Many of those interested in Celtic Christianity have tended to speak of a conflict between the theology and spiritual life of the Celts and the Anglo-Roman Church, a conflict which is said to have come to a head at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when Rome achieved its victory over the “independent” Celtic Church.
The truth of the matter is that there was no such conflict. The Celts, Old English, and Romans of Western Europe shared one Faith — the Apostolic and Patristic Orthodox Faith. And they held this Faith in common with the Romans of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the lands from which the Faith had first emerged and in which it had been defended by the Fathers of the Church at the great Oecumenical (“Empire-wide”) Synods.
During this era, the Western Churches were organised in the same way the Eastern Churches are to this day: each local Church, while united in the common Faith and Holy Mysteries of the whole Church, was free to manifest this Faith through its own distinctive theological emphases, as well as liturgical forms and spiritual practices.
It is in this light that we must see any discrepancies between Celtic and Roman usage in the 7th century. The Synod of Whitby, far from being an earth-shattering theological dispute, was simply a council called to settle the usage to be adopted in the Church of Northumbria, where the different practices introduced by Irish and Anglo-Roman missionaries had created confusion in the local Church.
It is in the 8th and 9th centuries that the real theological problem emerges. In the Carolingian Frankish kingdoms of Western Europe, a new and very different Christianity was developed, based on certain excesses in the theology of Augustine of Hippo and an ecclesial polity founded on feudalism. (The differences between this new form of Christianity and Orthodox Christianity are profound enough that we may speak of the formation of a new “religion.”)
At first, this new faith was limited to the Franks, and opposed vigorously by the Orthodox Western Romans (including the Bishop of Rome) as well as the Celtic monasteries located throughout the continent. But in the 11th century, with the first Frankish Popes, Rome succumbed to this Franco-Augustinian faith. After splitting from the Eastern Churches in 1054, the Papacy blessed a series of military efforts — the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Anglo-Norman Conquest of Ireland in 1170, the Crusades in the 12th and early 13th centuries — to convert all of Europe to this form of Christianity.
The Christian East, by the grace of God, and in spite of the terrible sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, was able to resist the Franco-Latin incursions. The various Orthodox Churches of the West, however, were not spared. One by one they fell to the Franks, and to their successors, the Normans — conquerors who brought with them a faith they called “Roman Catholic,” but which was neither Roman (the true Romans having been subjugated by the Franks) nor Catholic (for they had abandoned the universal Faith of the Apostolic and Patristic Church).
To speak, therefore, of a division between Celts and Romans, or even Celts and Old English, is false. These Western Christians certainly had distinctive theological emphases and practices, but they shared the same Orthodox Faith. Unfortunately, they also shared the same fate: destruction at the hands of the mediaeval Franco-Latin “church.”