Chasing the wild goose

What is Celtic spirituality?

We are becoming used to hearing rumours about 'new moves of the Spirit'. Brace yourself, yet another may well be about to break upon the British church scene. EN investigates ......

In the partial lull after 'Toronto' many have been awaiting either the next 'movement of the Holy Spirit' or the next outbreak of 'counterfeit Christianity' - depending on one's perspective and biblical understanding.
One strong candidate, lately to have appeared on the scene, may well be the return of 'Celtic spirituality'. The evidence is contained on an audio tape (and a transcript of the same), currently circulating widely, purporting to be of a meeting of Gerald Coates' Pioneer church leaders in March of this year. Apart from anything else it makes extraordinary listening. The 'After The Rain' Pioneer conference held March 7-10 had as its centre-piece a series of addresses by Roger Ellis, leader of Revelation Church, Chichester.

Revival call

The basis of this address was a powerful call to the conference leaders present to respond to a 'God-given call' to the Pioneer group of churches to lead a national spiritual revival (a new movement of the Spirit) based on the re-discovery of Celtic spirituality.
The scenario Ellis presented to the conference was that the Celts 'arose in an amazingly pagan culture' which was into 'every form of totem pole and phallic symbol that you could ever imagine. Every form of divination and demonic power encounter that you could ever think of.' Ellis claims: 'God is saying to the church that we're going to have to learn a new language. It is a language of symbols ...whereas in the past people wanted to rightly divide the word of truth, now people were (sic) wanting to absorb the word of truth.' He goes on, 'I believe the Christian Celts have been waiting to be discovered by a charismatic Christian mission movement.'
Given that the Scriptures do indeed call us to continue to 'rightly divide the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2.15) whether, by this, Ellis means 'absorb' by some form of mystical osmosis or by living it in practice, is unclear. To live it in practice would, of course, require 'rightly dividing' it first.

Symbols

Ellis also makes his preference for vague symbol over specific truth only too clear: 'I love the Celtic statements of faith that were often drawn, that were contained within their crosses and within their symbols. Drawings were used for kind of doctrinal statements. That would be great wouldn't it, if you went to speak at a CU (Christian Union) and instead of 'let's see your doctrinal statement,' they sent you a nice Celtic symbolism thing, wouldn't it for a change? That'd bless me no end.'
His esteem for Celtic spirituality is both laudatory and uncritical. But, what needs to be highlighted (above all else) from Ellis's talk is the way in which he singularly fails to distinguish between Celtic Christianity (strongly biblical with its central emphasis on preaching the Word) and Celtic culture and spirituality (a heady mix of pagan and mythological heathenism mixed with Christian belief). Ellis constantly refers to 'The Celts' as if they were a thoroughly Christian people, which they most definitely were not.
Certainly, it is not widely appreciated that the Celtic Christian monks did spread the Christian message in these Isles well before Rome's Augustine ever set foot here (just before Easter in 597 AD). And yes, the Celtic monks ushered in a great time of learning and many worked ceaselessly for the gospel. But Celtic spirituality generally was also undoubtedly severely tainted with mystical, pagan and downright devilish beliefs that have today been thoroughly assimilated into the contemporary New Age Movement. None of these critical distinctions are made by Ellis who, throughout his talks, used 'Celtic Christianity', 'The Celts' and 'Celtic spirituality' as interchangeable references to a thoroughly Christian culture.

Bizarre images

Ellis's addresses are littered with such references, bizarre images and a truth-mixed-with-mysticism approach which does, in truth, reflect the general spirituality of Celtic culture. Here is a taster:

'we must embrace the Celtic spirit to move on'
'the creation was good but it had been molested by demons'
'there was a tremendous warrior spirit in the Celts'
'the miraculous was normal'
'In...spiritual warfare, they would bind around them the Trinity before they went into battle.'
'The Celts were into rhythm. They were into the rhythm of life.'
'Brendan...crossed the Atlantic in a tiny coracle and discovered America eight centuries before Columbus. I don't think he necessarily got anybody saved there, but he had a good time sailing and discovering icebergs and all sorts of whales and strange animals.'
'Loose this new spirit Lord! Begin to loose it! Loose! Loose! Loose!'
'Waves of your spirit God! Waves of your spirit! More of you!...Wade into them!' (There is now a frenzied audience and an electronic background whirring noise).

