ireland in a short period from 432 to 461. But this is not an article of faith, and we know there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived as a missionary, and we know he laboured and ministered in only part of the island.

Christianity probably first arrived Ireland by the fourth and early fifth centuries, in a slow and gradual process, from Continental Europe – Gaul (France) and perhaps the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and from Britain too.

The sea united rather than divided people. Tacitus (c 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants knew Ireland’s “harbours and approaches.” Ptolemy, writing about AD 150, speaks of Brigantes in south-east Ireland, similar to the inhabitants in the north of Roman Britain of the same name, and of Menapii on the coast of Wexford, whose name associates them with the Belgic people on the Continent.

Evidence shows Roman traders reached the coastal harbours and points well inland along large rivers like the Nore and the Barrow. Roman coins have been found at Newgrange and all along the northern and eastern coasts of Ireland: at the Giant’s Causeway, Coleraine, Limavady, Rush, and so on.

Irish traders had trading relations with Roman Britain, Gaul, Spain and so on, and Irish coastal raiders were taking captives from the west coasts of England and Wales. From the end of the third century, there were colonies from Ireland in north-west and south-west Wales, Cornwall and west Scotland. We can imagine well-read refugees from continental Europe fleeing the barbarian invasions by the fifth century, bringing Christianity with them to Ireland.

Patrick tells us he was captured in a great raid that netted “many thousands of people” [Confessio 1], some of whom were lukewarm Christians. If so, some of his fellow captives were committed Christians too, perhaps even a small number were priests. Patrick’s account of his flight from slavery as a young 22-year-old suggests an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, presumably in Leinster, more than 20 years before he began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18]. We can have no doubt about the presence of Christianity in Ireland by the early fifth century, before Patrick began his mission in 432.

The first bishop in Ireland, Palladius, arrived in 431. However, there is a tradition that some Irish saints pre-dated Saint Patrick – including Saint Ciaran of Seirkieran (near Birr, Co Offaly), Saint Declan of Ardmore (Co Waterford), Saint Ibar of Begerin Island (near Wexford), Saint Ailbe of Emly (Co Tipperary), and Saint Multose of Kinsale (Co Cork). But there is no reliable evidence that they were pre-Patrician figures, and claims to their antiquity rather reflect a battle of ancient autonomous parts of the Church against the claims to dominance or primacy in Armagh, bolstered by claims to Patrician foundations.

TF O’Rahilly made a sweeping claim that “Irish Christianity owes its origin to Britain,” that “already before 431 no small part of the population of the south-east and south of Ireland must have been converted by British missionaries,” that British evangelists continued to arrive in Ireland during the next three decades, and that after 461 British influence had the field to itself.

EA Thompson supposes British Christians in Ireland formed the nucleus of his Church in Ireland. Certainly, British Christians, directly or indirectly, influenced the spread of Christianity in Ireland and this influence may have been active before 431.

Pelagius (355-425) caused a great doctrinal controversy in early fifth century, denying the necessity of grace for salvation and emphasising God’s gift of freewill. But was Pelagius Irish? Saint Jerome vilifies him as a “most stupid fellow, heavy with Irish porridge,” and claims that Pelagius, or his companion Coelestius, had “his lineage of the Irish race, from the neighbourhood of the Britons.” But perhaps Jerome was merely insulting his opponent, in the way someone might be dismissed as a “Philistine.”

To combat Pelagianism, Rome sent Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429, and this was followed in 431 by the mission of the “Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine … to the Scotti who believe in Christ, as their first bishop” – evidence perhaps that from at least the third decade of the fifth century there were enough Irish Christians to justify the appointment of a bishop for them by Rome.

Professor Patrick Corish of Maynooth, who died last year [10 January 2013], locates the mission of Palladius in Leinster, and in particular with three ancient churches in Co Wicklow, and that his work was supplemented or continued by missionary figures like Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus –who appear to have had little or no contact with Saint Patrick.

It has been argued that the missions of Palladius and Saint Patrick have become confused and conflated, and that much of the work of Palladius has been attributed wrongly to Saint Patrick. Palladius may have laboured in Ireland until 461, but many Patrician scholars agree that his mission in Ireland was short and that he died within a year.

Patrick Corish believes Patrick played no part in framing the document that now bears his name and that it “is not hard to see circumstances in which his name came to be added later.” Whatever its origins, his Confessio [51] shows Patrick is aware of other episcopal activity in Ireland and the independent administration of baptism, confirmation and ordination.

Although the Palladian and Patrician missions may have coincided, Saint Patrick was working in new territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster consolidated the work of Palladius and other early missionaries.

