Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Williams on the "nonsense . . . written about 'Celtic Christianity'"

"A great deal of nonsense has been written about 'Celtic Christianity', as if this were an intelligible designation for some self-contained variant of Catholic orthodoxy in the early Middle Ages, a variant more attuned to the sacredness of nature and less obsessed with institutional discipline.  Historically, the churches of those regions where Celtic languages were spoken never thought of themselves as part of a network other than that of the Western Catholic Church.  They wrote and spoke Latin, they looked to Rome as the focus of their ecclesial life (Welsh kings as well as English spent their final years in Rome) and they accepted the creeds and canons of the Catholic Church.  The irony is that Bede's concern to show them as mysteriously and suspiciously 'other' to the Roman norm is one of the roots of modern mythologies about a Celtic Christianity that is somehow deeper and more spiritually comprehensive than the orthodox mainstream.  His vague and general allegation that the British were specially susceptible to heresy, and the more specific mention of the prevelance of Pelagianism in the fifth century are part of building up a picture of a disturbingly different style of Christianity.  And even when he is underlining the difference in a positive way  the contrast between the humility and simplicity of the Irish-trained monks and the self-advertising and arrogance of others, past and present  he is reinforcing what modern fantasy has turned into a contrast between institutional 'Roman' Christianity and native Wordsworthian innocence and mystical insight."

     Rowan Williams, "Chosen people:  Bede's three-dimensional view of the past endures, because it celebrates as much as it argues," Times literary supplement, July 6, 2012, p. 15 (pp. 13-15).  The irony lies in the fact that Bede, who "does not let the clear ideological thrust of his narrative simply distort what is before him" (p. 14), did not, unlike our modern mythologists, approve of "the divergences of . . . the British or Irish Churches", such as they were (which is to say "minor") (p. 13).

"'Democratic primitivism is . . . the moral template . . . operative in the historical consciousness for most of Northern Europe'.  It created a Gothic myth for the Swedes, a Gaulish myth for France, in England the myth of 'the Norman yoke' and the ancient liberties of Anglo-Saxons:  the last, however, challenged by the Celtic myth of 'the gay, harmonious culture of the ancient Gaels' crushed under the iron heels of Saxon, Viking and English oppressors.  The ethnotypes survive; they arguably poison political relations to this day.
     "It is important accordingly to realize their more than dubious basis.  No ancient author ever located Celts in Britain or Ireland:  the idea is George Buchanan's from 1582".

     Tom Shippey citing Joanne Parker in The harp and the constitution:  myths of Celtic and Gothic origin, ed. Joanne Parker (Leiden:  Brill, 2016).  "Celticities," Times literary supplement (March 18, 2016):  7.

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