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Celtic Worship?

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Date July 14, 2003

Postmodern believers want to use all of their senses, stressed Hall. They want smells and bells. They want to see icons and statues, as well as drama and digital clips from movies. They look for God in nature, as well as scripture.

Geoff Thomas writes, "I am a Celt, born and bred in Wales. We Welsh, along with the Scottish, Irish, the inhabitants of the Isle of Man, the Cornish and Bretons make up the living remnants of the Celtic civilization which dates back 2,000 years. The Christians amongst us look in surpise at what is claimed to be ‘Celtic spirituality’ which has developed a cult status amongst such groupings as the Southern Baptists in the USA. For example, the following article of Terry Mattingly describes one such church":

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran, and even bagpipes.

This coming Sunday is the day before the feast of St. Patrick.Thus, worshippers at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., will sing the great prayer of Ireland’s missionary bishop:"Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me. … I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through a belief in the Threeness, through a confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation."

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service. Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church. The goal is to use ancient rituals to touch postmodern souls."Postmodern people – like Baptists in general – like to take some of the old and mix it up with some of the new and then put it all together. We’re comfortable with the unusual juxtapositions that may occur when you do that," said Karen Swallow Prior, who selects and reads many of the rite’s Celtic prayers. She is an English professor at nearby Liberty University."We don’t think that what we’re doing is getting back to the ancient ways. We think that we’re using elements of the past in ways that make sense to people who are alive today. The goal is to create something new."

In the lingo of Southern Baptist life, Rivermont is known as a "moderate," or even progressive, congregation. In addition to the Celtic service, it also offers the plugged-in, energetic contemporary worship common in "seeker-friendly" congregations across America. The bottom line: Different kinds of people worship in different ways.The contemporary service is larger and the pews are filled with Baby Boomers who have become the established, middle-aged core of the congregation. For them, pop praise choruses and a chatty atmosphere have become normal. What was once "modern" is now strangely "traditional."Meanwhile, said Prior, the Celtic service is attracting a unique blend of young adults, who are drawn by its beauty and mysticism, and the elderly, who appreciate peace and quiet.

Church leaders refer to this as a gathering of the "pre-moderns and the postmoderns." What was once "traditional" is now strangely "innovative.""How will the postmodern church worship?" asked Chad Hall of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, writing at "One thing we know about postmoderns is that they are extremely experiential.That is, they learn, grow, develop and commit based on their own experience with truth not according to someone else’s encounter or someone else’s retelling of an encounter."

Postmodern believers want to use all of their senses, stressed Hall. They want smells and bells. They want to see icons and statues, as well as drama and digital clips from movies. They look for God in nature, as well as scripture. They want to encounter God, not mere words about God.But this doesn’t mean they want to change their beliefs.

The faithful at Rivermont Avenue remain steadfastly Baptist, said music minister Wayne Bulson. While they use elements of ancient liturgy, they believe that the Irish Bannock bread is still bread and the grape juice is still grape juice. They are embracing symbols, not sacraments."People want a sense of the ancient, but they still want something that they feel is appropriate to their lives, today," said Bulson. "I mean, we’re still Baptists. We’re not Catholic or Orthodox or anything else. . . We’re not pushing for Baptist monasteries. What we’re trying to do is find out what will be meaningful to our people, what will help them experience God in their lives."We’re not proud. We’re willing to borrow things from all kinds of traditions, as long as they work for us."

By TERRY MATTINGLY Scripps Howard News Service March 12, 2003. Terry Mattingly ( teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council)

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In the recent Journal of Welsh Religious History New Series, Vol. 2:2002 published by the Centre for the Advanced Study of Religion in Wales, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Wales, Bangor, LL57 2DG the following important review was published and is reprinted here by permission of both the author and the publishers:

Celtic Dilemmas: The Quest for Celtic Christianity by Donald E. Meek

A. M. Allchin

This is an important and valuable book for all those who are concerned with the study and understanding of the Christianity of the Celtic peoples during the last fifteen or sixteen centuries, and also for those who are concerned with the constantly growing interest in this subject which has characterised the last twenty or thirty years. As the writer of the book himself says, his ‘work was stimulated by the wave of intense popular enthusiasm for matters "Celtic" which began to emerge in the British Isles in the late 1970s’ (p.1).

