The Church in Scotland has origins going back to very early times, at least to the second century, and in territories that were inaccessible to the Romans.
Cradle of the Scottish Church
The origins of the Church in Scotland go back to the dawn of Christianity. The first known historical reference to Christians in Scotland comes from Tertullian of Carthage around the year 200: with evident reference to the territories of the Picts, he wrote that areas of the Britons inaccessible to the Romans had received the Word of Christ.
A form of local episcopacy did not exist is Scotland for more than 500 years after Christ, and, probably as a result of this, disputes in the formulation of ecclesiastical doctrines – which characterised the Church in Italy, Carthage, Egypt and Asia Minor – were unknown.
John Howie, author of the ebook Biographia Scoticana (Scots Worthies), writes in his introduction: “The Church of Scotland knew no officers vested with preeminence above their brethren, nor had anything to do with the Roman pontiff”. The first recorded attempts by Rome to assert episcopal preeminence and papal authority in Britain date to the end of the 6th century, with the arrival of Saint Augustine in Kent. Augustine, however, never managed to achieve the objective of his mission.
By the mid 5th century, Rome's imperial influence in Britain had vanished, and the formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in what was to become England constituted a further barrier between the Celtic churches in Britain and Ireland on the one side, and the continental churches of Europe, Asia and Africa on the other. The effects of this separation were to prove extremely beneficial to the cause of Christianity among the Celtic populations of Britain and Ireland, and also among the English.
In Britain and Ireland, the Church was not bound to the central authority of any episcopal see, either local or Roman, and as a result, Celtic Christianity acquired a form of expression that made it unique, whereby the monastery, headed by the abbot, would become the centre of spiritual missionary zeal.
Celtic monasteries were the heart of biblical study, contemplation and prayer. Priests and laity resided in wooden houses built around a central church, and among them were pupils learning the scriptures while following the monastic way of life. The community comprised whole families, with women and children equally taking part in biblical studies and ascetic contemplation under the guidance of the abbot.
Celtic priests were free to marry, as the Gospel does not impose celibacy on the priesthood. Farming and craftsmanship for the community's upkeep were an essential part in monastic life, as dedication to Christianity came without financial recompense. In fact, contrary to the practices established within the institutions of the Roman clergy, there was no form of secular church tax to maintain the priests.
The Benedictine monasticism that was to rise in Italy in the mid 6th century and gradually spread throughout western Europe, required that monks and nuns be confined within the monastery and obliged to obey an oath of celibacy and seclusion. Celtic monasticism, which precedes that of Saint Benedict, was truly the opposite: abbots and their followers would travel among the people of the surrounding country, imparting knowledge of Christ's Gospel as the alternative to pagan beliefs.
Among the Christian missionaries in Scotland is Saint Ninian, a Briton born around the year 360, possibly in Cumbria or neighbouring Galloway in southern Scotland. The earliest written historical reference to Ninian is found in a passage of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, compiled around 731 by the Northumbrian monk Bede, who states that his knowledge of Ninian is based on traditional accounts passed down orally.
At the time of Bede's writing, Rome had been attempting to subdue the Celtic Churches of the British Isles, including the Celtic-inspired English Church of Northumbria, with the intention of destroying their independence. Seen under this light, Bede's statement that Ninian had been a bishop, and furthermore that he had studied in Rome, could be an embellishment on the part of the author to detract authority from the independent Church established among the Scots, Picts and Britons who inhabited the land that was to become Scotland.
Historical evidence shows that, during the 5th century, the period when Ninian was present in Galloway, papal authority and Roman ecclesiastical customs had no hold whatsoever in Britain. Even the idea presented by Bede of an episcopal see in Cumbria or in Galloway in Ninian’s days does not fit a realistic description.
The first bishopric was established in Galloway around the year 730 by the Northumbrians, precisely in the time when Bede wrote his book, whereas Cumbria was evangelised by Saint Kentigern of Scotland in the 6th century, becoming part of the episcopal see of Glasgow more than one and a half centuries after Saint Ninian’s foundation of Whithorn.
The Monastery of Whithorn in Galloway
In the year 397 Saint Ninian founded a church in Galloway, a region inhabited both by Picts and Scots and bordering to the north of Cumbria, which was in the territory of the Britons. Bede recounts that Ninian had the church built of stone and painted white, hence its name Whithorn, deriving from old English (Hwit Aern) and meaning: white house.
Archaeological excavations at Whithorn have confirmed the existence of a fifth century structure that was the original church, and also of a number of small houses with central hearths that would have formed the monastic complex where the community's members resided. The results of the excavations tend to confirm that Ninian’s church and monastery were no different to so many others among the Celts, apart from the church being made of stone rather than of timber.
The evidence shows that Saint Ninian did not exercise episcopal authority in a town, but lived as an abbot within a monastic centre which he himself had founded. He accomplished this following his spontaneous desire to reveal the Gospel among people to whom the Word of Christ was mainly unknown.
It is reasonable to believe that Saint Ninian took his missionary zeal further than his monastery, travelling the country of the Picts and the Scots as far as central Scotland, or perhaps even only within the region of Galloway. However, he did this in accordance with Celtic customs, reaching out to the people living in the country and bringing the good news of Salvation, and not from an episcopal chair as was the custom of the Roman clergy.
In the course of the 7th century, Whithorn and much of Galloway became part of the kingdom of Northumbria, which in that period had expanded into a popular union between Anglo-Saxons and Celts.
The Dispute Between Rome and the Scottish Church
In the year 635, an Irish monk by the name Aidan was sent with his companions from the Scottish island-monastery of Iona to Northumbria at the request of king Oswald, who wished to bring Christianity to his people.
A previous attempt by the Pope's envoy to Kent, Paulinus, to convert Northumbria through mass baptism, had completely failed, compelling Paulinus to return to Kent in the year 633. Two years after the departure of the Roman envoy from York, Aidan was consecrated bishop and founded the Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne, from where he and his companions of the Celtic Church successfully evangelised the Anglo-Saxons of northern England.
But Rome held claim to the keys of Saint Peter, and as a result of this gigantic assertion, papal authority began to spread through Northumbria starting from the year 663, after the Synod of Whitby. It was at this synod that the Christian King, Oswy, under the belief that Rome held the authority of Saint Peter, rejected the Celtic Motherhood of Northumbria’s Christianity. He chose Rome, opening the door to papal influence within the established Northumbrian Church.
The historical evidence in this regard – that Rome had no foothold in Northumbria and Scotland prior to the year 663 – is further proof that Ninian, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, approximately 250 years before the Synod of Whitby, was extremely unlikely to have had any relationship to Roman ecclesiastical authority, thus demonstrating that his monastic centre in Whithorn was of Celtic conception.
- John Howie, Biographia Scoticana (Scots Worthies), Project Gutenberg.
- The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Written by D. Alexander
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Celtic origins of the English Church: