Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Synod of Whitby: Culture Clash

A pivotal moment for Celtic Christianity took place in 644 at the Synod of Whitby, a small coastal town in Northern England. At this time, a Synod gathered and heard the claims of both Celtic and Roman followers. The Roman camp came out on top, and the Celtic perspective ever so gradually faded away-at least in structure. (But as evidenced in any contemporary bookstore, the spirituality has carried on). On a deeper level, the Celtic-Roman conflict was a culture clash; one culture deeply rooted in nature, mysticism, and small rural communities or clans; the other, urban centered, driven by a powerful institutional church, and rational based theology.

How did Celtic and Roman Christianity differ? For one, Celtic Christianity was somewhat unstructured, and comfortable being so. Celtic independence, sometimes bordering on the eccentric, was demonstrated with an inclination to wander from place to place. Celtic monks basically wandered through Europe, creating learning centers, and teaching. Celtic Christianity was also different in that it was built around the monastery and abbey, and not the Cathedral, or Bishop. In Celtic communities, the Abbot reigned supreme. In the Celtic view, a Bishops role was evangelical rather than administrative. To the Roman, Latin based Christian, the Celtic way, seemed of a different time and age, perhaps a passing age, a rural way, full of small clans, small stone beehive shaped chapels, and people who both loved and lived off the land. Put another way, it was a barn based vs. a building based Christianity.

Two key areas of disagreement-which seem insignificant now in our age of ecumenism-were of tonsure and the date of Easter. The Celts accepted a form of tonsure which they had adopted from the Druids. They shaved the front part of their heads from ear to ear, allowing the hair to grow on the back. By contrast, the Roman tonsure, like that of Friar Tuck, was a shaved circle on the head surrounded by some hair. The Celts, pointed out rightly I think, that the Roman tonsure was a sign of the aristocracy, whereas the Celtic tonsure was the sign of a slave. A more real concern, was over the correct date to celebrate Easter. The Council of Nicea in 325, had determined the proper way to date Easter, but practices still were not uniform throughout Christendom. This is understandable as we are talking about huge distances between countries, as well as diverse people, and languages. The Celts had adopted many local customs. The Celtic celebration came from a grafting of Easter onto the pagan spring feast of Beltaine, which was held around May 2. The Roman branch wanted the Celts to get "with the program" of the rest of Christendom.

It’s a shame that at Whitby, as many other points in church history, that compromise could have prevailed. The Roman Church, perhaps more proactive, and more politically astute, sought to create a wider base of authority. It was for this reason Augustine (not to be confused with the African Augustine) was sent to Kent in 597 to spread the arms and ears of Rome throughout the country. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before both Celtic and Roman missions crossed paths.
When the sides first meet, there was opportunity to work together. According to the historian the Venerable Bede, the Celts originally opened their arms to their Christian brothers and were open to dialog. Bede tells a wonderful story in The Ecclesiastical History of the Celtic Churches readying to welcome Augustine. The Celtic delegation consulted a Druid hermit on how they should proceed. He told them that should Augustine stand and welcome them, they would know that he would be open to them and accept them as equals. If he stayed seated, beware. As it turned out, Augustine remained seated, and the Celts were naturally suspicious.

In almost fairy tale like fashion, matters came to a head when King Oswyld of Northumbria sought to be married to Queen Eanfred. Oswyld had spent some time at Iona and had been deeply moved by life in that monastic community. Queen Eanfred, originally was from Kent, held a Roman perspective. So while the king was feasting and keeping Easter, his wife was fasting and keeping Palm Sunday. For the peace of his kingdom, and the more immediate goals of saving his marriage, Oswyld called for a Synod to be held at Whitby in 644, where both sides could present their arguments.

The Synod was not really a synod in the normal use of the word, as it was not officially called by Rome. It was a "Witan", a council called by a king, and a political gathering of nobility and advisers at which the king would arrive at a decision and pass judgement. The spokesperson for the Celts was Coleman, Bishop of Lindisfarne. In turn, he was supported by the Abbess Hilda, and Cuthbert, who was prior of Melrose. The Roman cause was upheld by Wilifred, abbot of Ripon. An interesting side note, is that Wilifred had once been a student at Lindisfarne, but had parted with Celtic ways, and gone onto Rome for further training and education.

What accounts we have of the Synod, also come down to us through Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History. According to Bede, Coleman was allowed to present the Celtic case first. He stated the "customs I observe were taught me by my superiors, who sent me here as a Bishop, and all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have observed these customs". Coleman went onto add that the date of Easter came from John’s gospel. Winifred responded "Our customs are those that we have seen universally observed in Rome, and by men of different nations and languages...the only people who stupidly contend against the whole world are those Scots and their partners in obstinacy, the Picts and Britons".

Not the kindest of words, but it was game, set, match! To no one’s surprise, King Oswyld decided in favor of the Romans. Colman, we are told, returned to Ireland bitter and defeated. Yet not all Celts disagreed with the outcome, and many viewed the result as inevitable. Cummian, an Irish abbot, remarked, "What thing more perverse can be felt of our church that if we say, "Rome is wrong, Jerusalem is wrong, Antioch is wrong, the whole world is wrong: only the Irish and the Britons know what is right, these peoples who are almost at the ends of the earth, and you might say, a pimple on the chin of the world".

What lessons, if any can we learn from a Synod which took place almost 1500 years ago? I would say that what was destructive about the Synod was that a particular "perspective" or "brand" was lost. Celtic Christianity no doubt thrived and almost single handedly contributed to the Renaissance of Europe rescuing it from the Dark Ages. What was sad, is that it was essentially attacked in the name of uniformity. Perhaps another lesson, is that the church needs to be more respectful of local native cultures and traditions. The need to adopt and adapt is important and healthy. This is something I have keenly observed in Hawaii, with the customs of Polynesians and Micronesians. Churches should feel free to introduce local worship customs including the hula, and natives languages as a way of enhancing worship.

Celtic Christianity "officially" ended at the Synod of Whitby. However, almost fifteen centuries later, Celtic Christianity and spirituality remain wildly popular and alive, appreciated by both Protestant and Catholic alike, all over the world. It is a spirituality which takes into account the heart, and imagination, as well as the world. These converging trends play to the strength of Celtic Christianity, which at its heart is ascetic, mystical, and visionary.


  1. Since the Synod of Whitby, most of the Christian church has been authoritarian. This is what you must do. That is what you must not do - or else...

    And that is not only the RC church!

  2. Must we be authoritarian? Perhaps in some ways-love, forgiveness, in sharing our message to the world!