Tract II (Part III): How Did the British and Roman Churches Compare?

Tracts for the Times 2.0

In this final part of Tract #2 on the Church in the British Isles before 597, I will discuss some of the differences between the Church in the British Isles and the Roman and Continental churches and then provide a summary and chronology of the Church in the British Isles until 597.

Differences Between the British Church and the Roman Church

Although it’s all too tempting to believe in a kind of British exceptionalism, and claims about just how different the Celtic churches were from the Roman Church are often exaggerated, Christianity in early Britain was to some degree independent from Rome and also unique and idiosyncratic in several ways. While the differences matter, especially in establishing a significant degree of independence from Rome, this does not mean the churches differed in terms of theology. The British and Irish churches were independent to a large degree of the Roman Church before around 700, but this does not mean they were isolated or that there was a fundamentally different Celtic form of Christianity. The differences were cultural, historical, political, and even ceremonial, but, aside from the heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism that plagued the British churches in parts of the fourth and fifth centuries, the British and Celtic churches claimed the same theology or faith as the Roman Church.

The relative independence of the British church is highlighted by the fact that when the Roman legions withdrew from Britannia in A.D. 409, the Britons took this opportunity to “declare” their independence from the Western Roman Empire and remove any remaining officials.[1] When Emperor Honorius wanted to write to Britain in A.D. 410, no Roman governors or high officials remained to whom he could write. He addressed letters instead to citizens (polies or civitates).What is often taken as a retreat and diminution of the British church was mostly a retreat from Roman civilization, a circumstance that would have coincidentally reduced the written record of the British Church at this time.

The Irish churches, the churches established by Irish missionaries, and to some degree the British churches were all monastic in organization: in this, they demonstrated a difference from other Western churches. This model of church organization accorded well with the decentralized, not yet Romanized Irish culture and, inevitably, gave the Irish churches a distinctive character in other ways. It’s not just the monastic organization itself that is of importance but especially the way this fact demonstrates a degree of differentness characteristic of the Irish churches.

Differences of the churches of the British Isles from the Roman Church, besides those related to theology and the organization of churches, include, first of all, the well-known different method of calculating Easter and manner of wearing the tonsure. Herren and Brown list the following additional differences found in the Celtic churches, differences which they believe were “defining,” although not necessarily held by the majority: ambivalence about the Eucharist; continuation of the Sabbath alongside Sunday services; hesitancy about infant baptism; and the form of consecration of bishops.[2] Differences of the British churches from those of Rome and others also include differences in baptismal rites, consecration of bishops by a single bishop, and churches (with a few exceptions) dedicated to living founders, and not saints already dead, as was the broader custom. Differences in the British ordination rite which made their way into the Anglo-Saxon liturgies include the anointing of the hands of the deacons; the anointing of the head and hands of priests and bishops; a prayer at the giving of the stole to the deacon; and the rite of delivering the Gospels to the deacons and the stole to the priest at their ordinations. Perhaps most significantly, the British Mass was different from the Roman one, although the only difference that any source specifies is a multiplicity of collects.

The Irish or Celtic system of penance also differed from that on the Continent. The Irish penitentials derived their spiritual teaching from Cassian, who, in turn, owed his teaching to the Eastern monks and desert fathers. Columba, Columbanus, and Willibrord used the Celtic system and books, as did also Boniface and the English missionaries. While in the older penitential system used on the Continent penance was given only after grave sin, and the final absolution was public, the Celtic abbots or priests administered penance more frequently and connected it intimately with spiritual counsel. Following Cassian, the Celtic system was more positive about the ability of men to do penance to atone for their sins. For this reason, they employed a “tariff penance,” in which, through spiritual direction and not just confession, it was possible to prescribe just the right spiritual medicine for sin.[3] This more positive view of the spiritual abilities of men would seem to fit comfortably with the Pelagianism that was prevalent in British Christianity.

It’s unpalatable to remember that Pelagius and Pelagianism came from the British Isles. Pelagius was apparently British (Jerome thought him “stuffed with Irish porridge”), and Pelagianism was strong enough in the British Church to necessitate the Gallic churches sending St. Germanus in 429 to lead a delegation that corrected the British bishops on their Pelagianism.[4] That the Pelagians were reported to be “conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude” strongly suggests that the Pelagians were connected to the centers of power in British culture. The Pelagianism present in the British and Irish churches was related, to some degree, to their distinctives in theology and practice, including the differences listed above. It’s not clear how long this Pelagian strain continued in Britain, but it was greatly lessened by influences from the Continent. All of this, in turn, means that British Christianity continued to be different from Continental and Roman Christianity in significant ways during the 5th century.

To these differences we should add the crucial linguistic differences between the various British groups in the period under discussion and the Continental churches. The common language was not Latin or a developing Romance language but two different families of Celtic. A network of monk-scholars developed in Ireland and Wales, but they and their cultures did not know secular Latin or speak Latin. From the scarce materials available to them, they created a new Latin, consciously sprinkled with rare and obscure words and employing a complex syntax. The spirituality of the desert fathers combined with this new passionate and poetic Latin and a new, immediate way of reading the biblical texts created a distinctive Celtic spirituality, although this distinctiveness can be exaggerated. It is, in part, because of the distinctive form of Latin written by Patrick and others that we now know that it was the British Church, and not the Roman one, that primarily evangelized Ireland (see Tract #2, Part 2).

