A brief history

Briefly, according to the venerable Bede, the greatest authority on Britain and its ‘Celtic/ Religious history in the first millennium (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and other writings), way back in the mists of time the Celtic religion was pagan and based on the cycle of nature.

The Celtic peoples covered most of North West Europe and as the Christian faith began to spread it eventually reached Britain on a small scale, brought by traders and invaders like the Romans.

This growth gathered momentum over the years.

There are some stories that portray this, such as the young Patrick, a Romano Britain taken as a slave to Ireland who eventually escaped back to Britain but then went back to convert the Irish.

Throughout this time the ‘church’ was one church across the known world.

There was no separately founded Celtic Church or Celtic Christianity. The stories about apostles coming to Britain are romantic legend, mostly from the early middle ages and belong with stories of Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury Thorn, the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his knights etc; we’d love them to be true but there is no evidence.

What is a fact of history is that the whole church of the time looked upon Peter as the undisputed leader of the apostles and the church.

The Synod of Whitby was called to try to solve the long standing problem of the way the date of Easter was calculated. Some members of the English church (but not all) were using a different, more convoluted formula from the rest of the church in Britain and Europe. Even they didn’t understand it because upon examination it was found they had been following it incorrectly.

This formula seems to have come via Ireland from the followers of the apostle John in Asia but by then, John’s followers had dropped it in favour of the Roman way. Both sides spoke and an agreement was reached. The decision was that Our Lord had given the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter so the more widely used formula was adopted. This meant the king and half his realm was no longer celebrating Easter while his wife the rest of the kingdom were still in lent.

The Synod did not alter the course of Christianity but it was important in that it unified the practices of the universal church concerning its most important feast. Other matters, such as the style of tonsure, were also resolved.

Whitby Abbey in Hilda’s time was dedicated to St Peter (obviously she wasn’t canonised till later) and the ruins today are a later church, known as the Abbey of St Peter and St Hilda, which was ruined when sadly the church eventually was torn apart.

The abbey itself was never called Streonshalh. This is a place name meaning ‘The Lighthouse in the Bay’; there wasn’t a town as we know it now.

The abbey was never called St Hilda’s Priory, that name belongs to the Priory on the west side of town and is the home of the sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete founded in 1915.

The Mormons are entitled to worship where they wish but for the bishop (whose role should not to be confused in any way with a bishop of any other Christian denomination) to state that ‘in their return to Whitby the original Christian church has come home’ is disingenuous to say the least. The Mormons are a very young church founded in America in the early 1800s by Joseph Smith who said he had a message from God to re-establish the Christian Church. They have no connection with St Hilda, Whitby or the Celtic Church.

From P Pearson, Bagdale, Whitby - by email