The book is written by a man who is in many ways exceptionally well equipped to speak on this subject. He is a distinguished professor of Celtic studies, and at the same time someone who grew up in a Gaelic speaking family on the island of Tiree, where his father was a crofter and a Baptist minister. It is evident at once that the writer feels intensely dissatisfied with the common interpretation of ‘Celtic Christianity’ given in much of the popular writing which has been published on this subject in the last twenty years. As a scholar he finds it slipshod and superficial, as a believer he finds it sentimental and subjectivist, and as a lover of his country he finds it insulting and neo-colonialist. We discover in these pages a man who sometimes feels angry at what seems to him the falsification of things that are dear to him, at times pained by the way in which people with no right to these treasures, seem to have wanted to appropriate and exploit them for their own ends.

As will, I hope, become clear in the course of this article, the last thing I wish to do is to present this book in a primarily polemical context. It is evidently intended to initiate a debate, but it is a debate which I believe could easily have become a friendly and constructive discussion, and that is how I think it needs to be read. But it is important to recognise at the outset that at least from time to time the book has a strongly polemical edge to it. I quote an account of a compilation of ‘Celtic’ prayers and devotions, published in 1994.

"The book bears as close a relationship to genuine Celtic tradition (as defined in terms of language and culture) as sand does to moon-dust, the use of the word ‘Celtic’ here seems to denote no more than a haggis of citations which defy definition by any other designation. Yet, in some quarters it is nevertheless acceptable – and evidently profitable – to slap the term Celtic on hybrid complications of this kind, and to present them to the unknowing public. In this way the term ‘Celtic’ is further emptied of meaning, and rather than being strengthened, genuine Celtic culture is being undermined by covering it with layers of highly dubious interpretation. This is a particularly obvious example of the manner in which the more insensitive wing of the Celtic Christianity movement, operating within a majority mass culture and under the cloak of religious acceptability, adopts certain characteristics of a minority culture and exploits them shamelessly for its own commercial ends." (p.11)

There is no doubt that the writer here is angry, though we observe that he has not lost his sense of humour! It seems to me that his anger has perhaps carried him on to say more than he really meant to. I very much doubt whether the compilers of the volume in question, or their publishers, made a great deal of money out of the project. I doubt still more whether the two compilers of the book had commercial considerations in their minds at all when they first set to work on it. But if we want to understand more fully the origin of Donald Meek’s own point of view, then we can turn to a wonderful and very personal chapter of this book which he has given us.

The chapter concerned is the last; chapter 14. In it Donald Meek tells us of a day he spent as a school-boy in September 1965, on a day trip from Oban to Iona via Staffa on ‘The King George V, David MacBrayne’s splendid but increasingly elderly pleasure steamer’ (p.245). He is there at the invitation of the Captain, himself a friend of Donald Meek’s father, and a fellow inhabitant of Tiree. As he describes his reactions during the day, we begin to see how much it means to him to have grown up in a Hebridean island where the Gaelic language was part of the bread and butter of daily life and where the experiences of working on a small island farm introduced him to the hardness and constraints of island life as well as to its beauty and its deep sense of community. Moreover, he had known from childhood the assurance and support of a firm and articulate evangelical faith, and though in the course of time that faith may have developed in some ways, it has never been rejected or fundamentally undermined. He tells us in this chapter how after school he went on to University, to specialise in Celtic studies, first in Glasgow and then in Cambridge; it was in Cambridge that he had the opportunity of working with scholars of the calibre of Peter Hunter Blair and Kathleen Hughes.

