Celtic Spirituality and Whiteness

My spiritual adventure of the past year has led me into the realms of Celtic spirituality. I’m taking a correspondence course with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), a neo-Pagan movement that draws on Celtic myth and imagery. After promptings from several helpful people I’m also exploring the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a “new monastic” movement seeking inspiration from the saints and sites of Celtic Christian Britain. Both groups are very different, with OBOD drawing on (among other things) Western esotericism and Jungian psychoanalysis, and the Community of Aidan and Hilda being founded by an Anglican charismatic evangelical, but both groups could also be considered part of the modern Celtic Revival.

It’s far too early for me to pass any substantial judgement on either group, but there’s already much to take away. A big revelation for me is how much I connect with the eight celebrations of the neo-Pagan ‘Wheel of the Year’ which combines the solstices and equinoxes with the four ‘Celtic fire festivals’ and forms the backbone of the OBOD community’s ritual life. Being more mindful of the the changing seasons and the cycles of sun and moon has increased my sense of rootedness in God’s creation. I’m already resonating strongly with many aspects of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. I’ve long had an interest in new monasticism, and spiritual direction and a Rule of Life (called “soul friendship” and “a Way of life” by the Community) have long been a part of my faith journey. I love the ecumenical openness of the Community’s vision, and I already have a connection to an important Celtic Christian site, the chapel of St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Othona, Bradwell-on-Sea, built by St Cedd in the 7th century and where my husband and I celebrated our marriage.

There are many positive things to be gained from an exploration of Celtic spirituality. However, as a PhD student researching theology and race, I have some observations and questions about the whiteness of Celtic spirituality to wrestle with if it is going to form a part of my faith journey. (These may well be questions that are already being addressed in Celtic spirituality circles. If so, I’d love to hear more.)

1) Is Celtic spirituality inherently racialized?

Race is one of the chief problems of modernity. The dividing up of people into racial groups is intimately tied up with European colonialism beginning in the 15th century, the creation of nation states beginning in the 18th century, and racial science reaching its height in the 19th century. Whiteness is the positioning of pale skinned Europeans at the centre of the Universe, and deciding who is in and who is out (whether that’s casting Muslims as the enemy without, or Jews as the enemy within), who is human and who is not (with black Africans being designated subhuman). Although Celtic spirituality looks back to the distant past, whether that’s the mid-5th to mid-7th centuries in the case of Celtic Christianity, or before that in the case of Neo-Druidry, it owes a great deal to modern Celtic Revivals which include notions of a Celtic ‘race.’ In the light of this complex history, is it possible to talk about ‘Celtic spirituality’ in a non-racialized way? Does ‘Celtic’ imply ‘white’? In my reading on Celtic spirituality so far race is rarely, if ever, talked about at all, and whiteness is assumed as the norm. In the Druidcraft Tarot, a tarot deck associated with OBOD, all the people depicted are white. According to Penny Billington’s ‘The Path of Druidry,’ “the first role [of a Druid] is to fit in with society,” (p.157) which, in a society where black and brown people are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, feels like a very white thing to say. Ray Simpson’s “Celtic Christianity: deep roots for a modern faith” makes much of the dwindling of Christian belief in Britain, which scholars like Anthony Reddie have pointed out is a particularly white phenomenon.[1] What we see here is a chief characteristic of whiteness – it presumes invisibility. Whiteness presents itself as an unnamed norm. As James Perkinson puts it in “White Theology,” whiteness is the eye that compares and judges but cannot see itself.[2] Before the whiteness of Celtic spirituality can be examined and dissected, it must first be seen and named.

2) Is Celtic spirituality a romantic flight from the legacy of colonialism?

Another characteristic of whiteness is a kind of forgetful innocence, an ignorance of the history of white violence against black and brown bodies. Perkinson writes that whiteness operates through denial and ‘a conspiracy of silence about history.’[3] We see this forgetfulness at work at an institutional level in the ‘Windrush Scandal’ when the UK government attempted to deport members of the ‘Windrush Generation’ and their descendants in 2018.[4] James Baldwin names this forgetful innocence as a marker of guilt: ‘It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.’[5] He wrote in 1963 that white people are ’still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.’[6]

In an episode of “Druidcast,” OBOD’s monthly podcast, a white European living in Australia speaks of their Celtic ancestry and “racial memory,” saying

As a Celt I understand Native American culture, I understand Hindu culture a lot more, and I have more affinity with Aboriginal culture. I don’t know that much about Aboriginal culture… but I do understand that it’s not nice to be invaded because it’s happened to my people too. I think it’s happened to everybody in the world, I don’t think there’s a nation that hasn’t been invaded by somebody.

