What can we learn from the missionaries that brought England to Christ, so that we can further the spread of the Gospel today?
The Early Middle Ages was a time of remarkable mission activity in the British Isles that saw the region transformed for the Gospel. We can learn many powerful lessons from this era of church history as we seek to share the good news of Jesus in our world today.
It is unknown how Christianity first came to the indigenous Celts,1 but some were believers as early as AD 200,2 and through the efforts of monks such as Saint Patrick3 and Columba,4 by AD 600 the Celts of Ireland and Scotland had largely been won to Christ.5 Even south of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman-controlled province of Britannia was peppered with British Celtic churches by the time the Anglo-Saxon invasion began.6
Though these newly-dubbed “English” pagan settlers destroyed and displaced many Celtic communities,7 the Celtic response during the 7th century was a hundred years of sustained evangelism that (along with Pope Gregory’s less successful mission led by Augustine) saw this new multi-ethnic England won for Christ.8
More than 1300 years have passed since then. But as the West’s Christian memory quickly fades, the culture around us increasingly resembles pre-Christian England, making many evangelistic principles from that era transferrable to ours.9 In particular, the missionaries of this period cultivated four characteristics that have a striking relevance for us today: a permeable community; a positivity towards culture; a place for the supernatural; and a persuasively clear message.
A Permeable Community
First, the communities established by these early missionaries were permeable; that is, many people were won to Christ through the process of participating in the life of the Christian community even before having made a decision of faith.
Commissioned by Pope Gregory, Augustine sought the conversion of England through the Roman institutional model: bishops overseeing dioceses made up of multiple priest-led parishes.10 By contrast, instead of planting churches, the Celtic missionaries planted monasteries.11
Monastic communities first emerged in 4th century Egypt12 — the Celts likely learned about them through reading the best-seller Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius.13 But while the goal of eastern monasticism was to escape the world and its corruption, the Celts established their monasteries to transform the world for Christ.14 And it worked.15
These communities were unorthodox by every measure. They were led by abbots, to whom even bishops were subject.16 Neither priests nor bishops were integral to the work17 — in fact Celtic monasteries were run predominantly by laypeople.18 To join one you could be male or female; married or unmarried; ordained or not.19 Writing of one such place, the English historian Bede recorded that “no one there was rich, no one was needy, for everything was held in common, and nothing was considered to be anyone’s personal property.”20
Out of Celtic monasteries grew schools, hospitals and universities, and as such, large numbers of unbelievers were drawn in, “encountering a community with a living faith in God.”21, 22 Writes one historian, “they were places in which the outsider could find an identity, and where the gregarious could find a true social purpose.”23
Outsiders weren’t won to faith merely because they received Christian generosity: the strength of Celtic monasteries was that they invited pre-Christians to participate in this generosity that blessed the surrounding locale.
Applying this to today, when the Christian message is deeply foreign to a culture, people don’t just need to hear about it; they need to be active in its practical benefits. Sometimes they need to belong before they believe;24 that is, made to feel welcome regardless of their spiritual or religious status. In short, to reach our increasingly pre-Christian culture, the church today needs to recapture this Celtic idea of a permeable community.
A Positivity Towards Culture
The evangelists of this era were also effective because they won peoples’ trust through their posture of relaxed positivity towards the culture at large. This was underpinned by a theology that “held a much more optimistic view of human beings, who were after all made in the image of God,”25 resulting in them showing a deep respect for the people they sought to reach.26
This attitude of positivity towards broader society no doubt contributed to the Celts’ love for evangelistic adventures;27 their preference for travel on foot rather than horseback so as to more easily converse with those they encountered;28 and their proficiency for interpreting the Gospel in indigenous ways wherever they went.29
The latter was a particular strength of Celtic missionaries. Stories are told of the inhabitants of Derbyshire worshipping water divinities: instead of confronting this directly, Celtic evangelists acknowledged the desire of the locals to give thanks for water, but they preached Christ as the object of that gratitude and their means of salvation.30
Writes one author, “they took the old pagan feasts and baptised them into Christ… like a film exposed twice when a second photo is superimposed on the first, both are still to be seen.”31 It is also well documented that restoring pagan temples for use as monasteries was a common Celtic practice32, 33 — in fact, even Pope Gregory commanded the same for his churches.34
One does not need to spend long in an evangelical church today to encounter a palpable fear and defensiveness towards the outside world and its values.35 While the Bible commands us to live holy and set apart lives,36 too much unwarranted skepticism of the world is quickly interpreted by outsiders as hubris and self-righteousness.
