The Celtic Way of Mission - 5 - creating strong missional centres - learning from St Cedd

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

One of the strategic approaches of the Celtic Church was to establish monastic centres where young men and women were trained up to become effective leaders and missionaries. A great example of this is found in a family of four brothers who went to live on Holy Island to be trained at Aidan's school. Each brother became a priest and two of them Cedd and Chad went on to become missionary bishops.

Cedd (pronounced like kedd) who came from a noble Northumbrian family is described as "an evangelist of the Middle Angles and East Saxons in England." 1 He was born in 620AD and died of the plague in 664AD in Lastingham where he had founded a monastery. Although his life was cut short, he was hugely active in bringing the good news to a predominately pagan people. His life is a model for how we can reach out to those from a completely different spiritual and cultural background and see a positive response to the good news, although he had his failures as well as successes. Some places he visited were highly resistant to the message of Christ and he had to sow seeds and leave them there to germinate, expecting a later evangelist to reap the work he had done.

His story of spiritual formation and how it prepared him as an evangelist highlights the importance of discipleship and mentoring. Aidan's model of whole life training (they learned how to speak Latin, copy manuscripts and brew beer) is a case study on why we need grow mature well rounded disciples who become evangelists, and who can also release others to multiply the work of mission. Aidan would adopt twelve men (other places had mixed or double monasteries) and invest in them. This principle of training twelve, just like Jesus, and raising them with strong foundations, missional skills and a good education was a highly effective way to win influence both with the nobility and the common people. It was often the case that the local kings would ask for the monasteries to come and influence their people, by teaching, healing, and baptising. Having done this, they would set up new monastic centres and houses of prayer.

Cedd established monastic communities in a wide number of places. He is rumoured to have been in parts around Loch Tay in Perthshire such as Aberfeldy and Fortingall 2 (on route between Iona and Lindisfarne, with one tradition claiming that the Fortingall church was originally dedicated to St. Cedd and his remains are buried there). Much further south, we know that Cedd worked extensively around Essex (he was ordained as Bishop of Essex by St Finian on Holy Island) and is particularly noted for founding centres of mission at Bradwell-on-Sea and East Tilbury where many pagans turned to Christ, baptising them in the name of the Triune God. I find it interesting that the base of Holy Island was used as a springboard for sending missionaries across what is now the UK. Iona and Holy Island literally became incubators for missionaries who established new incubators in new locations.

The character, competence and charisms of these holy men and women were first developed in these incubators. It was the quality of their preparation that made them so effective. The goal was to form Christ in them and release their God given talents and assignments. There are accounts of Cedd as both evangelist and prophet when he made prophetic declarations about future judgments to come. He was clearly a bit of a fiery preacher when it came to matters of injustice. In terms of APEST (Ephesians 4:11) that means that Cedd was probably a prophetic evangelist with an apostolic calling.

When Bede, the ecclesiastical historian, wrote about these Celtic monks he said "When anyone met such a monk or priest on the road they ran to him and bowed, eager to be signed by his hand or receive a blessing from his lips. Whenever he spoke he was given an attentive hearing... When a priest visited a village, the people were quick to gather in some cottage to hear the word of life, for priests and clerics always came to a village solely to preach, baptise, visit the sick and, in short, to care for the souls of its people." 3

Cedd was an excellent linguist, he was appointed translator at the Synod of Whitby. He could speak Latin and Gaelic, Pictish and Saxon. This made him a great communicator and translator, well able to share the good news with the different tribes across the British Isles. It is interesting that the monastic mission centres would spend so much time training their young men in cross cultural skills. They clearly felt that cross cultural mission would be most effective when they could both 1) listen well to their hosts, discovering their stories and history 2) communicate well in the language of the people, and 3) share the good news in both a biblical and culturally relevant way making new disciples.

What does the story of Cedd teach us today? What can we learn and apply from his life?

First of all, that he was hand picked, trained and mentored in the missional life by Aidan. This included a good education, a Way of Life built around prayer, a handle on cross cultural mission and a lifelong appreciation for soul friendship.

Second, that Cedd saw himself as a sent one. The word apostle literally means "one who is sent." Most people prefer the word missionary but it means the same thing. Cedd was a missionary bishop.

Third, that they were resilient. When they failed, they moved and tried somewhere else.

Could the church today learn to establish similar centres of mission? Could spiritual formation be at the heart of effective evangelism? And if so, how do we create similar places and cultures in the modern world? In my personal life, I am moving to Holy Island this March 2021, and I will be leaning into how I might be a catalyst in working towards training and mentoring men and women to become missionary evangelists who know how to establish their own bases where they go.

If you want to join in with this process, please let me know.


2 This is suggested in The Gaelic Kingdom in Scotland: Its Origin and Church, The Lairds of Glen Lyon, and The Book of Garth and Fortingall, books written by Charles Steward and Duncan Campbell.

3 Taken from Ray Simpson's lectures on the Celtic saints from the Tay to the Humber Sept 2020

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