Finally, although we cannot now discuss these things in detail, we should remember that the collegial relationships of bishops and churches before 597 was not the relationship that bishops and churches had to the Pope centuries later, after the Pope claimed universal jurisdiction, appointed bishops and other ecclesiastical offices (emperors and kings did this for centuries), and became the head of the entire legal system in the Western Church. Rather than confirming that the Roman Catholic Church always existed in Britain, the historical evidence confirms that the British Church originally had a large degree of independence from Rome and that only after Augustine came in 597 and especially after the Synod of Whitby in 663 did the British Church come more strongly under Roman rule.

A Chronology of Christianity in the British Isles

To help make sense of everything I’ve presented in the three parts of this tract, I am providing a short chronology of Christianity in the British Isles before 597, followed by a summary of the evidence I’ve presented. Although we don’t know with any great degree of certainty when Christianity came to the British Isles, we have several testimonies that it got there very early. Gildas, writing in the early 500s states that Christianity came to the British Isles during the reign of Tiberius (14-37.) A few very early writers believed that Aristobulus brought Christianity to Britain in the first century. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, states that when Eleutherius was the bishop of Rome (c. 174-189), a king of Britain named Lucius wrote him asking to be made a Christian. Bede doesn’t discuss whether or not Christianity came to Britain before this.

Tertullian writing sometime before 240 claims that Christianity had penetrated regions of Britain. This fact is confirmed by Origen, writing between 240 and 245. A variety of Roman Catholic historians, scholars, and councils affirmed that Britain was the first among the nations to receive the Gospel, based on the arrival of Joseph Arimathea there. Even if we discount that Joseph probably never made it there, this is an important concession.

We can say with great confidence, therefore, that Christianity made it to Britain sometime before A.D. 200: a first-century date is certainly not out of the question.

The church in Britain continued to grow until the time of the Diocletian persecution (303), when it retreated for about a decade. St. Alban was martyred during this persecution (and perhaps even earlier). The church in Britain recovered, according to Gildas, and by 314 it was still strong enough to have sent three bishops to the Council of Arles. British bishops were also represented at the Council of Sardica in 345 and at the Council of Ariminum in 359.

The “barbarian conspiracy” of 367, as well as the continuing Anglo-Saxon “invasion,” made the Church (and British culture) retreat for a brief period. However, the British Church remained strong enough to send missionaries to Ireland in the early fifth century, including St. Patrick and others. In fact, Ireland was largely evangelized by British missionaries, and not Gallic, Roman, or other missionaries. British civilization receded in general after Rome withdrew her legions in 409, and yet Britain continued to communicate with the Continent. Based on archaeological evidence, including church buildings, mosaics, Christian symbols, and Christian burial sites, as well as the presence of bishops and their sees, it appears as if Christianity was very well-established by the year 400. The conversion of Ireland by missionaries from Britain is strong evidence that Christianity had become dominant in Britain by around the year 400.

The church in Ireland, of course, grew phenomenally all during the fifth century, especially under Patrick’s missionary endeavors and those of his successors. But what of the British Church in the fifth and sixth centuries? An older theory, still commonly asserted, is that the British Church receded so that when Augustine of Canterbury showed up in 597 there was not much left. But this is no longer accepted by the best of more recent scholarship. For example, British synods met with St. Germanus in 429 when he was sent to deal with the Pelagian problem in Britain. The British church met again at a council in 471 to consider the irregular excommunication of Coroticus and his followers by Patrick. The church was the only force in a position in the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain to preserve Latin, literacy, and some degree of civilization and community.

While it’s well-known that traces of the British Church in the fifth and sixth centuries are more difficult to detect than for churches on the Continent, this does not mean the British Church simply vanished. Comparisons with nearby Gaul have not been helpful because of the very different circumstances of the two Christianized regions. It’s not just the Church but all aspects of British culture that become more difficult to detect. While in the sixth century, the Gallic Church was renewed by its fusion with the Franks, the British Church and culture was being subdued by barbarians (the Anglo-Saxons) that did not want to blend with the Britons and had a deep antipathy toward them. More recent research has concluded, however, that there was not as harsh a boundary between Britons and Anglo-Saxons as had been previously assumed. British enclaves among the English remained, as well as Britons working for English masters, and Britain in the fifth through seventh centuries was comprised of what have been called “micro-communities.” Also, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were not monolithic but were comprised of different groups that did not truly congeal until after the English-Roman alliance (beginning with Augustine of Canterbury in 597) that I will discuss in Tract 3.

