In 664 the Synod of Whitby was convened by King Owsy of Northumberland to resolve differences between the Celtic churches and the churches of the Roman mission to the British Isles. The presenting issue was a dispute over the date for the celebration of Easter. King Owsy followed the Celtic practice; Queen Eanfleda, the Roman. This created much confusion as some in the royal court would be feasting while others were fasting.
At a much deeper level, however, was the difference in focus between the two traditions. Bishop Colman of Landisfarne, arguing for the Celtic mission, called upon memories of St. John, the beloved disciple who laid his head on the breast of Jesus in the Upper Room – listening for the heartbeat of God. Wilfred of Ripon, arguing for the Roman mission, focused on the authority of St. Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church. The Celts were more centered in experiencing God in nature and in the events and relationships of daily living; the Romans, more focused on the church and its teachings.
King Owsy, holding the tie-breaking vote (actually, the only vote), decided in favor of the Roman mission. In the ensuing years, the leaders of the Celtic mission retreated to Iona and Ireland.
J. Philip Newell (Listening for the Heartbeat of God) muses: “The great tragedy of the Synod of Whitby is that neither the Peter tradition nor the John tradition should have been displaced. Each represents a way of seeing firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.” (page 32)
Our Western Christian tradition is a product of the Roman way of seeing. Augustine convinced Western Christianity that the basic nature of humankind is flawed by original sin. We are dependent upon God and God’s Redeemer to rescue (“save”) us from ourselves and our possession by sin. The church is the mediator of the actions of God and God’s mediator.
Vestiges of the original Celtic spirit persisted to this day in Scotland and Ireland and are gaining a new-found traction in the Western church today. Pelagius, Patrick, and Brigid (to name a few of the Celtic saints) saw human beings as bearing, by their nature, the very image and likeness of God. Celtic spirituality emphasizes “the image of God at the heart of all people (as opposed to just the baptized of the chosen),” as well as throughout nature. (Newell, page 5)
I am intrigued by the suggestion of embracing both John and Peter. Some question come to mind:
Where might we be now if Owsy had decided to embrace a fusion of Johannine spirituality (listening for the heartbeat of God) with Petrine spirituality (embracing the importance of the church’s teaching office)?
How might personal piety and community engagement be integrated? or piety and social action?
How might we approach scripture differently?
Would our relationship with the earth / nature be different?
What would be the role of belief? of faith?
Would story narrative be more (or less) important for faith sharing (evangelization)?
How might our worship be different? What would congregational life be like?
Where would we expect to encounter God? Where would we expect to encounter other Christians?
How might we respond to those who stand outside Christian faith? or to those who stand outside our particular brand of Christian faith?
Perhaps you have reflected upon one (or more) of these questions. Perhaps you would raise other questions. Let’s talk!