It is a well-known aphorism that the field of Patrician studies is a field in which no stone has been left unturned.

We can assume that Saint Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest in a part of Roman Britain that was on the edges of a fraying and disintegrating Roman Empire, but we cannot with certainty even identify his place of birth, Bannavem Taburniae. Indeed, we know little about Patrick’s life or his mission, about the dates for his life – there are at least four different suggested dates for his death – or even how many Patricks there were: The Annals of Ulster speak of the elder Patrick, who died in 457, leading some to suppose there was also a younger Patrick, so that O’Rahilly put forward the idea of two Patricks in 1954. Apart from Patrick’s own writings, his Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus, we have few sources for his life which we can say definitely date back to the fifth century: the earliest lives date from the seventh century or later.

‘Celtic’ Christianity and missionaries’:

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Whatever the origins of early Irish Christianity, and no matter how many missionary bishops had been sent from Rome or Auxerre, by the mid-sixth century Irish Christianity was no longer dependent on episcopal structures but was a thorough-going monastic church ruled by abbots from key monastic centres. The Irish church had become one in which bishops had retained their sacerdotal and sacramental functions but were seemingly without any real authority and without any diocesan structures.

In the sixth and seventh 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 set out to evangelise 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, exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

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

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.

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.

Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

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

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from the one prevailing 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.

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.

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.

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where 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 the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected.

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.

So, Early Celtic Christianity in Ireland cannot be separated from the beginnings and the development of Christianity in neighbouring Scotland, Wales and England. There was a two-way flow between both islands, and those early forms of Christianity mutually sustained each other and were inter-dependent.

Not just Celts

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... founded in the heart of Viking Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But if the Church in Ireland was not the only expression of Celtic Christianity, then it was not an exclusively Celtic Church either. In 943, the future King of Dublin, Amlaíb (Óláfr) Cúarán was baptised in England. He was king from 945-980, and later after his defeat would retire to Columba’s monastery on Iona.

We know that Vikings in Ireland had converted to Christianity in great numbers by the middle or late tenth century at the latest, for in 1028 King Sitric (Sigtryggr) Silkbeard of Dublin made a pilgrimage to Rome, and by 1030 Dúnán was Bishop of Dublin. The foundation of Christ Church Cathedral must predate both these events, although the traditional date given is 1038. Similar processes were taking place in in the Scandinavian homelands – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – and in other colonial contexts such as north-eastern England, Iceland, Normandy and the Scottish islands.

At the Synod of Ráith Bressail in 1111, when the diocesan boundaries were drawn up, the area of Dublin was subsumed in the Diocese of Glendalough – perhaps Dublin was ignored because of its allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it was not until 1052 that the Bishop of Dublin was acknowledged as having metropolitan status.


The beginning of Saint Luke’s Gospel in the Saint Chad Gospel or Lichfield Gospels … Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery and the work in this book shows clearly the combination of Celtic and Saxon culture in the eighth century

Christianity came to these islands at early stage, and long before the collapse of the Roman presence in Britain. The mutual trade and commerce between these two islands, including the slave trade, was responsible for the first early presence of Christianity in Ireland, including the arrival of Saint Patrick.

Many of the myths surrounding the life of Saint Patrick may have been created to support the claims of Armagh to primacy. Many of the myths about pre-Patrician Christianity may have been created to challenge that primacy. But while Christianity in Ireland predates Patrick, the Patrician mission, in whatever form it came, consolidated Christian presence in Ireland.

The Staffordshire Hoard, found in a field near Lichfield, shows the intimate links between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon worlds

Christianity in Ireland – and in Britain – brought new life to Christianity on Continental Europe after the collapse of the Roman Ireland. But Celtic Christianity was not exclusively Irish and Irish Christianity was never exclusively Celtic. An exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral in 2011 of the treasures found in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ shows intricately-worked ecclesiastical and civilian objects that illustrate the inseparable and intimate inter-connection between the Celtic and Saxon worlds.

Our story is the story of Christianity in Ireland, the story of Christianity on these islands, and the shared story of Christianity throughout Europe.

Supplemental reading:

John R. Bartlett and Stuart D. Kinsella, Two thousand years of Christianity in Ireland (Dublin: Columba Press, 2006).
Patrick Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience (Dublin, 1985).
Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World (Blackrock, Co Dublin, 1993).
James P. Mackey, An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).
Rowan Williams, Why study the past? The quest for the historical church (2005).


The Challenges facing the communion of global Anglicanism today, including the Anglican Covenant.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 20 January 2014 was part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context

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