All this he tells us, in telling us about that memorable day with its first visit to Iona. Certainly to be on that island could only be exciting and even moving for this highly intelligent local boy. But the memory which has really stuck in his mind is not the memory of the abbey ruins but the memory of the ship itself. ‘She was so splendid on that particular day, so majestic in her black and red livery, with her rust-bespattered lower plates and her two lofty funnels blowing oily smoke and damp steam. She was to me then, and ever will remain, the greatest ship in the world’ (p.249)

For this impressionable teenager it was the ship itself which remained the ‘dream image’ from that memorable day. ‘Columba gradually lost much of his romantic spell, though never his attractive significance as a powerful figure of history associated with an island that, on a clear day, seemed almost within easy sailing distance of Tiree. I myself was ultimately heading away from these islands, away from the Columba of boyhood dreams, and into a world where the mind and the intellect were prepared for rational enquiry’ (p.249).

It is altogether natural that a boy whose childhood had been spent in the Hebridean islands should have this sense of intense identification with the ship which was taking him out into his first contact with the wide world outside. But how equally natural that for the great majority of us, whose experience of childhood has been one of urban and suburban sameness, our first encounter with the incomparable grandeur of the highlands, and with the unlooked for presence in such a remote place of monastic buildings like those of the Abbey of Iona, will leave very different memories and impressions!

I must not give the impression that the whole book is made up of this kind of account of personal reactions and impressions. For the most part it is a cogently argued refutation of the understanding of ‘Celtic Christianity’ which the writer has been studying with growing fascination and dismay, in a large number of mostly popular books, over the last twenty or more years. But it helps us to understand his particular unease with what seems to him their English and Anglican tone of complacency, smoothness, compromise and at times sentimentality. Being myself responsible for at least one very small corner of that large variegated tapestry, I think I know what he is reacting against!

Rather than attempt to give a systematic account of the book as a whole which is filled with erudition and insight, I should like to give three examples of particular topics which seem to me unusually interesting and worthy of attention.

1] First, there is his discussion of the influence of Rudolf Steiner, along with Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan, in the development of the whole contemporary picture of Celticity in general and its spirituality in particular. It is very typical of Donald Meek’s careful observation of things, that he has noticed the way in which the Steiner-influenced publishing house in Edinburgh, ‘Floris Books’, has had a large part in the republication and distribution of the ‘Carmina Gadelica’, a text which he rightly sees as playing a fundamental role in the development of the contemporary understanding of Celtic Christianity. As we might expect, Donald Meek singles out that aspect of Steiner’s fascination with the Celtic past of our two Atlantic islands, which is most deeply unacceptable to the rational, critical historical mind. That is to say he fastens on its links with the lost civilisation and continent of Atlantis.

‘What happened in the vicinity of the Hebrides, in Ireland and Scotland, in ancient Erin, on the neighbouring islands between Ireland and Scotland, as well as in northern Scotland itself? It is there we must seek for the kernel of those peoples of Celtic origin, who had most of all preserved the ancient Atlantean clairvoyance in its fullest purity. The others who had wandered more to the east, having developed further, no longer kept their earlier connection with the ancient gods. In contrast the Celtic peoples preserved the capacity to experience the old clairvoyance, and therefore they were fully immersed in the element of individuality.’ (p.68)

The psychic gifts which often seem to characterise people from the Hebridean islands, are here interpreted in terms of the last gifts inherited from the lost civilisation of Atlantis. These speculations of Steiner throw light on his interest in other places, such as Tintagel and Glastonbury, and help to account for some of the wilder and more esoteric developments of legend around these places in the last century or so.

Donald Meek goes on to point out that George MacLeod was attracted to some of Steiner’s ideas about the spiritual dimension of humanity and the spiritual potential of the natural world. He points too to MacLeod’s admiration for the work of the Steiner communities with handicapped people, an admiration which has been shared by some of those who have been influenced by the teaching of Jean Vanier in relation to mental and physical handicap. Is it perhaps possible that in the development of Steiner’s vast and all-inclusive system, there were at least some genuine and indeed precious insights into some of the less obvious elements in the development of the human person? Insights which may yet prove worthy of inclusion in a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person? That at least is a question which deserves attention and where I and the author might well come to different conclusions.