Peregrinati

But perhaps, the most significant single insight into the nature of the spirituality on offer here is Ellis's call: 'I want to invite you to catch the spirit of Peregrinati and the spirit of the wild goose.' This was repeated a number of times. The intended symbolic imagery here is of the wandering nature of the Celts. Ellis says: 'And the goose - the wild goose - became their symbol (i.e. the Celts) of the Holy Spirit.' The Rev Alex Muir, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister and an expert on Celtic Christianity, disagrees. 'The adoption of the wild goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and its false connection with the Celtic Church came later and is to be condemned as unbiblical as well as unhistorical.' The Rev. Muir adds: 'I am also unhappy about emphasising Celtic spirituality because of the ways in which wrong perceptions of it could encourage New Age attitudes and ideas within the church. We should not be considering our Celtic roots but our biblical roots.'
General 'Celtic spirituality' and its symbolism owes as much to paganism as to Christianity. Hence the heavy reliance on symbolism related directly to mythology and legend. (A visit to any Past Times shop will make this clear.)
As if the content alone is not enough, the tape has to be heard for the full hypnotic flavour of the meeting - in short, strong, uncritical, psychological peer manipulation. Throughout the talk slow, rhythmic insistent drum-beats are played. At times they are accompanied by the steady playing of notes on an organ. Elsewhere we hear Irish folk music and music similar to that played by Enya. From time to time the music goes from quieter and reflective moods through to more intense pounding rhythms which occasionally reach a crescendo.
The audience participation is equally intense, moving from moaning to cheering, chanting and occasional screaming (including, apparently, Ellis himself). Frenzied audience activity at the 'highpoints' sounds much like tribal war-dances complete with whoops and Red Indian-like wailing. What needs to be borne in mind throughout is that this is not just a small church heavily into its 'Torontoism' - it is a very large group of church leaders.

Tertullian and Pelagius

At the conference Ellis also makes references to 'Tertullian - the great historian' and to Pelagius. No reference here, however, to Tertullian the heretic, rebuffed, not as Ellis maintains as having difficulties with a 'Roman' church but, simply because of his distinctly unorthodox (i.e. unbiblical) teachings. Tertullian was the most prominent of the theologians latterly among the heretical Montanist group - a forerunner of today's sensuous Signs and Wonders Movement. Ellis's apparent ignorance of the massive early church upheaval caused by the Pelagian heresies is very apparent.
Pelagius, a British monk living in Rome and not in Britain, denied the biblical concept of original sin and urged human ability towards salvation through purely human effort, apart from God's grace. He also rejected the biblical teaching that human will has any intrinsic bias towards sin. Ellis describes him as a 'great New and Old Testament theologian'.

Anglo-Saxon repentance?

Towards the end of the meeting Ellis urges the need for Anglo-Saxons to repent to the Welsh, Scots and the Irish (as Celts - a trifle simplistic today) for the historical wrongs done to them to 'share their destiny'. (Surely we can only repent of our own sins?)
This invitation culminates in an unfortunate Chinese Christian being ushered forward for Ellis to rhetorically ask the audience: 'But what about what the Brits did to the Chinese?' (The audience was presumably as mystified as any of us about what the Brits did to the Chinese). Ellis goes on: 'This man hasn't got a Celtic bone in his body. But actually, if you study his language, you'll discover there's symbolism in his language that goes way back beyond Christ to the Flood, and even beyond that to the Garden. And, Andy, we want to say to your nation, you're going to discover your roots in God, which are also in Christ. Because its the symbolism in your picture-culture language is actually the Cross, and the Flood, and it's all there.' There can be no doubt that such (confused) thinking does have much in common with syncretistic Celtic spirituality, but sadly, it does not have much in common with the true biblical spirituality of our Lord and the apostles. In fact, the Word of God (Bible references and teaching) is almost completely absent from the whole tape.
Throughout its history the church has witnessed many experientially-based pseudo-Christian 'movements of the Holy Spirit' including Montanism, the French Prophets and the radical Anabaptists (also mentioned positively by Ellis in his talk). Such movements have always been rich in symbols and images rather than in Word and Truth. Whether this could be the latest variation on a theme we have yet to see.

Peter Glover