Thursday, 16 April 2015

Monasticism and the Early Irish Church

In a most useful and stimulating paper, Prof. Liam Tracey, OSM, offers a critique of the 'Celtic Church' as it is popularly understood by modern enthusiasts for 'Celtic Christianity'. In passing, he also mentions the view that more recent scholarship has advanced of the part played by monasticism in the early Irish Church:

The ‘Celtic’ Church: what was it like?

In the past, great emphasis was placed on the monastic organisation and nature of the early Irish Church. The theory is that the earlier Roman organisation based around the figure of the bishop and some kind of what today would be called ‘diocesan’ structure was replaced in the sixth century by powerful abbots and abbesses. This monastic structure was also tied to the then political structure. This view has been considerably modified in the last number of years.[ix] While abbots may have set the agenda, bishops seem to have still held the power.[x] The pastoral care of the people seems to have been very much under the direction of the bishop assisted by his clergy.[xi] Monasticism was an important dimension to the life of the early Irish Church but it was not the global phenomenon that has sometime been presented. Indeed, monasticism was growing right across the Christian world, as Christianity was being introduced into Ireland. Patrick himself valued consecrated life and tells us so in his Confessions. But this monasticism was not the structured monasticism of later ages, largely based on the Rule of Saint Benedict. There was discipline in these monasteries and we have evidence of different kinds of monastic rules, but the abbot seems to have been free to mix and adapt these monastic ordinances for his own particular house.

There is little in Irish monastic observance that can be considered unique. Certain elements are stressed, emphasis is laid on the ascetical life, at least when compared with the Rule of Saint Benedict. Irish monasteries became centre of learning and centres for the training of missionaries who went out to evangelise in Britain and on the European mainland. As is the constant repetition in this article, perhaps in the past these particular emphases on mortification have been sometimes exaggerated. Nor should the opposition between heroic Irish monasticism and the more moderate monasticism of the followers of Saint Benedict underscored by earlier historians be easily accepted today. Some monasteries seem to have mixed elements of Irish monastic rules with the rule of Saint Benedict. As Thomas Charles-Edwards has noted:

[…] Columbanian monasteries were the principal agents by which the Rule of St. Benedict was spread in Western Europe before the Carolingian period.[xii]

It simply cannot be held that all Irish monks were shining examples of heroic ascetical lifestyles. Many of the leading monks came from wealthy families and it would be a mistake to imagine that all of them renounced the privileges that came from their rank in society. Indeed, as has been pointed out by Kathleen Hughes, the remains of meat bones have been found in many monastic sites, which would have been at variance with the monastic rules.[xiii] By the seventh century Christianity is well established in Ireland and dominates the cultural landscape. This society was highly organised and within its hierarchy were many prominent ecclesiastics, who may well have owed their places in this societal ranking to their birth. It is presumed that Christianity did not disband the hierarchical structure of pre-Christian Ireland but rather inserted itself into the already existing structure and modified it for its own purposes.

Notes

[ix] A major impetus for this changing viewpoint is the work of the Oxford based scholar, Richard Sharpe, see Richard Sharpe, “Some Problems Concerning the Organisation of the Church in Early Medieval Ireland,” in Peritia 3 (1984): 230-270. Also the important study, Colman Etchingham, Church Organisation in Ireland AD 650 to 1000 (Maynooth: Lagin Publications, 1999, reprinted 2002).

[x] What was different from other parts of the Church was membership of the synod, which was central to the authority of the Church in a particular region or province. Charles-Edwards has noted how the composition of Irish synods shows the complexity of Church organisation, see Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, 277: ‘The composition of the Irish synods shows that the contrast between an episcopal and a monastic church is too simple. True, unlike its Frankish counterpart of the sixth and seventh centuries, the Irish synod was not confined to bishops. Yet neither was it confined to the heads of the great monastic churches. Instead, the synod shows us an Irish Church which allowed for several sources of authority.’

[xi]One model does not necessarily exclude the other as some scholars seem to believe, see Charles-Edwards Early Christian Ireland, 259: ‘Good evidence exists, therefore, for two claims, apparently, opposed to each other: both that the Irish Church was episcopal and that it was peculiarly monastic in that the authority of abbots might override that of bishops.’

[xii]Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, 384.

[xiii] Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin, The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church, 2d. ed. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997), 38-39.

Liam Tracey, OSM, Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean? - Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits.

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