2] The second point which I would like to look at comes from the second part of the book where the author is examining the current ideas about the saints in ‘Celtic Christianity’ in comparison with a more exact view of the historical evidence for the period of the first millennium. His chapter 7, ‘Between Faith and Fiction: the Profiles of the Celtic Saints’. Here as in other places the author argues strongly against what he sees as the tendency to soften and sentimentalise the hard rugged edges of the Celtic vision of holiness and Christian life. ‘The lives of the Celtic saints reveal a very robust spirituality, demonstrating forcefully that they were not soft-centred people, always making friends with paganism, or acting gently when there was need to be strong. They were tuned to another wavelength altogether’ (p.175).

Donald Meek goes on to stress that the primary characteristics of the Celtic saints are to be found in their devotion to Christ; in that light he seeks to understand their qualities as described in the traditional lives. First among them he sees their power, shown above all in their power over nature. In their use of that power they could sometimes be not only fierce, but arbitrary and indeed vengeful. He stresses the elements of conflict which we find in the lives of the saints, conflict with themselves, conflict with nature, conflict with the powers of evil. I wondered whether in this section the author had laid sufficient emphasis on the way which the Celtic saints are depicted as men and women of prayer, people who restore communion between heaven and earth, God and humanity, and therefore who restore communion within the whole family of creation. Was it not perhaps in this life of prayer, rather than in their feats of asceticism, that the saints attracted their contemporaries to gather around them, and to find their own way towards God? Was it not also perhaps for their friends and disciples, that the moment of death was not seen to destroy the bonds of prayer and affection which had grown up in their life together, and which hence opened the way for the saint’s name to be remembered and cherished in that particular place, a memory which at least in some way still exists today in so many small and remote places?

3] The third point which I should like to mention is one which directs our attention towards a later chapter of Donald Meek’s book, in which he speaks of the way in which the spiritual life developed in the Evangelical and Protestant centuries of the life of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Here he treats in a preliminary way questions to which I hope he will return later. There are whole areas here where the great majority of us can only wait in hope for the presentation of new material both in prose and poetry, translated from the Gaelic language. Some elements of this largely eighteenth and nineteenth century history, seem to be particularly linked with Scotland. There are other elements where possible comparisons with the Evangelical movements of Wales immediately begin to suggest themselves. One feature in the story which particularly attracted my own attention, and which I had found referred to briefly in other books, was ‘the motley band of local lay leaders, known as "the Men"… known for their depth of insight, unusual utterances and otherworldliness’ (p.221). Donald Meek recognises that they have been thought by some to have a resemblance to the qualities attributed to the earlier Celtic saints, though he himself believes that resemblance to be largely accidental. Here again there is a matter where one would long to know more. This twelfth chapter, ‘Reforming the Wild West: Protestant Perspectives on the Celtic Past’ promises much for the future.

I said at the beginning of this review that I believed that this book would make a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of the large and complex issues which it raises. Donald Meek himself, in dedicating his book to the memory of his two teachers at Cambridge describes them as people ‘who brought the past to life, and who would have enjoyed this debate’ and in doing so points us in the same direction. Among the questions it raises are, how do we in fact bring the past to life? What is the role of the academic specialist here and what of the popular exponent of historical themes? Why is it that religious traditions seem to need from time to time to renew themselves out of the stories from which they originate? Why is it that the changing conditions of today impel us to look back at the past with new eyes, to ask fresh questions of our inherited tradition? Questions such as these are also to be found in a more recent publication which in a different way covers much of this ground, the collection of studies ‘Celts and Christians: New Approaches to the Religious Traditions of Britain and Ireland,’ edited by Mark Atherton of Regent’s Park College in Oxford, published by the University of Wales Press in 2002. Here, in an interdisciplinary collection of essays, containing contributions from historians and philologists, theologians and students of literature, many of the questions raised in this book are examined again from a variety of view points and with a variety of conclusions. A reading of it might make an interesting sequel to the reading of Donald Meek’s remarkable and thought-provoking work. We seem to be embarked on a process here which may lead us further than we had expected.

The Quest for Celtic Christianity by Donald E. Meek was published in 2000 by Handsell Press, Edinburgh. ISBN 1-8718-2851-1, pp.viii + 273, illustrated, £9.95.

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