Originally posted at my blog earlier in May. —Doug
I’ve spent a good bit of time these past weeks reading in early medieval Britain. Fortunately for me, the books have been mostly translated into modern English. Except for one from the 1800s that left the most important quotes in the original Latin. Shows a bit of a focus change in education: Latin was once a bigger deal than it is now. Of course, I’m now going to be spending this summer getting a better grasp of it…
Moving on, one of the situations I learned about in this process was the conflict in the fifth and sixth centuries between Celtic and Roman expressions of Christianity. It seems that the distance between Britain, Ireland, and the centers of Christianity in the Mediterranean region had caused a division in the way that church practices and calendars were set. Ireland had, since it was never under Rome, developed a fairly independent mindset, while Britain retained a connection with Rome in both government and religion.
Ireland, home of many of the Celtic peoples, had come to the Christian faith primarily under Patrick. As they had come to faith under a missionary monk, missionary monks were held in high regard. So, Celtic Christianity developed many monasteries and sent out missionaries. They also celebrated Easter a week different from Rome, owing to an older source used to set the date. Two other distinctives existed: the style of haircut, or tonsure, for monks and the manner of confession. Celtic Christianity favored private confession and penance while the existing Roman system was more public. The Celts believed in “seal of the confessional:” the priest should be free to hear anything without having to disclose it. The Romans? The tight connection between church and state did not allow, then, for the priest to hear confession of criminal activity and not report it.
Simply, the Roman expression ran the opposite of the Celtic. The Roman Christians of the time saw a connection between church and state, and so expanded the Gospel only with allied nations. Wouldn’t want to fight Christian brethren, after all, would you? Romans cut their monks’ hair differently, celebrated Easter a week later, and had monasteries. Roman monasteries, though, were considered under the authority of the nearest bishop while Celtic monasteries were independent—-and often the home of the nearest bishop.
As the missionary Celts came into Britain, they spread their faith among the people that the Romans had not evangelized. Additionally, the politics of royal marriage put together families from different cultures and therefore with different expressions of the faith. The Celts began seeking space for monasteries, and the Roman religious leaders weren’t up for independent monks roamin’ their territory.
By the way, what’s the big deal about Easter? Well, we Baptists don’t do much of it, but many traditions fast and mourn in remembrance of the cost of sin, the Crucifixion, for 40 days prior to Easter. This controversy had some Christians feasting while their neighbors were fasting—and even had a King and Queen on opposite sides.
This issue had to be settled. The view of the time was that there should only be one church—completely unified in all things. So, King Oswy called in the highest thinkers for both sides and listened to them present their views. The clinching argument? The Romans claimed that they celebrated Easter the same day Peter did, Peter held the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and you wouldn’t want to upset Peter, would you?
This persuaded Oswy. It’s based on the argument that Matthew 16:16-20 put Peter completely in charge of who goes to heaven and who does not. The better understanding, though, is that the “rock” on which the church is built is Christ himself—the word “Peter” comes from the Greek for “stone” while the word “rock” comes from the Greek for “big, unmovable rock.” Peter is not the decision-maker for all humanity. The keys are better understood as the preaching and teaching which began with the Apostles and is now available in Scripture. So, there’s no reason to stress about what day Peter ate chocolate bunnies—
In fact, King Oswy settled the debate over Easter and more than likely disturbed Peter by the end results. By favoring the Roman Easter date, he approved all of the hallmarks of Roman Christianity, including its lack of missionary interest.
The end result? Roman-British Christianity won but by its nature did not spread. As new people groups moved onto the island, Christianity began to stutter and the flame flickered a bit. The churches were big, the priests and bishops well-regarded, but their influence waned. The teaching of the faith to future generations began to collapse.
A course correction was necessary, and by the end of the seventh century, the better parts of Celtic Christianity were blending into Britain. Why? Monks of Britain hosted their brother-monks of Celtic heritage. They learned from each other, and passed that learning on. Then, monasteries became centers of learning and teaching.
Finally, efforts to spread the Gospel returned with zeal. The monks were passionate to spread the faith, not only to the wealthy but to all the people. This was a good turning in history, as the unifying effect of shared faith enabled Alfred the Great to help repel the Vikings in the tenth century. It provided a shared heritage among the people of the Britain as they progressed toward the unified nations they are today.
Yet we learn here an important fact: separate the important points of a debate. Was the date of Easter more important than spreading the Gospel? Does the haircut matter or the heart? When we make decisions based on haircuts and calendars, not hearts and obedience, we start making right decisions on small things and wrong decisions on big things.
Let’s not be right on the small and wrong on the big.