Monday, March 5, 2012

Celtic Model for Today's Episcopal Church

My first blog on the Celtic Model for the 21st century church is the most frequently read article.  I am, therefore, encouraged to write a followup.  I hope it will enhance the Celtic Model as a theologically sound and practical example for the church in today's non hierarchical, circularly flat digital world in which we now live.

Sometimes when we pray together we gather in circles and hold hands.  We do this in informal Eucharists and often when we join hands in prayer groups.  In this circle of agape' love, no one individual stands out above the other.  We are aware that the bishop or the priest may be present, but he or she is one equal partner with the rest of us as we lift our hearts to the Lord in prayer.  Pertinent to the idea of an equal circle, one of the regular commentators on this blog writes:  ""I  think the high-jacking of the episcopacy as the "top" order, that of bishops, is terminated by encircling the sacramental life, prayer and work of the church symbolically as the circle of the Celtic cross and the full life of the church liberated.  Something to ponder."

So in the Celtic Model we are not suggesting the eliminate the ministry of bishop.  As my friend writes, "I suggest a concept that unifies clergy and laity, what I call the episcopacy of all believers.  While we are familiar with the priesthood of all believers I think episcopacy implies the unification of the daily life, sacramental and administrative/governance legs of the church.  Episcopacy is in fact from which priesthood of all orders is derived but is easily misinterpreted as a hierarchy of function and authority.  The episcopacy of all believes makes it clear that we all have equal, if necessarily differentiated, roles to inhabit within the full community of saints."                        

In the New Testament Church we find a charismatic freedom in which all ministries were gifts given by the Spirit and exercised in the freedom of the Spirit. Some of these gifts were teaching, pastoring,  prophesying and evangelizing. Each gift is described as functional, not hierarchical.  While Jerusalem was the central authority of the early Christian movement, the Twelve had trans-local ministries of oversight.  Within this structure, there were roving ministries like Paul, Barnabas and Silas.  While these roving ministries also included traveling teachers and prophets, they very well could be thought of as presbyter/bishops who are very similar to the itinerant bishops of the Celtic Church.  There were also local leaders, known as presbyter/bishops, who were pastors of the entire Christian community in that place.  At this time there was a great deal of fluidity with respect to role identification.  For example the idea of seniority in years often means seniority of Christian experience, not in the modern connotation of seniority as privilege to lead from the top down. Thus, there is no evidence in the New Testament of a single presbyter/bishop occupying a position of primacy among the elders and people. 

Adopting the Celtic Model of early Ireland and Britain is a perfect fit for leadership that returns to the biblical model.  The Celtic circle implies by definition as communal experience that is equal, gifted, and ministry sharing.  Celtic bishops were pastors, not governors, and they roamed around the countryside, not connected to a geographical construct, and they served the people of God, much to the consternation of later Roman bishops who were trying to wrestle control by establishing a diocesan system. 

In light of biblical and Celtic theology, the current practice of a hierarchical bishop in a geographical diocese is self-serving.  Limited resources are mandated from congregations in order to sustain the offices and staffs of our bishops, thereby downplaying and denigrating the servant ministry presbyter/bishops of the Apostolic age.  Sometime early in the 21st century the hierarchical model will disappear, either intentionally with spiritually enlightened leadership, or by default due to the unsustainability of the present system.  Our national church statistics bear this out.


  1. Fr. Terrill, I'm curious how this played out in the congregations you served? Or were they run as Fr. knows best?

  2. Hi anonymous. Thanks for asking this important question. The way it works best is through teaching and inviting people into the circle. First you start small and check the theology out with your vestry. If they get behind it, the Celtic Model is officially sanctioned. Then very slowly and with prayer you move through the congregation. Some won't want to participate. For them you provide a traditional model of leadership. But very generally, that's how it works best. If you are a priest and want to start, make sure you are fully committed before you begin. Thanks again.

  3. In the late '90's and earlier last decade (wow, hard to realize), a group of us developed a group process for congregational development called Journey of Soul that was very much in the Celtic model. We tested it in Kansas, Missouri and in Vancouver and Sechelt, BC as well as with the clergy of Kansas. Our purpose was to develop and model it for St. Francis Episcopal Community Services headquartered in Salina, KS for their used in promoting their values in congregations. We always got good feedback from our largely lay participants.

  4. I started using Celtic modeling as Rector of St. James-Wichita in the late 90's as a response to the emerging need for congregational development that would test new forms of authority and participation. While we got good participation, we also had the misfortune of coinciding with the trendy Celtic stuff opening us to just that criticism by our detractors. However, we, as I mentioned in the previous comment,did find after many hours and grant money that a program could be produced that was adaptable in many different congregations and locations. Of course, we got no support from bishops! Sadly the only remnant to that work at St. James is a large Celtic cross in a memorial garden . . . perhaps too early in our creative efforts. However all creative processes take many iterations to be honed to be really effective, so all the effort was well worth it, and I would do it again.