To reach a predominantly unreached culture, we must imitate the Celtic church: we should respect, affirm and embrace as many of the world’s values and practices as Scripture allows us to, so that the Gospel we preach will be less foreign, and more comprehensible, to our hearers.37
A Place For The Supernatural
One specific way in which England’s missionaries made the gospel comprehensible to their audience was through their engagement with the supernatural. We have much to learn from this today. The flaw of the excluded middle has long been identified by missiologists as a weak point in western evangelism.38 Sadly this remains so in the church, even as the culture around us increasingly adopts a supernatural worldview.
The Venerable Bede dedicated large sections of his History of the English Church and People to accounts of Roman and Celtic missionaries who won converts as healings and deliverances accompanied their preaching.39 Likewise, Adamnan of Iona, in his hagiography Life of Saint Columba, recounted the many miracles and prophecies of this remarkable evangelist.40
As educated Westerners, our immediate reaction to these ancient documents may be to question their historical accuracy — but the skepticism underlying such questions is precisely our problem. As our culture’s interest in eastern religions only intensifies, and people have more direct exposure to the supernatural, we must seek God that He would use us as He used the first-century disciples and these Celtic missionaries.41
As we do, we might see peoples’ interest in alternative spirituality fade as they encounter the living God, much like the experience of the Celtic church:
“Celtic Christians had no need to seek out a shaman. Their Christian faith and community addressed life as a whole and may have addressed the middle level more specifically, comprehensively and powerfully than any other Christian movement ever has.”42
A Persuasively Clear Message
Finally, we can sharpen our Gospel-sharing efforts today by noting the persuasively clear message that these evangelists proclaimed. Accompanying the West’s newfound interest in eastern spirituality is an increasingly complex — even internally contradictory — worldview. This, too, was a feature of the England of the Early Middle Ages.
After the Roman conquest of the British Isles in the first century, a hybrid Romano-Celtic religion emerged.43 Now, not only were people practicing the nature-worship of Celtic animism;44 they were also “trying to hold together the highly coloured but often conflicting stories of the gods which they heard.”45 There were simply “too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from.”46
The Christian message proclaimed by the missionaries of England was, by comparison, a persuasively clear one. It told a single story that made sense of the world, and it “spoke of stability and order and peace.”47
Moreover, those who preached this message truly lived it. Bede wrote of Aidan that “the highest recommendations of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught,”48 and of Augustine’s evangelists that “they preached the word of life to whomsoever they could… [and] they practiced what they preached.”49 In summary, “Bede confesses that it is the way the Celtic saints lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ that won the love of the wild Anglo-Saxons.”50, 51
In our world today, a modernist scientific worldview continues to clash openly with post-modernism’s “everything is true” approach to life. In these perplexing times, it is of vital importance that, like these monks, we take hold once more of the simple Gospel message that speaks clarity into the confusion — and that we demonstrate the truth of it by the lives that we live.
The evangelisation of England from the 3rd to the 7th centuries is not only fascinating; it is also incredibly instructive for us as we seek to further the spread of the Gospel today.
If we would let these missionaries teach us how to foster communities of open participation for people before they come to faith; how to maintain a fundamentally positive attitude towards the surrounding culture; how to engage with the supernatural to display the power of God; and how to preach a crystal-clear Gospel with our words and actions, we may just see revival in the West once more.52
- Many legends are told about how the Gospel first reached the Celts; a likely possibility is through trading with Mediterranean merchants — Fay Sampson, Visions and Voyages: The Story of Celtic Spirituality (Oxford: Triangle Books, 2007), pp. 25-26.
- “By 597 the British Isles had had Christians around for at least four hundred years. Tertullian, wrote c. 210 of ‘regions of the Britons inaccessible to the Romans but subject to Christ’.” — John Finney, Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), p. 7.
- Finney, ibid., pp. 27-28.
- “St. Columba died in 597, exactly two hundred years after the foundation of Candida Casa. By that time, the whole of Scotland, including the Angles living in the Lowlands, had been converted to Celtic Christianity, by the British, Pictish or Irish monks.” — Diana Leathan, The Church Defies the Dark Ages: The Story of Celtic Christianity (Surrey, UK: The Religious Education Press, 1955), p. 44.