I see forgetful innocence at work here in two forms. First, the person uses a Celtic identity to separate themselves from the history of imperialism and white supremacy. As a Celt they identify more with Native Americans and Aboriginal peoples, despite also being a white European in a country violently colonised by white Europeans. There is a hint of this in Ray Simpson’s writings on Celtic Christianity, positioning a pristine Celtic tradition against the corruption of an imperial Roman church and identifying with the former. Second, the history of the subjugation of black and brown people by white Europeans is forgotten. According to the speaker, every nation has been invaded by somebody and so real history is collapsed into an ahistorical level playing field. It’s as if, in returning to an ancient Celtic past, the centuries in between have been leaped over and erased. Is it possible to pursue a Celtic spirituality that is shorn of such escapist fantasy, and can face the wreckage of modernity in an honest way?

3) Are Celtic sites “whites-only” areas?

Both OBOD and the Community of Aidan and Hilda speak of the power of place, with the latter encouraging pilgrimages to Celtic Christian sites. I recently made my own pilgrimage to Whitby, a seaside town associated with St Hilda and the Synod of Whitby, interpreted by Ray Simpson as the moment when the Celtic church was overthrown by Rome. Close by on the North Yorkshire Moors I visited Lastingham, the reputed burial site of St Cedd who died of the plague shortly after acting as translator for the Synod. Between Lastingham and Whitby is the village of Goathland, where I came across a gift shop with a large display of gollyw** merchandise. For those outside Britain, gollyw**s were created over a century ago as dolls for white children. With their black faces, big white eyes, and red lips, they are based on the black-face minstrels that were incredibly popular on the stage in the 19th century, and on television in the 20th. They are undeniably racist caricatures of black Africans and yet they continue to have a shameful acceptability in Britain. You can read more about their history here. The end of the word is a racist slur which I’ve blanked out. I challenged a staff member of the giftshop and was faced with a blank denial that they were objectionable. Instead of inherently racist images that perpetuate psychological violence against black people, they were presented as entertaining nostalgia from a bygone age.

I share this because a Celtic spirituality that encourages pilgrimage to rural sites within Britain, whilst at the same time not addressing the question of whiteness, demonstrates a dangerous ignorance of the realities of British racism. Many rural white-majority areas are not welcoming to black and brown people. Friends of colour have told me they prefer to take city breaks when holidaying in Britain because the risk of encountering racism in such places is too great. This may be a surprise to white people who, as is characteristic of whiteness, presume they can access all areas. There is nowhere a white person thinks they can’t go. (I think of Jessica Fletcher, the detective in the Murder She Wrote whodunnit series, whose whiteness allows her to solve crimes in any conceivable situation, whether that’s in black New Orleans, among the British aristocracy, or mediating on behalf of Native Americans.) Periodically my city of Birmingham is talked about as having “no-go areas” for white people, when the reality is that many white-majority areas of Britain represent no-go areas for people of colour, such as those who happily display gollyw**s with impunity. Racism must be of primary concern for followers of Celtic spirituality because so many Celtic sites pose risks for black and brown people.

Is an anti-racist Celtic spirituality possible?

Does Celtic spirituality have its own tools that can be put to work dismantling its whiteness? Although I’m gaining much from my learning with OBOD, there’s too much within modern Druidry that’s not for me, so I’ll leave the antiracist tools of Druidry for others to articulate and focus my attention of Celtic Christianity.

