Differences Between the Celtic and Roman Churches


A consideration of the main points of difference between the Roman and the Celtic Churches will rather incline readers to believe the old historian Gildas, that the British were in many respects hostile to Roman customs. However, a word of warning is necessary, since the differences would not today seem to have been fundamental matters of faith but rather to have related to matters of practice. While Roman Christianity fitted itself into the mould of the municipal institutions of the empire, 'Celtic' Christianity had grown out of the tribal system of the peoples who had embraced it.


There was a difference between the Roman and Celtic methods of determining the date of Easter, which, though intrinsically of an unessential nature, became the crucial point of controversy in the seventh century. The real state of the controversy and the important facts to be remembered are these, - that before the Council of Nice the practice of the British harmonised with that of the Roman Church; but that owing to its relative isolation from the rest of Western Christendom, the Celtic Church had never adopted the various alterations and "improvements" which, on astronomical and not on theological grounds, had been from time to time accepted by the Continental Church. It might also be argued that the need for change was never accepted by the Celtic Church.


One of the conditions for union which St Augustine offered to the British bishops was that of their agreeing to administer baptism according to the custom of the Roman Church. There is no immediate evidence to show the way in which the two churches differed, but it probably lay in one or more of the following:

(a) Single Immersion - The practice of immersion, as against affusion, is suggested by the large size of still surviving fonts. Single immersion was the custom in Brittany up to AD1620 and it prevailed in the sixth century in Spain.

(b) The omission of unction - In AD1074, Lanfranc complained to the high king of the Irish that their infants were baptized without any chrism. However, this was certainly not the custom in earlier years in the Irish church as is shown in St Patrick's letter to Croticus c. AD497, where he alludes to chrism, along with the sign of the cross and the white chrisom, as all connected with the baptismal rite. It may be that there were differences in practice to be found within the various geographical branches of the Celtic Church and that Augustine sought to bring about conformity rather than the adoption of a major new practice.

(c) The "Pedilavium" - or ceremonial washing of the feet after baptism.


The Roman tonsure was formed by the top of the head being shaved close, and a circle or crown of hair left to grow around it. The Eastern tonsure, also styled St Paul's tonsure, was total. The Celtic tonsure, also known as the transverse tonsure, consisted in shaving all the hair in front of a line drawn over the top of the head from ear to ear. The Romans traced their form to St Peter, and attributed that of their opponents to Simon Magnus. Although not a matter argued by St Augustine himself, this question of the tonsure (together with that of Easter) formed the subject of the most frequent and violent controversy in Britain during the seventh century. There are traces of the same controversy in France, where a Saxon colony at Bayeux had copied the Celtic tonsure from the Bretons before AD590; and in Spain, where a tonsure like the Celtic was condemned by the fourth Council of Toledo.


There is evidence that the Celtic church allowed the consecration of a bishop by a single bishop rather than the three required by the Roman church. In the Life of St Kentigern, Jocelin records, "Rex et clericus Cambrensis (in Glasguo) ... accito de Hibernia uno Episcopo, more Britonum et Scottorum, in Episcopum ipsum consecrari fecerunt". In Ireland the custom of single consecration still existed in the eleventh century, and was complained about by St Anselm writing to the Irish king Tirlagh, AD1074, and by Lanfranc writing to King Muriardach, AD1100.

It is strange that this custom should have prevailed in the British Church since three of its bishops are said to have been present and to have subscribed to the canons of the Council of Arles, AD314, which ordered that at least three, and if possible seven, bishops should take part in every episcopal consecration. Neither can one, with any certainty, determine that the British custom owed its existence to matters of practicality. It would certainly have been exceptionally difficult to gather as many as seven bishops in any one place but there would have been sufficient to make it relatively easy to gather together three. The reader should remember the essential difference in the Celtic church in that bishops had no fixed diocese and that it was not unknown to come across two or three bishops at any one time within a Celtic community. It is said that Colum Cille was greeted by a number of bishops when he first came upon Hy (Iona) - and that they tried to turn him away!


As a rule the churches and monasteries of the Celtic communities were not named after departed saints, but after their living founders. Through history these ancient names were often preserved although there was a significant movement at the time of the Romanisation of the Celtic church, especially evident in Alba, to replace the old Celtic names with dedications to saints of the Roman Calendar. Occasionally the original name was added to, but always after, the name of the Roman saint, but more often the Celtic name was actively erased.

The consecration of a church or monastery was preceded by a long fast. Bishop Cedd of the East Saxons said that he had learned a rule part of which said that they should first consecrate with prayer and fasting those places which had been newly obtained for founding a monastery or church. Accordingly he fasted "for the whole forty days of Lent", and the exercise of fasting and prayer being completed he built a monastery, which is now called Lastingham, and established it with religious customs, according to the practice of Lindisfarne, where he had been educated.


The question of the real and important differences between the Liturgy and Ritual of the Mass is dealt with in detail on another page and I leave the reader to enquire there for a more complete account of this central topic. However, important as the differences are, there is equal significance and importance to be found in the similarities between the Roman and Celtic Liturgies and Rituals. It is difficult to the point of impossibility to argue that these were separate churches; rather it should be accepted that they were sister churches.



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