- George G. Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 26.
- “By the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived there were churches and congregations up and down the land.” — Finney, op. cit., p. 8.
- Finney, ibid., p. 13.
- “Despite all the help which was given to the Augustinian mission from Rome and elsewhere, the homespun Celtic evangelism appears to have been far more effective.”— ibid., p. 56.
- Ibid., viii.
- Ibid., 31-32.
- Ibid., 28.
- Shirley Toulson, The Celtic Alternative: A Reminder of the Christianity We Lost (London: Rider, 1992), p. 112.
- Hunter, op. cit., p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 28.
- “The Celts were the main evangelists of England. The monastic pattern seems to have been more successful at evangelising that society in which they were set.” — Finney, op. cit., 31.
- For example, Bede wrote that “Iona is always ruled by an abbot in priest’s orders, to whose authority the whole province, including the bishops, is subject, contrary to the usual custom.”
— Bede, A History of the English Church and People (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), p. 147.
- Finney, op. cit., p. 68.
- Hunter, op. cit., p. 26.
- Ian Bradley, Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today’s Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000), pp. 6-7.
- Bede, op. cit., p. 247.
- Michael Mitton, Restoring the Woven Cord: Strands of Celtic Christianity for the Church Today (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), p. 94.
- “Whereas the monks in the desert communities generally sought and practiced radical separation from the world, many of the monasteries in the British Isles were intensely involved in the affairs of the world and the lives of the people they served as well as being places of withdrawal and sanctuary.” — Bradley, op. cit., p. 11.
- Toulson, op. cit., p. 120.
- Finney, op. cit., 47.
- Mitton, op. cit., p. 88.
- “The approach of the Celtic missionaries was essentially gentle and sensitive. They sought to live alongside the people with whom they wanted to share the good news of Christ, to understand and respect their beliefs and not to dominate or culturally condition them.” — Mitton, ibid., 89.
- “… great number who for over a period of five hundred years set out to wander across the face of Europe, from Iceland to Italy. They left homeland and friends, and all of life’s securities, in order that they might set out into the unknown, a journey for God.” — Esther De Wall, A World Made Whole: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1991), p. 53.
- Of Aidan, Bede writes, “Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride; and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them.” — Bede, op. cit., p. 148.
- Hunter, op. cit., p. 38.
- Mitton, op. cit., p. 91.
- Finney, op. cit., p. 72.
- Ibid., p. 30.
- Iona, founded by Columba, “was already a pagan holy place and many of the standing stones there are pre-Christian megaliths which have been baptised into Christ by having a fish or chi-rho symbol carved on them.” — ibid., p. 29.
- Quoting Pope Gregory: “If the temples are well-built they are to be purified from devil-worship, and dedicated to the service of the true God.”– ibid., 129.
- We do well to learn from a mistake made by Columbanus: when he criticised the morals of a royal family in a largely pagan area of France, he and his fellow missionaries were ordered to return to Ireland. — ibid., p. 30.
- Romans 12:1-2.
- “The fact that Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways, serves as the most strategically significant single insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity.” — Hunter, op. cit., p. 20.
- Simply, that we readily acknowledge both the material world (lower) and God as transcendent (upper) but fail to acknowledge the role of other supernatural forces (middle) in the world today. — Hunter, ibid., pp. 30-31.
- See for example the chapter headings of Book Five in Bede, op. cit.
- “Among the miracles which this same man of the Lord… performed by the gift of God, was his foretelling the future by the spirit of prophecy, with which he was highly favoured from his early years, and making known to those who were present what was happening in other places.” — Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, ed. William Reeves (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874).
- St. Patrick and his entourage is also said to have prayed for the sick and for possessed people, and on one occasion blessed a river so the people would catch more fish. — Hunter, op. cit., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 32.
- Sampson, op. cit., p. 28.
- Finney, op. cit., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 127.
- Ibid., p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Bede, op. cit., p. 148.
- Ibid., p. 70.
- Leathan, op. cit., p. 6.
- Or in the words of Finney, “Time and again it was the quality of life of the monks which drew others to their community, moved the hearts of kings and opened doors for new work.” — Finney, op. cit., p. 68.
- Finney notes that “the last time when the spiritual life of England was up for grabs was at the time of the seventh-century ‘conversion’, as historians call it.” — ibid., p. 2.