Updated: Oct 23
I recently taught this subject on a course called Developing a Way of Life on behalf of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. Mission is one of the way marks. The following are notes from my talk.
Mission as a Way of Life is a broad subject so let’s begin with definitions. The word mission comes from the Latin word, missio, meaning “to send.” The first disciples of Jesus were sent ones. The word apostle in New Testament Greek literally means ‘a sent one’.
The word apostle was originally a secular word adopted by Paul. It was used to describe an ambassador or envoy of the Roman government. This apostle figure would represent the authority and culture of Rome. They would represent the values and practices and establish them in a new location. The apostle Paul used this image to describe sent ones who would represent the kingdom of heaven in a new location, living out the values and practices of the Christian community.
To live missionally as a Way of Life is to express our faith in Christ as sent ones. This is good Christology. Jesus said that he came to do the “will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work" (John 4:34).
The reason I am particularly interested in the Celtic Way of Mission is they are a great example of a missional movement. They established colonies of heaven (as author Ian Bradley called them) that were catalysts in communities and culture.
However, the Age of the Celtic saints should not be romanticised. It was a brutal and challenging time. It was a time of great upheaval and transition. The Roman Empire was fragmenting, the legions had effectively abandoned Britain by 411AD leaving people to deal with incoming tribes and power struggles.
I believe that today in the midst of a global pandemic and a post Christian culture, the Celtic church has much to teach us about living a missional life.
What did Celtic mission look like and can we mimic their Way of Life?
I see a pattern that emerges that includes four key missional practices:
3. Community living
4. Contextual mission
The first Celtic saint to make it to Scottish shores was Ninian who came to Galloway in 397AD. He trained in Rome, spent time with Martin of Tours who inspired him to monastic living and was commissioned to reach northern Britain by Pope Siricius.
These men and women of God were under authority. They were sent and sending. They often came with a band of twelve who then went on to repeat the process. When Columba went to Iona, he took twelve with him. Others like Aidan took on twelve young disciples and sent them out as missionaries to establish monastic bases in other locations.
An example of this is St Cedd who was trained in Aidan’s school as one of the twelve. He became a missionary bishop and established centres of mission as far apart as Loch Tay and Essex. He was described by Bede as "an evangelist of the Middle Angles and East Saxons in England."
Mission was not an individualist endeavour; it was trained, commissioned, and team based. They were strongly aware of their sense of call and sentness.
Mission as a Way of Life was both activist and contemplative. Prayer was at the heart of everything. Rhythms of prayer and daily offices were normal. Most of us are familiar with the famous prayer Patrick’s Breastplate but it also included the words:
Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart's idolatry,
Against the wizard's evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
The Celtic Way of Mission is a prayerful path. Prayer is front and centre and it acknowledges the wrestling match in the spiritual realms, trusting fully in the power and authority of the risen Christ.
Cuthbert while based on Lindisfarne is described as a person of prayer. It is said “He went out into the sea until he was up to his arms and neck in deep water. The splash of the waves accompanied his vigil throughout the dark hours of the night.”
photo: unsplash - Aaron Burden
The Celtic church did not plant churches in the modern sense but communities of faith (this is a question of ecclesiology). Their mission began with prayer and community living. They lived out their Way of Life and actively shared their faith at ground level.
When Bede, the 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."
This practice of reaching out from a monastic missional base is like breathing in and breathing out. They received to give away. Their sense of sentness provoked them to go out to the highways and byways.
The Celtic missionaries were able to win over large populations in areas previously dominated by druidic nature religion. How was this possible? When Columba went to speak to King Brude he allegedly told him “Christ is my high druid.” He used the cultural forms and language of the people to communicate truth.
They established monastic centres on land and islands like Lismore that had previously been holy places to the existing people. These first missionaries were hospitable and hard working which gained the trust of the people and like the druids they were healers. The name Lindisfarne apparently comes from healing properties of the plants on the island.
They respected creation and saw it as way to point to the Godhead which aligned with the paganism of the population. The circle image on the Celtic cross recognised this.
They practiced listening to hear both the whisper of the Spirit and the undertones of the local people. When Aidan went to Northumbria he famously told the former missionary who had accused the people of being hard hearted. He said “Brother, perhaps you should have given them milk before you gave them the meat of God's word."
When we consider these four things, sentness, prayerfulness, community and contextual living, they are clearly the Way of Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus and imitate his life.
Here are three questions to consider:
1) Our definitions of mission – are they too narrow?
2) Do we see ourselves as sent ones, representing the kingdom of heaven?
3) When we consider the Celtic church, what practices are inspiring and worth imitating?