The Celtic Movement and Apostolic Ecclesiology

Comparing Celtic monastic communities and contemporary (or historical) local churches is like comparing apples to oranges. Monastic communities were not the same as the local churches they created.

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A fairer comparison would be to compare local congregations of today with the local churches that were spawned by monastic communities. The diocesan structures actually emerged as a result of the apostolic activity of Celic monastic communities. The historical interplay in the centuries following Patrick between the parish/ecclesiastical structure that evolved and the lingering effects of the monastic communities is a fascinating study in movement dynamics.

Celtic monastic orders were:

Sociologically flexible
Geographically mobile
Relationally transient

These communities were a “way station” for most converts. Except for the “2nd decision” people who made up the core of the monastic community, most participants were transient. They moved through the community and into local churches spawned by the monastic community. For the majority of those who were converted, the monastic community was not their permanent spiritual home.In the early stages of the movement, the abbot of the monastic community was the primary ecclesiastical authority and exercised his leadership over the monastic community as well as the churches the community spawned.

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Historically, a shift inevitably occurred where authority shifted from the monastic communities to an ecclesiastical hierarchy. This shift was closely related to the leveling off, institutionalization, and even stagnation of Irish Christianity. Some church historians would probably describe this as “Catholicism in Ireland coming of age,” but in fact, this shift would more accurately be the beginning of an institution gaining ascendancy over a movement, modality over sodality, and the pastoral over the apostolic.

The more any existing local church can capture and emulate the apostolic functions evidenced in monastic communities, the more effective and vibrant that local church will be. But the church in its local form – by virtue of its very calling and nature – does not have the structural capability of maintaining such apostolic characteristics or momentum apart from the regular infusion of such dynamics from the outside. Hence, the necessity of sodalic entities. This is primarily due to the fact that:

Local churches are made up of “first-decision” individuals.

Discipline and the ability to remove people from the community is limited in the diocesan/parish structure.

Pastoral care, not mission and a commitment to militant expansion, are the primary values of most local congregations. Conservation and maintenance of the fruit, not multiplying the fruit, is the overriding value and focus.

The reason monastic communities through the ages have been able to maintain an esprit de corps unlike the church in its local parish form is primarily due to the fact that monastic communities can be selective. They do not have to include people just because they believe in Jesus. They are not inclusive. Because second-decision people are at the very core, the sociological dynamic is subtly, yet radically different than the church in local, parish form.

The vast majority of those who are followers of Christ will not and should not be long-term participants in monastic communities. Only a small percentage of a believing population will ever effectively function as foundational and long-term members of a monastic community. Those that remain and thrive in monastic communities do so because their gifts and calling are conducive to life and ministry in a missional, apostolic structure.

Monastic communities multiply on several levels:

They multiply new churches
They multiply new monastic communities
They multiply new leadership for both

We know there is more than one way to plant new churches such as: catalytic church planters, an existing church daughtering a new church, a denomination planting a church, etc … The method illustrated by the Celtic movement is a classic form of a sodalic community multiplying modalities and doing so in a very organic way. It has been repeated throughout history. But in the Celtic example, the distinction between the monastic community and the entities they spawned is more distinct with clearer boundaries than in many other historical models.

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For example, in the Methodist movement, the class meetings evidenced many of the characteristics of such missional communities. But rather than maintaining their unique structural separateness, they evolved into local churches and eventually assumed a modalic hierarchy, i.e., a denominational structure. However because of their sodalic roots, the Methodist movement probably sustained its momentum, purity, and cutting edge longer than a movement with modalic origins. Similarly, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Salvation Army, both which started as mission movements, evolved into local congregations and then into institutionalized denominational structure.

However in the Celtic movement, the distinction between monastic communities and local churches was maintained more clearly for centuries. Maintaining this distinctive was one of the main factors contributing to the movement’s spiritual vitality, effectiveness in converting the whole of the society, and the longevity and pervasiveness of its influence. The monastic community, because of its structure, was able to maintain clarity of calling and focus far longer than the local churches it gave birth to and in turn, was a constant source of renewal, deep spirituality, and vision that fed these parishes for hundreds of years.