If whiteness is invisible, then Celtic Christianity needs to name its whiteness, owning its roots in modernity even whilst rejecting aspects of it. Perkinson speaks of this as “biographical confession,”[7] where white theologians place themselves in their work, acknowledging how their whiteness shapes their perspective. Ian Bradley’s “Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams” (1999) and “Following the Celtic Way” (2018) may be helpful in this regard. Bradley names the modern roots of the movement and offers a description of Celtic Christianity shorn of the Romanticism and overconfident speculation that characterises other books on the topic. If Celtic Christianity wants to be an antiracist movement, then it must be open about its modern context. A focus purely on the pre-modern is not enough. If the racialized nature of Celtic spirituality is going to be examined and dismantled (if that is indeed possible) then it first needs to be openly acknowledged by its practitioners.

If whiteness is forgetful innocence, then Celtic Christianity needs to remember the history of British imperialism and white supremacy. This remembering is a painful process. James Baldwin writes that the prophetic task of love involves confronting the forgetful with the history they can’t face: ‘Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.’[8] Although Celtic Christianity must look to modernity in order to name its whiteness, when it comes to remembering there may be tools within the older tradition that can be of use here. Bradley writes that penitence was a central concern of the early medieval monastics of Britain, who understood it more as a kind of therapy than a punishment. Sin was a disease and penance the medicine. Such a therapeutic penitence could be applied to the work of remembrance, and even pave a way to reparations. The roots of whiteness go deep and require a daily perseverance to dislodge. The Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea is a pilgrimage destination for all branches of the church, as Cedd’s chapel was built before the split between Latin West and Orthodox East. Reconciliation is at the core of Othona’s identity, and the peacemakers of Othona know that forgiveness doesn’t come about through forgetting. A penitential remembering could be a vital work of such communities. If we attempt to access ancient Celtic sources in an ahistorical fashion, trying to circumvent the valley of death that is the racial imagination of modernity, we will only succeed in entering a Romantic fantasy powerless to face the demonic nature of racism today.

If whiteness is the presumption of safety and acceptance in white-majority areas, then a different way of seeing is needed. If I as a white person need to face the demon of whiteness within myself, then white-majority areas will most likely harbour the same demon. Again, the older tradition may have something to offer. The monastics saw the world as a spiritual battleground, with prayer as their chief defence. To be in places like Iona or Lindisfarne was to engage in spiritual warfare rather than a restful retreat. We can see the anti-racist struggle against whiteness in these spiritual terms, as work that requires the armour of God (Ephesians 6.10-18). I can’t help thinking of the ‘Lamb’s War’ of the Quaker tradition, which likewise sees a life of faith as one of confronting ‘principalities and powers.’ Might the sites of Celtic Christianity become known as places where the demon of whiteness is continually being exorcised?

Perhaps, as a newcomer to Celtic spirituality, it’s presumptuous of me to make these observations. Please do let me know if conversations about these issues are already happening, and if you have your own thoughts and experiences of Celtic spirituality and whiteness. I hope I’ve put forward my questions in a way that’s respectful to those on the Celtic spiritual path – I may well join you some day.

[Featured image photo by Adrian Moran on Unsplash]

[1] Anthony G. Reddie, ‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Subjectivity, Blackness, and Difference in Practical Theology in Britain Post Brexit’, Practical Theology 11, no. 1 (January 2018): 4–16.

[2] James W. Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, 1st ed, Black Religion, Womanist Thought, Social Justice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 153.

[3] Perkinson, 182.

[4] Anthony G. Reddie, Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique, Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 29.

[5] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Penguin Modern Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2017), 14.

[6] Baldwin, 16–17.

[7] Perkinson, White Theology, 7.

[8] Baldwin, 81–82.

13 thoughts on “Celtic Spirituality and Whiteness”

  1. I recommend Hans Kung’s “Finding The Way” for a look at the roots of spirituality across cultures and time. For me, at least, the book was an enlightening, and heavy, slog. And worth the effort.

  2. I love this, Mark!
    I love much about the Celtic-Christianity tradition, particularly its panentheism.
    I also love the way a monotheistic Christian faith can open its heart to panentheism in other cultural contexts, for example the shamanic traditions of the huge and varied “non-white” world. (I gave Maragoli shaman Chagala Stanley Ngesa, who is also a veteran Christian preacher, extensive editorial help as he was writing his 2019 publication “Maragoli Shamanism Marries Quaker Christianity,” online at https://among.wordpress.com/maragoli-shamanism-marries-quaker-christianity/ .)
    In fact it may be that Christians may be *forced,* during this pivotal twenty-first century, to turn to keepers of panentheistic traditions who know how to communicate respectfully with tree-spirits, water-gods and the like, in order to save a habitable planet earth from the ravages of godless capitalism. But Christ will know how and when to mobilize His people — at least the ones that are listening for His voice and prepared to obey it.

