10 January 2018

Rowan Williams on "the Celtic Church"

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was previously [Anglican] Archbishop of Wales, wrote (2012) about the Celtic Myth in these words:
"A great deal of nonsense has been written about Celtic Christianity, as if this were an intelligible designation for some selfcontained variant of Catholic orthodoxy in the early Middle Ages, a variant more attuned to the sacredness of nature and less obsessed with institutional discipline. Historically, the churches of those regions where Celtic languages were spoken never thought of themselves as part of a network other than that of the Western Catholic Church. They wrote and spoke Latin. They looked to Rome as the focus of their ecclesial life (Welsh kings as well as English spent their final years in Rome) and they accepted the creeds and canons of the Catholic Church. The irony is that Bede's concern to show them as mysteriously and suspiciously 'other' to the Roman norm is one of the the roots of modern mythologies about a Celtic Christianity that is somehow deeper and more spritually comprehensive than the orthodox mainstream.  ... what modern fantasy has turned into a contrast between institutional 'Roman' Christianity and native Wordsworthian innocence and mystical insight ... if Bede finds a genuine nineteenth-century Catholic echo, it is perhaps more obviously in the mature Newman, who both understood the need for universal communion and valued the spiritual legacy of those who, for a variety of good and bad reasons, had stood on or beyond the edges of that communion."

It occurs to me: there is surely a parallel between the invention soon after the year 1700 of the idea of 'Celtic' nations, 'Celtic' religion, 'Celtic' culture, 'Celtic' identity, 'Celtic' solidarity; and the invention of Africa. Just as the Irish and the Cornish in the year 1500 had no inkling ... not the remotest idea!! ... that they were 'Celts', let alone 'fellow Celts', I would wager that the Zulus, the Hottentots, and the Swahili had no awareness that they were 'Africans', sharing a combined mystical destiny. Nkosi Sikelei Afrika is a text set to a stirring and moving melody: but 'Afrika' can in its origins rest only upon a Western imperialist cultural construct. Based, of course, on a Roman imperialist cultural concept!

I wonder if we invented India and China too. And what about Russia? Where would the world without us?

16 comments:

William Tighe said...


What is the source of Dr. Williams's clear and cogent critique?

RichardT said...

"I wonder if we invented India and China too"

An Indian friend once told me that yes, the British did invent India (in the same sense that we "invented" the Celts and Africa, of inventing a concept of a single identity for what was actually a large and diverse region).

He said it was the best thing we did for them.

Not sure about China though. I think they had a centralised national government long before we got there; they had regulations about cart axle length before Christ, which suggests a national identity.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

I drew upon Dr Williams' Introduction to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: An introduction and selection compiled by Benedicta Ward and edited by Rowan Williams, published by Bloomsbury/Continuum in 2012.

GOR said...

There is a very interesting and informative series on PBS at present – “The Story of China”. In so many ways assorted dynasties were far ahead of the West hundreds of years ago. But they tended to “keep to themselves” and had scant interest in the world outside their borders. At one time it could have been called ‘Greater Mongolia’…

Thomas said...

If I may, this is something I wrote recently as part of an introduction to translations of Tang dynasty Chinese poetry (!):

"China is not so much a country as an empire. Even though the majority racial group, who call themselves “Han”, are socially dominant, it includes a large number of ethnic and cultural identities welded into a single super-state across vast swathes of East Asia. In many ways it is rather like the Roman Empire in the West. Yet, unlike the Roman empire, China today is still very much a functioning and centralised political entity.

The foundations of the Chinese super-state emerged from stone-age and bronze-age cultures along the great rivers of the region. These grew into a series of nation-states which were brought under the control of a single king/emperor in 221 BC. Across two and half thousand years of recorded history, borders have expanded, contracted, disappeared and reappeared. At its greatest extent under the Mongols, its empire reached across central Asia as far West as the Arabian peninsula, into the Russian steppes to the North, and South into what is now Vietnam and Myanmar.

At other times it broke down into chaos or split into warring states which were later reabsorbed under new, strong leaders. Different ruling dynasties have come and gone, some periods being marked by peace and prosperity with tremendous technological and artistic achievement, and others by decadence, murderous intrigue and violent revolution.
Maintaining internal order and control and defending against encroachment by outsiders have been abiding concerns over thousands of years. Nonetheless, nomadic tribes from beyond the Northern and Western boundaries have successfully invaded several times, established their own dynasties to become part of the narrative and the culture.

Yet despite all the upheavals over the centuries, the Chinese regard everything that has happened since the first emperor and the four-hundred year Han dynasty that followed as one common history with profound cultural continuity. The first emperor began life as prince of a state called 秦(qín), a character that derives from rice grains being pounded in a pestle and mortar, so the name more or less meant “rice eaters”. It is pronounced “chin”, which is where the word “China” comes from, although the Chinese, like most nations, believe they are at the centre of the world and call their extensive modern territory 中国 (Zhōngguó), which means Middle or Central Country."

I would only add to that that, unlike Rome, China has never been converted to Christianity.

E sapelion said...

Bede himself was inventing the English people. I expect there were very considerable differences between the dialects spoken in the various kingdoms, which were often at war one with another. Bede's great-grandparents (maybe his grandparents) would have been pagans, so he had a chip on his shoulder about that as well.

Tony V said...

Two words: Wendy Davies.

Stephen said...

How far back do you want to go? The ancient Roman legions of the republic shuddered at the prospect of fighting the Celts more than even Hannibal and his crew. And some of them stayed all over Europe. After all, it was those wild and crazy Celts, the Lombardi tribe, for which Lombardy,Italy is named for example. West of the Rhine, south of the Danube, all those Celts were assimilated into the Empire by the time Hadrian's Wall was built.

As I tell my Italian in-laws, everybody Italian north of Rome (and certainly north of the Po), are Celts by blood. Of course, I tell them this at a distance.

Chatto said...

There's a great scene towards the end of "Lawrence of Arabia" in which Lawrence says that he is working not for Prince Faisal, but for "the Arabs". Auda abu Tayi incredulously replies, "The Arabs? The Howitat, Ajili, Rala, Beni Saha; these I know. I have even heard of the Harif, but the Arabs? What tribe is that?"

Gaius said...

China definitely had a national identity before the Europeans came along, at least among the educated classes, who could afford to worry about such things. Ditto Russia; I think in their case national identity originated mostly in fighting the non-Christian nomads to the south and east. India we have a better claim to creating, since for most of their history northern and southern India have been politically separate, and didn't (/don't) even share the same language family.

William Tighe said...

"those wild and crazy Celts, the Lombardi tribe, for which Lombardy,Italy is named for example"

The Lombards were a Germanic tribe, actually.

Capt. Morgan said...

One may argue that the division of peoples, the creation of borders and nations by the colonizing nations has led us to many an unfortunate and bloody war. Not to mention the divisions of Europe during the reformation as well.

Pastor in Monte said...

I do wish Blogger permitted us to register approval/disapproval in varying quantities. There's lots here in original post and comment that I'l have like to 'like'.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

I thought tbey were Teutons. In particular, the Lombards.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

I thought tbey were Teutons. In particular, the Lombards.

Stephen said...

"The Lombards were a Germanic tribe, actually." Only inasmuch as nearly all the tribes labelled "Germanic" in the Middle Ages were descended in no small measure by pre-Christian Celtic tribes, such as the Suevi, a large group of whom were the long-beards.