The Deep Irish Roots of English Christianity


Growing up a Catholic in Liverpool in the 1970s convinced me that Christianity in England was deeply Irish. Looking back, I now see that the younger me had come to the right conclusion but for tribal rather than historical reasons.

Almost everyone in my primary and secondary schools had Irish last names, or cousins ​​across the Irish Sea, or Irish roots. Some were very recent and others, like mine, dated back generations as far as the 1850s. The particular composition of my cohort had a great influence on understanding the history of the faith in England, as was the still strong legacy in my hometown of the vicious religious bigotry of the first half of the 20th century. It left little room for nuance or facts, and much for the distorted prism of rivalry and antipathy between faiths which too often disfigure organized religion.

In my mother’s childhood in the city in the 1930s, schoolchildren from nearby Catholic and non-Catholic schools threw insults and stones at each other. For my generation, fortunately, there were no more hard knocks, but there was still a fierce religious partisanship that would have made entering a Protestant church – the Anglican word was never used – a sort of treason.

The same spirit shaped how we viewed the story of faith as a kind of competition. In this account, English Catholics had been deprived of their Church by the Reformation, but are now making a comeback thanks to the vast waves of Irish Catholic immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. We have regularly prayed that “Mary’s dowry” – England – be returned to the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The decades that followed – decades of ever-increasing ecumenical efforts but also of decline of institutional religion at all levels – taught me that the story of faith in these islands is a much more complicated story. What really brought this house together was spending the last two years researching and writing a book that tells it through 20 buildings – one per century.

There were most likely Christians in England and Ireland during Roman times. In the case of England they came as a result of colonization but were not allowed to worship publicly, while in Ireland they were found in the ranks of traders who came by sea along roads that linked our common corner of northwestern Europe with the imperial riches of the Mediterranean.

Once the Romans left Britannia (as they called England and Wales) around 410, chaos ensued and the fledgling church there practically collapsed. What rekindled the flickering flames were two very different influences: the first a mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great under Augustine who landed in Kent in 597 and began to convert or reconvert the Anglo-Saxon pagan rulers of the south and east of England; and the second a flood of missionaries from Ireland, the best known of which was Columba, who crossed to Iona in 563 bringing faith to the peoples of Scotland, and later from the north of England into the Midland Kingdom of Mercia whose borders sometimes extended west to Wales and south to London.

Clonmacnoise: Founded by St Ciarán around 548, it was a powerhouse in training and sending missionaries to all corners and to Ireland and then to Europe.

But Columba was only one among many, as I learned during my stay in Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the Shannon. From my collection of 20, this is the church building I chose in the sixth century. Founded by St Ciarán around 548, it was a powerhouse in training and sending missionaries to all over and to Ireland and then to Europe. They took with them wherever they went a distinct type of Christianity, grounded in nature, fiercely independent, concerned with communities not hierarchies, rich in know-how, and steeped in learning and listening.

Columba – Colmcille – had spent time in Clonmacnoise with Ciarán’s successor, before leaving for Scotland. Other missionaries who made similar journeys from there left their mark not only on the north of England and especially Wales, but on all of English Christianity to this day. The larger history of relations between England and Ireland over 2000 years has too often been that of the former imposing its will on the latter. But as far as the character of English Christianity is concerned, the direction of circulation was, for the first millennium at least, the reverse.

And part of the essence of it remains. So while I might not have known why as a child in Liverpool, I was right to believe that English Christianity was, in some ways, deeply Irish. Or, as we prefer to say today, deeply Celtic, although that word can be misleading, since it has come to encapsulate a whole mishmash of beliefs, some Christian, some pre-Christian, some invented.

In 664, in conventional accounts of the historic gathering at the Whitby Synod, that free-spirited Irish influence which had come from the west to Britain and made Lindisfarne in particular a beacon for Europe was dismissed. in favor of the structured and rules-based system. , a carefully calibrated Roman variety of Christianity that had arrived in southern Augustine and had an appetite for political as well as spiritual power. But the truth is much more complex. The lasting influence of the monks who came from or via Clonmacnoise continued to be felt in England in the liturgy, in the language, in certain forms of monastic life, in scholarship and in a certain type of entrenched independence in the face of demands. of the world church. based in Rome that could even have fueled the Reformation.

Peter Stanford: “Growing up a Catholic in Liverpool in the 1970s convinced me that Christianity in England was deeply Irish.  Photography: Mykel Nicolaou

Peter Stanford: “Growing up a Catholic in Liverpool in the 1970s convinced me that Christianity in England was deeply Irish. Photography: Mykel Nicolaou

Those tumultuous decades of change in the 16th and 17th centuries saw this Irish and Catholic influence denigrated, demonized and almost buried, but it never quite disappeared. By the time of my childhood it was flourishing again. Liverpool Catholic Cathedral, opened in the 1960s and known locally as Paddy’s Wigwam, is the last of my 20 churches. The modernity that it still symbolizes in its design, especially with priests and people gathered inside in circles in a common missionary effort that extends from its doors to its community, is also very old. It goes back to Ireland from Ciarán and Clonmacnoise. It only took me five decades to realize this.
If These Stones Could Talk: The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through Twenty Buildings is published by Hodder on October 14

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