The Peregrini (exiles) were Celtic monks who chose to follow the call of Christ by leaving their monasteries behind and traveling to different parts of Europe to share the Gospel, disciple new believers, and educate. The most famous Celtic missionaries were typically Irish, but they came from many Celtic groups such as those from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
Theologically, they were pretty similar to the Roman church. However, there were subtle differences… differences that seemed big to many at that time. Their liturgy was different. The monks cut their hair in the fashion of the pagans of their land, while Roman monks had the “crown of thorns” styling. Additionally, the Celtic church used an older system for determining when to celebrate Easter. The Roman church used a system that kept it different from the Jewish Passover, since they (strangely) thought it inappropriate that Easter should line up with a Jewish holy day.
The biggest difference between the Celtic church and Roman church (in my mind) was in governance. The Celtic church was less hierarchal (and more mystical). They respected the head of the Roman church and were willing to grant that position as the seat of Peter. However, they took a more 1st century approach to this role. After all, in the New Testament, Peter could be questioned, challenged, and even rebuked. But the Roman church (at times at least… less so today) felt their leader was above questioning or dissent.
These differences led to great problems where mission work overlapped. The Celtic missionaries were well-educated (often) and were appreciated for their scholarship. They worked with local young men developing an indigenous faith. The missionaries did not maintain connection with their sending monastery, so the peregrini were forced to be creative in supporting themselves and producing a self-propogating church.
St. Boniface was from England and was a missionary of the Roman church. He viewed the Peregrini as haphazard because of their individualistic form of spreading the Gospel. Because of their fairly modest innovations, St. Boniface considered them to be heretical. He sought their excommunication. He also sought to have them jailed permanently (the pope wrote to him to curb his enthusiasm).
It is also true that St. Boniface was a bit of an innovator himself. He used letters from Charles Martel (The Hammer) to gain enough respect in pagan lands to desecrate their pagan shrines as a form of power encounter. Not surprisingly, years later he was killed in an ambush by a pagan group, in what could be thought of as a bit of reverse power encounter. St. Boniface also utilized nuns from England in some of his missionary work. Women serving in a missional role had become extremely uncommon not long after the New Testament age.
Gradually, the Roman church absorbed the Celtic church and its saints. The organization of the Roman church (following in the footsteps of the organization of the earlier Roman empire) had a durability that the loose structure of the Celtic church did not.
Philip Schaff said about Boniface and his relationship with the Peregrini: “He reaped the fruit of their labors and destroyed their further usefulness, which he might have secured by a liberal Christian policy” (p. 173 The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200.)
What lessons can be determined from this bit of history? Could it be that ruthlessness pays off? Perhaps. Perhaps not. If success is defined by denominational success, than St. Boniface was clearly the successful one. But if faithful service to Christ is the goal… it is harder to say what is best. In Part 3, I will look at some of the issues regarding the differing missions methods from the perspectives of group process and missiology.
For those with more curiosity on this topic, particular the Christi Peregrini , consider the following resources:
-John McNeill, “The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200”
-Jonathan Hill, “Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity
(Many other sources exist. Just websearch it for more sources)