Celts, Cornwall and the Twilight of Grace

Celtic Cross 4 


In the Workshop booklet “Celtic Bridges to the future”, under the headings ‘The Spiritual Search’, ‘The Creators Ecology’, ‘Relating to Culture’ and ‘The Mission/ New Monasticism’, I have attempted to reflect on a few of the positive aspects of Celtic Christianity that challenge the church today. Many other aspects such as the Centrality of Christ, respect for the Bible, the importance of Trinity and Prayer could be added to this list. In “Augustine and Pelagius—contrasting stories”, I have contrasted an early ‘Works-Way’ approach alongside a later ‘Grace-Way’ approach to the Christian Gospel and revelation. With a quote from T.H.L. Parker’s book, “John Calvin” (p43), here we come closer to learning more from some of the confusing, mixed aspects of early Celtic/Roman theology.

Pioneering position

The way the early Celitc church drew alongside, and gradually took over many pagan ideas and rituals is a fascinating study in itself. The chosen date for Christ’s birthday on 25 December for instance was close to the festival that celebrated the birth of the Sun. Then Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival from 17 to 21 December was a time of merriment, gift giving and candles, typical of our Christian Christmas. Christian communities often replaced pagan sites and the danger of syncretism (the mixture of religions without discrimination) was always present. Although they knew about the grace of God the wondering mission of the Celtic Saints was always influenced by an underlying drive to escape this world in order to discover and placate God. Then the ‘Cult of Saints and Martyrs’ grew rapidly in the 4th century and was another example of blending the old paganism with Christianity. Competition for Saints corpses degenerated into a superstitious search for religious relics.

The cult was even approved by some Christian leaders like Jerome and Ambrose. These practices mixed with Christianity were typical of a return to the old forms of paganism and idolatry. For instance an Inventory of 24 August 1281 mentions St Piran’s pastoral staff ornamented with gold, and in 1433 Sir John Arundell left a silver casket to contain the head of St Piran which in turn was paraded around the countryside to make money for the church.

Roman position.

By the 14th century the Church in Cornwall was receiving thousands of pilgrims known as the ‘St Piran Cult’. Many came from Ireland and passed through on pilgrimage to Compotella in Spain. People made pilgrimage and left food and alms at country wayside crosses and shrines in an attempt to obey God and find inner peace. The church became very wealthy through trafficking relics and selling indulgences to pilgrims (a form of buying forgiveness). These distortions distracted from the early simplicity of the faith and in an evil, corrupt way exploited the guilt and anxiousness of people. This eventually led to the Reformation.

The Pilgrims striving position.

“By their baptism the guilt of their inherited sin had been forgiven. But they had sinned since their baptism making shipwreck of their faith and thus of their standing with God.

Now they clung desperately to what old St Jerome called the second plank, the sacrament of penance. They were sorry for their sins and wished that they were more sorry. They knew God to be a stern judge who would exact vengeance for their sins. They made confession aware of the promise whosoever sins you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. But where was the peace that should follow? Had they confessed all their sins? Had they forgotten any? Only confessed sins are forgiven. They went on pilgrimages, not for a jolly holiday but always seeking, always grasping after that which lay just beyond their grasp. They gave alms so far as they could afford, they practised self-denial and mortification. Meanwhile they attempted to follow their conscience and the law of God to the best of their ability, trusting in God’s grace that he would, of his free mercy, reward them for their efforts with such an in pouring of grace as would turn their will away from sin to love God with all their being. And again instead of the looked for peace, anxiety,—had they striven to the utmost? They could not tell, it was impossible to know but if they had not done what they could God had not rewarded them.” 

The Christian position 

Scanning history for the spiritual gems of yesterday can both lead to rich discovery or alert us to subtle mistakes.

In Matthew 18: 21-35 Jesus tells the story of a Servant who ran up a massive debt, (10 million dollars according to the Amplified Bible) much more than his ability to pay. The King to whom he owed the debt decided to call for immediate repayment. The Servant begged for time to pay whereupon the King decided to cancel the debt and set him free.

The Servant then went out and came across a man who owed him a mere pittance (20 dollars according to the Amplified Bible) and because he was unable to repay, the forgiven Servant had him put in prison. Why did the forgiven Servant act that way? There is only one explanation: the Servant still felt in debt. The good news of  his forgiveness was in his head but had never really reached his heart.

 This story can bring lessons from the past into clear focus. If a search for a new spiritual discipline, eg. developing intuition, prayer walks, a search for a Guru or meditation exercises etc, simply arise from a sincere but determined self-motivation, it is possible that while having been forgiven by the King of Creation has reached our head, the wonder of really being ‘debt free’ has not yet reached our heart. Christian devotion and obedience springs from the revelation that the debt we owe God has been cancelled, completely dealt with through Christ’s death for us. True peace and devotion to God arises not from our searching or frail efforts to please Him, but from allowing the gift of His total forgiveness to reach deep into our heart. Paul described this new crucial freedom and motivation as the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. This personal realization enables us to live effectively and to recognize that much of Celtic Christianity was lived in the twilight of God’s grace.

Rev E.A.(Ted) Curnow     May 2014.


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