This model for multiplying churches could be difficult for most westerners because of Western individualism. The strong sense of “community” in the Celtic movement provided a sociological glue that held these monastic entities together and that dynamic is rare in the sociology of the West. Believers in other cultures may have more success in capturing this missiological dynamic.

Best book to illustrate these thoughts is The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter.

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6 Responses to “The Celtic Movement and Apostolic Ecclesiology”

  1. mark sayers Says:

    Hi Sam,

    Good to see you on the web.

    Look foward to checking out what you have to say on this page!

    glad to see you have been hanging out with my crazy and brilliant boss and mentor Al.

    all the best and glad to christen your blog with its first comment!


  2. Patrick Says:

    Very interesting post and one close to my heart. In my estimation Celtic communities also were able to thrive because they had a similar approach to the faith as did our Jewish founders. It was experiential rather than intellectual, with practices and disciplines forming the basis of response instead of formal theology. They were close to nature, and thought in non-intellectual ways which still had great insight as they saw this world holistically rather than dualistically.

    When Patrick came they immediately latched onto the faith.

    Interestingly, even though it was a Western movement of sorts I think there was influence from the East through John Cassian who brought desert monasticism to France in the 5th century and my suspicion, given how Irish Christians formed their communities, also farther north. Cassian would have been an old man when Patrick was starting out in ministry, with his influence and leadership certainly affecting any young and passionate priest of the day.

    These curious desert monastics and orthodox monks jumped over continental Europe and influence what was then the far west, because of their absolute and incredible devotion in all of life.

    They were also extremely influential for Wesley. I wonder then if there is something to be said for finding answers to our Western situation in some of the diverse emphases of the Eastern church, with their different conceptions of salvation, sanctification, and many other aspects of the Christian life.

  3. Sam Says:


    Thanks for the comment. Very insightful and I beleive, correct. There is definitely much that we could learn in the West from the Celtic movement and some of the earlier influences from the East, particularly as we move further into the postmodern era.

  4. Peter Farrington Says:


    I have become convinced that Orthodoxy, especially an Orthodox rooted in the desert spirituality of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, has something significant to say to Western society. It had something significant to say to me since I chose to become Orthodox 11 years ago, in the mission Church, the British Orthodox Church, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.

    Our small, resource-poor, Church has just thrown itself into becoming a Church Planting Movement and I am devouring all the materials on this site and many others to help inform our missional theology and strategy.

    I have wondered whether the old English, and Orthodox, model of Minster Churches might be useful. Where a central semi-monastic community rich in clergy, became a centre for mission in an entire district. With many smaller communities being supported by, and developed from the core community.

    I believe that there is a possibility for combining authentic Orthodoxy, such as was the lived experience of the Celtic churches, with an appreciation of the modern culture in which our mission takes place. That is why the British Orthodox Church is developing a model of many small groups, lay led, praying the ancient prayers of the Church, with less regular liturgical support from our limited numbers of priests. Our aim is to grow local leaders, training them from the beginning to become potential priests and deacons, and building in the concept of being part of a Church Planting Movement from the start.

    We have been much influenced by the ideas of Natural Church Development and believe that our methodology provides for small group membership, inspiring worship, development of gifts, fellowship and evangelism.

    These were surely also the experience of small local groups of believers in the Celtic churches period.

    I believe that our advantage is that we are rooted into the living and authentic Orthodox spiritual tradition, where fasting, prayer, and theosis are the foundations of spiritual practice and aspiration. We are not having to rediscover something, it is in the liturgical air that we breath. We believe passionately that we have a gospel for post-modern man.

    I have printed off tens of pages of documents. I haven’t read so much missiology since I studied for evangelical ministry 20 years ago. I am convinced that historic Orthodoxy, with a considered use of modern church planting thought, has much to offer the UK. We are working towards four new plants this year, working hard to be both British and Orthodox.

  5. Matthew Soeter Says:

    Hi Sam:

    Delighted to find your blog.

    Hope you do something with Organic Church in the near future!

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