An Orthodox retreat on Iona


The Celts are the basic blood-stock of Europe. From about 500 B.C. wave after wave of Celtic tribes arrived in Britain and in Ireland. Every British and Irish person therefore has Celtic blood in his veins. They are our ancestors; and their Church is of interest to us as it was the first Christian Church in Britain.

The Orthodox Church has a deep sense that God is Trinity-in-unity and is the origin of all that exists. The Celtic love and reverence for the natural world accorded well with this and helped them to embrace the Christian faith when the Good News reached them from the East via Mediterranean and Atlantic sea routes.

As in the East, Celtic monasteries in Britain and Ireland were the centres from which Christian Faith spread. Eastern and Celtic traditions of Liturgy and Ritual were similar:  Eucharist celebrated on Sundays and Feast days; Holy Communion - normally administered in both kinds - given to children after Baptism.  In very many ways the Celtic Church showed its affinity with the Orthodox Eastern Church.

How did Christianity first arrive in these islands? We have no certain knowledge. Possibly Roman soldiers, or traders, brought the Faith here. Ancient tradition says that Jesus himself came to Glastonbury as a boy. It is not impossible.

“A church without saints is a church without heaven,” (David Adam). “Their lives speak eloquently of God” (Cardinal Hume). The story of the Celtic Church is the story of its Saints.

St Martin's Cross,
Iona (8th Century)

  Gildas tells how in a persecution of Christians at Verulamium a priest had to hide. A sympathetic Roman soldier, Albanus, learnt the Christian faith from him while helping him to escape disguised in his own cloak. For this, Alban was himself seized, confessed faith in Christ, and was executed; the first British martyr. The city of St. Alban’s is his memorial.

A cloak also figured in the life of another Celtic saint, Martin of Tours, who greatly influenced Celtic Christianity in Britain. Like Alban he was a Roman soldier. On a bitter winter day Martin found a shivering beggar. Immediately he cut his cloak in two, giving the man half. Later in a vision he saw Christ clad in that half cloak. To the angels around him Christ said, “Martin, who is only a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” After the army he became a hermit and his sanctity drew many to him, begging to be made monks. One was Ninian, a Celtic Christian from the Solway Firth. In 397 after Martin’s example he built Britain’s first stone church, the ‘White House’. While Pax Romana left Britain, Ninian brought Christ’s peace.

Columba was priest, poet, politician; and a saint who (like us) was at first a great sinner. In hot temper he led his clan into the bloody battle of Culdremne; many lives were lost. For this, full of remorse for his actions and at the advice of his soul-friend, he went into voluntary exile, taking with him the customary twelve disciples and determined to win for Christ by missionary work as many souls as he had caused to perish at Culdremne two years before. Thus he came to Iona.