|St. Hilda of Whitby|
The North British Church which followed the Irish Celtic traditions it inherited from Iona was in full communion with the Roman Church but differed from it in several important matters of ritual and discipline. The papacy never made any attempts to bring the North British Church—or its Celtic mother-Church—under Roman control, nor did it feel any need to. (The Irish Church would eventually be Romanized in the twelfth century through the efforts of its primate, Saint Laurence O’Toole, 1128-1180.) While there were difference in ritual and canon law, there was a unity of faith. Of course many of the doctrinal issues which today divide Christianity: notably the Real Presence and the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption—were then non-issues because they did not yet comprise part of the canon of faith.
One of the crucial differences between the Roman and Celtic/British Churches that is often overlooked is the different approaches to canonical penance. In the Roman practice a Christian only submitted to Penance for extremely grave faults, most notably apostasy, murder, and adultery. The first of these sins was not as rare as one might think. Many Christians in times of persecution gave way to their fears and performed the ritual offering of incense to an image of the Emperor. There was quite bitter argument in the early Church over whether this sin could be forgiven at all. The consensus was yes, once. Thus in the Roman Church one only received penance once in one’s lifetime and only for extremely grave sins as aforementioned. Penance was public, it was imposed by the bishop, it lasted over a period of time, and the individual could not receive Holy Communion until it was completed. Penitents were not even allowed to be present for the Eucharist, but like the catechumens had to leave the assembly after the homily and then devote themselves to prayer and penitential practices while the community proceeded with the Eucharist.
The Irish had a different practice for penance. The Irish Church was not organized into dioceses like the Church in the old Roman Empire. The clan provided the basis for religious organization. The clergy were all monastics and the leading ecclesiastic of the clan served as the abbot or abbess who did not have the sacramental powers of a bishop but exercise the episcopal jurisdiction over the clan members, religious and lay. One of the monks would be an ordained bishop and the sacramental responsibilities fell to him, but not the jurisdiction. And we know in several instances, such as that of Brigid of Kildare, that women sometimes held this jurisdiction. (Incidentally, it was not rare on the Continent for Abbesses to hold ordinary jurisdiction over local churches either. More on that in other entries, but as late as the eighteenth century there were over a hundred surviving abbesses nullius.) To refocus on our topic of penance in the Irish/Celtic Church, monks and nuns would “confess” their faults (not only their sins) to the abbot or to a wise older religious designated by the abbot or abbess to be ones anam cara, or soul friend. The Irish developed an elaborate system of penitentials, books containing advice and suitable penances for every fault and sin. Some of these were quite harsh. Indeed Celtic Christianity tended to be more puritanical and harsh than Mediterranean Christianity. The sacrament of penance in the form we know it owes more to the Irish practice than the Roman, not in its severity but rather in the practice of more frequent confession and confession of minor (venial) sins, as well as it being a private arrangement between penitent and confessor. On the other hand, limiting the role of confessor to an ordained person acting in the name of the bishop is a survival of the Roman tradition. The synod held by King Oswig at Saint Hilda’s Abbey of Whitby in 664 marked the abandonment of Celtic customs for Roman, but at least in terms of the reconciliation of penitents, the Celtic custom won out.