Curriculum Kernewek

Cornwall Agreed Syllabus 2011

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+ Guide to Celtic Christianity

It is difficult to establish exactly when Christianity came to Cornwall but Christian communities were well established in the British Isles by the third century AD. In 313AD Constantine ruled that Christians across the Roman Empire should be allowed to practice their faith without persecution and by 407AD the Roman Armies had withdrawn from Britain in order to defend Rome. Early indigenous Christian communities across Britain developed as a result of varied influences from Coptic, Roman and apostolic traditions. They developed some distinct and varied practices from those on the Continent and from each other and these are collectively known as Celtic Christianity.

The movement of Saints between parts of the British Isles was motivated by one of these traditions 'peregrinatio pro Christo' or voluntary 'exile for Christ'. Individuals permanently left their homes seeking spiritual fulfilment and put themselves entirely in God's hands. Many of these people were responsible for establishing Christian communities in the places they visited and churches in Cornwall still bear the names of saints today, who travelled from Ireland, Wales and Brittany. The movement of the saints indicates that Christian communities exchanged ideas with others across the British Isles and beyond. Records of this time are sparse and much of this activity continued in an oral tradition with surviving written accounts of the lives of the Saints thought to be written much later. Some of the saints report that some of the communities had already received the Christian message and some of these had lapsed back into pagan ways. It is likely that pagan beliefs remained widespread alongside a growing Christian population.

In 597AD, Pope Gregory sent Augustine and 40 missionaries from Rome to Britain, to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons who had established themselves there. According to the historian Bede (672-735AD), Augustine landed in the Kingdom of Kent, baptised the King, Aethelberht of Kent and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The Saxons lapsed into heathenism after the death of King Aethelberht, but they ultimately returned to Chrisianity. In 664AD the Saxon King Oswiu of Northumbria decided to celebrate Easter on the date observed by the Romans rather than the one observed by indigenous Christian communities across Britain. This strengthened the links between Rome and the emerging English Church and a tradition was established for each Archbishop of Canterbury, to receive the pallium from the Pope in Rome. Indigenous British communities continued to differ in practices, and it is thought that some parts of (what is now called) Cornwall may not have adopted the changed Easter dates for another 250 years, around the time that the Anglo-Saxon advance reached the Tamar.

In 909AD the English (Anglo-Saxon Church) created the Diocese of Crediton to cover Devon and Cornwall and in 926AD King Athelstan of Wessex gave St Germans, near Saltash, a cathedral. It is difficult to identify the degree to which the distinctive qualities of Celtic Christianity survived. Communities continued to celebrate the feast day of the saint to which their church was dedicated. Holy wells retained the names of saints and in some places their use for baptism. New churches were built on the sites of much older places of worship, some said to have been originally built by the saints themselves.

In recent times renewed interest in Celtic Christianity in Cornish communities has led to the creation of groups like Cowethas Peran Sans, The Fellowship of St Piran. Members aspire to the qualities demonstrated by Cornish Saints, worship at ancient sites and incorporate the Cornish language into their worship.

Some distinctive traditions of Celtic Christianity include:

+ 'peregrinatio pro Christo' - which entailed a voluntary 'exile for Christ'. This practice is exemplified in the activities of the Cornish Saints who, by leaving their homes, put themselves in God's hands. Individuals would seek to develop their relationship with God through this experience and would sometimes share their faith with others, establishing new Christian communities. It is also thought that this practice may also have been prescribed as penance for wrongdoings.

+ Monastic tonsure - was used by those serving God such as monks or clergy to mark out their commitment to others. The Roman custom for monks was shaving the crown of the head leaving a circle or halo of hair. In the Celtic tradition monks shaved the front of their head from ear to ear.

+ Easter - the celebration of Easter dates require complex calculations and many Christian communities continued to celebrate Easter in their chosen dates long after new dates using the lunisolar calendar were introduced to the British Isles.

+ Religious enclosure ('lan' in Cornish and Breton, 'llan' in Welsh) - where Christians lived and served the local population.

+ Holy Wells - around Cornwall are dedicated to Cornish Saints indicating that they played an important role in early Christian practices such as baptism. Alternatively, the dedication of the wells may have been seen as bringing Christian purpose to sites which were of significance in previous indigenous or pagan beliefs and rituals.