One of the most salient examples of the continuing life of the British Church in the mid-fifth century is the fact that there was a hierarchy in Britain that assessed candidates for ordination and found that the young deacon Patrick fell short of their standards. The little we know about the British Church suggests that provincial synods continued to meet and that the senior clergy were well educated. Even later, in the 470s, Apollinaris Sidonius, bishop of Clermont, exchanged letters with a British bishop named Faustus. In one of these letters, Sidonius refers to meeting a monk who was passing Clermont, around 471, carrying a new work by Faustus, which Sidonius seems to imply could be recopied and disseminated in Britain.

The best evidence for the existence of a substantial British Church as late as the sixth century is Gildas himself. When Gildas wrote his On the Ruin of Britain sometime around 530, he spent considerable time lambasting the British priests for their decadent morality and lack of pastoral care. This means that within a little more than 50 years before Augustine came the British Church was still well-established, even if in need of revival. Gildas’ learning, evidenced by his knowledge and rhetorical skill, demonstrates that late antique learning and its book culture still existed in the mid-sixth century in Britain. Gildas was not only well-read: he also references two other British authors. At the time Gildas was writing from some center where learning still existed, the eastern British churches were succumbing to the Anglo-Saxons. It’s crucial to remember that Britain was not a uniform kingdom, that the Anglo-Saxons conquered parts of Britain at different stages, and that the British Church survived longer in the West and the North.

The British Church in England survived in all regions of Britain until the late sixth century and the coming of Augustine of Canterbury and the Roman mission. Ken Dark’s summary of his work on Britain at this time is striking:

Rather than being the area of the former Roman West in which Late Roman culture was most entirely swept away in the fifth century . . . quite the opposite would seem to be true. It was within the mainstream, but was the only part of the West in which the descendants of Roman citizens lived under their own rule, with their own Romano-Christian culture and in recognizably Late Roman political units, into the sixth century.”[5]

Eventually, however, the British church established early on began to change under the influences of the Saxon immigration/invasion and the monastic movement. I have time to sketch only the simplest outline. From around 410 to 440, a Roman Britain persisted, which produced its own emperors and continued to support urban ecclesiastical centers. Saxons began to emigrate to Britain in the early fourth century, and by 441 they were numerous enough to revolt against the Britons. Current scholarship believes that the Saxon invasion was largely a migration of population, not an armed conflict. They came in large part as soldiers invited to help the British deal with the invasion of the Picts from the north and the sea raids of other barbarians. Eventually, the Saxons revolted against the Britons: while the early Saxon revolts were successful until about 457, but from 460 to 495 the British were more successful. British dominance continued until about 570, at which time the second Saxon revolt, lasting from 570-600, was successful.

The timing of this secular history is important to our understanding of what became of the British Church. You will have noticed, for example, that the Saxons emerged victorious over the Britons at almost exactly the same time St. Augustine was sent by the Pope (I will explore this vital connection in Tract 3). Due to the weakened morality and organization of the church in Britain, the church which Augustine found in 597 was relatively weak. But Augustine, as we shall see in Tract 3, only came to one local kingdom in the east, where British Christianity had most weakened. In Kent, where Augustine came before King Æthelberht of Kent and Queen Bertha (already a Christian), the church had also become Anglo-Saxon.

Summary of the Church in the British Isles before A.D. 597

The Church in the British Isles was planted long before 597, certainly before the year 200 and possibly in the first century. There is no record of the involvement of the Bishop of Rome in establishing Christianity during all of this time. Even St. Patrick, who went to Rome, was trained and sent by the British Church, and not the Roman Church. This British Church, planted very early, was well-established enough by the beginning of the fourth century to send bishops to international councils, train and send missionaries to Ireland, and to continue the life of the church in Britain in spite of the tumultuous upheavals of the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 409, followed shortly thereafter by the barbarian Saxon invasion. While remaining in contact with the Roman and other Continental churches, the British Church was in no way “under” the Roman church at this time. This is clear not only from the number of ways in which the churches of the British Isles developed in unique ways but will also become clearer in Tract #3 when we discuss the British bishops’ rejection of Augustine’s insistence that they adopt the Roman ecclesiastical customs.

These indisputable conclusions radically revise the common narrative about how Christianity first came to the British Isles with Pope Gregory’s sending Augustine to Britain in 597.

Next time, in Tract #3, I will be discussing what became of the church in England after 597. (Hint: we will discover that the English church did not immediately come under Roman control, even in 597!)

  1. Significantly, the withdrawal of the Roman legions and declaration of British independence was preceded in 407 by a revolt of the Roman legions, who elevated Constantine III to emperor, who ruled as co-emperor with Honorius from 409-411. In part because Constantine left Britain undefended from the Saxons, the Britons expelled his officials.
  2. Christ in Celtic Christianity, 5-6.
  3. Some have suggested that the Irish practice of tariff penance led to new theories about the nature of God’s justice, temporal punishment for sin, a treasury of merit in heaven to pay the debt of this punishment, and indulgences to offset that debt.
  4. Interestingly, it was the deacon Palladius, later sent to Ireland in 431, who persuaded the Gallic bishops to send Germanus.
  5. Britain and the end of The Roman Empire, 230.


Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.


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