Aspects of Early Orthodoxy in the British Isles

Fr. Michael, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. II, No. 3, October 1999.

The test of doctrinal continuity and Succession can be applied to the Church in the British Isles of the first millennium - one which it met, and with it applied in its time. It was part and parcel of The Church, having the full doctrinal and tactile Succession of the Apostles at its core, and it was jealously guarded. Anyone who pretends otherwise is simply romanticising.

Yet there is a widespread cottage industry of Celtic romanticism in this country and other English-speaking countries which invents all sorts of things and attributes them to the Church in the British Isles of the first part of the first millennium. In this country and America, it is popular to try to assert that the Churchmen of that era held most of the New Age beliefs, practised magic, and were generally only vaguely allied to Christianity. Others try to make modern innovations into western Christianity respectable by finding some word or phrase and extrapolating it to make their modern aberration historically respectable, and they like to choose the early British Church to do that. They try to tell us that the Church in the British Isles before AD 600 was Presbyterian, or Charismatic, or some form of Protestant or that it ordained women, and so on.

If we are to understand the Christianity of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples in our cultural past, it is necessary for us to understand realistically what they really were. They were not some interesting early form of Pentecostal or Primitive Protestant or Early Anarchic. They were an integral part of The Church that we have with us today. That explains perhaps why I (and other canonical Orthodox who know their history) tend to be insistent upon a really clear understanding both of the past and the present.

Retrospective attribution is a lovely game to play in order to make respectable some modern innovation, but it does not pass the test of history. Attempting to ally oneself with respectability either historical or contemporary leaves one open to challenge. If one is studying Celtic Christianity, like it or not, one is studying an integral part of the early Orthodox Church. That is precisely why Orthodox bishops have shown an interest in the restoration of the Church in the British Isles and France. That is why the Russian Orthodox St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, in 1964 consecrated Bishop Jean-Nectaire as Bishop of the Orthodox Church of France, to use the restored Gallican Rite.