    1. Thanks for reading John! And thanks for the link to Chagala Stanley Ngesa’s article. Yes, panentheism is a very valuable bit of theology. I’ve also been taken by Ian Bradley’s description of the ‘plemora’ or ‘plenitude’ of God’s creation – ‘a sense of the fullness and abundance of God’s creation and specifically of the spiritual and physical as the divine abode.’

  3. Thanks for this! Absolutely fascinating. A few thoughts:
    – Have you encountered the Orthodox engagement with the Celtic (and Saxon) saints in this country? Some orthodox churches with a mix of ethnicities and nationalities have found the “saints of this land” to be a unifying focus
    – Would Celtic Christianity seem less “white” in a political sense from an Irish perspective, given the history of colonialism and racism experienced by Irish people (and perhaps to a lesser extent Scottish) – and is that complicated by their involvement in British colonial settlement elsewhere?
    – Is racial / collective guilt just as incompatible as racial / national pride with the absolution of original/ ancestral sin in baptism and citizenship of a kingdom not of this world?

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for these important questions. 1) Yes! Whilst at Othona in Bradwell I met Orthodox Christians who were on a pilgrimage there, and I think this is one of the beautiful things about Celtic/Saxon Christianity. 2) This is an important and complicated point. Yes, the Irish have had a shifting racial status within whiteness, and the experience of brutal colonisation by the English can’t be forgotten, similarly with the Welsh. And at the same time, how much is Irishness/Welshness equated with having pale skin? There are people descended from enslaved people who have Welsh and Scottish surnames and there were race riots in Cardiff in 1919. It’s very messy! One experience of colonisation isn’t equivalent to all other experiences of colonisation. 3) Could we say that baptism is a washing away of guilt as an oppressive mental/emotional condition, but not a washing away of responsibility? Perhaps baptism initiates us into a spiritual struggle that involves undoing the knots of systemic sin we’ve inherited, and we can only engage in that difficult work well when we’re rooted in the confidence of God’s love.

  4. Thank you for this nuanced and thought-provoking article. It’s important for White people like me to continually think about how Whiteness positions us, and how our assumptions about life, truth, and the divine can easily render black and brown people invisible.

    1. You’re welcome! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  5. How do you feel about the OBOD? Is it a good thing to study? I’m actually a black male studying Celtic Spirituality. It seems much more peaceful than what I’ve seen with African Spirituality.

    1. Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment Leslie. I’m about half way through the Bardic grade. I think it’s a well paced and structured course, with a very gentle tone to it. It’s entirely self-led, which makes it flexible but also means it can also be a little lonely. They do offer a “mentor” who you correspond with by email, which I tried but really didn’t work for me. I’m doing the online version which has lots of good audio content. I really like the sequence of festivals, the ‘symbol system’ they draw on and the focus on imaginative meditation. Peace is definitely a central value of OBOD, and there’s a Druid Peace Prayer you learn early on. Things I struggle with are the silly things that get said about Christianity, which you find in a lot of neo-Paganism, and a tendency to fanciful speculation. The Bardic grade uses a Welsh tale to structure itself, and makes claims about the antiquity of the tale that the evidence just doesn’t support, in my opinion. I wish there was more acknowledgement of how modern a faith path it is. It doesn’t need to be thousands of years old to justify itself. If it works, it works! My biggest problem is its talk of gender and heterosexism. There’s a lot of talk of feminine and masculine, and uniting the two, probably stemming from Jungian psychoanalysis. To OBOD’s credit they insist this is symbolic, and that the goal is for all to unite the masculine and feminine within themselves, but as a gay guy I can’t relate to it and find it alienating. Thankfully, I’m friends with a couple of local queer druidy people who help me see the best in druidry without the heteronormativity being a stumbling block. I don’t know whether I’ll go on to study the Ovate and Druid grades, or even call myself a druid, but I’m enjoying working with the material and taking what is useful from it, leaving the rest. I hope that helps! 🙂

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