Updated: Sep 4, 2020
There is always a backstory to every move of God. One such backstory involved an individual called Aidan who was trained on Iona, the original monastic mission centre planted by Columba in AD563. Aidan had a gentle temperament, he was a humble man. He was willing to give someone a second chance.
Aidan was sent to Northumbria in AD635. However Aidan was not the first person sent there. A previous band of monks had come from Iona to Northumbria under the leadership of Corman, but he returned concluding that the pagan English were hard hearted and unteachable. He called them a stubborn, uncivilised people. His mission failed.
Aidan came with a different spirit. He told Corman "Brother, perhaps you should have given them milk before you gave them the meat of God's word." This is a reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:2 where the apostle Paul says "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready." Aidan took Paul's words and applied them to the people of Northumbria realising that he needed to connect first with gentleness and grace. This is an important missional principle. Find out where someone is at. Have they been exposed to the good news of Jesus? How was it communicated, how did they receive it? Can they chew on the meat of God's word? If not, then don't expect them to receive it, otherwise they will choke and reject it. Instead treat them with kindness, like you would a newborn baby and feed them what they can receive first, helping them grow up to the point they can handle harder things to swallow.
Aidan also told Colman "perhaps you should have put yourself in their shoes rather than try to force them into our mould?"1 This is another valuable missional principle and insight. Should we impose our own culture and way of doing things on someone else's culture? Can we baptise their culture with the gospel using language, symbols and stories people are familiar with to communicate the good news? This is certainly what Jesus did using parables of farming and fishing to teach truth to an agricultural community. The Northumbrians were pagan Anglo Saxons very different from Aidan's life on Iona, he had to adapt his methodology to make it contextual and connect with the way people think and act. Columba had modelled this by speaking to the druids and calling Jesus his "High Druid." Columba built monastic settlements in the former holy places of the pagan people. Rather than reject many cultural ideas he redeemed them. This was not compromise but common ground won for Christ. They redeemed music, art, and even haircuts (the Celtic Church had similar styles to the druids).
There are occasions when they would act contrary to local culture. According to the historian Bede, Aidan redeemed many children from being sold into slavery and educated them, many of whom became priests and leaders in their community. In Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English nation he said "whatsoever gifts of money he (Aidan) received from the rich, he either distributed them, as has been said, to the use of the poor, or bestowed them in ransoming such as had been wrong fully sold for slaves. Moreover, he afterwards made many of those he had ransomed his disciples, and after having taught and instructed them, advanced them to the order of priesthood." 2
When I first planted a missional base in Prestonpans I had to adopt a similar strategy. I had to ask "what matters to people around here, how do they think and talk?" I found out by asking questions. I discovered that one of the main concerns of the community was youth crime and drug misuse. As a result of this, we spent a number of years driving a double decker bus around serving the young people with youth drop ins. Over time we set up a community hub which is now an integrated part of the town with community cafe, outreach worker, youth work, mental health and drug support, a CAP centre and close partnership with the local community council resilience team. We did not expect people to chew on the meat before we offered them milk.
Having a physical location within reach of the people, being incarnational and listening to their concerns has been a vital bridge to sharing the good news. Aidan chose Holy Island as a tidal island because he valued its peace and solitude when the tide was in, and also "the ease with which he could travel across to consult Oswald in his royal castle of Bamburgh, just across the water, and to teach and preach among the people."2
The Celtic Way of Mission is to be connected to God and the people. These rhythms of breathing in and out were essential to Aidan's own personal resilience. As a monastic centre they were both contemplative and activists. They modelled a holistic approach to life.
Ray Simpson, founder of the Community of Aidan and Hilda crafted a prayer inspired by the life of Aidan, here is a portion of it:
God of Aidan, of the gentle touch
Give us the gift of gentleness,
God of Aidan of the generous heart
Give us the gift of generosity,
God of Aidan of the ceaseless prayer
Give us the gift of prayer,
God of Aidan of the burning faith
Give us the gift of faith.
What can the 21st century western church learn from the example of Aidan?
First of all, to be gentle (it is a fruit of the Spirit).
Second, connect with people at their level.
Third locate yourself in the midst of those you are trying to reach. Be one of them, use their language and symbols. Don't try and impose foreign concepts but baptise culture in the good news. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the Celtic Church and explains why they were so effective at reaching people.
In the West we are now living in a post christian (fairly pagan) culture and we have much to learn from the Celtic Way of Mission if we are to effectively and actively share good news with those around us.
Great Celtic Christians, Ray Simpson, Kevin Mayhew books, 2004, p31
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation(Book III: Chapter V); Butler, 406–407.