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Some thoughts on the message of the Columban Church for today

1997 marks the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba of Iona. The churches in Scotland are planning a number of joint activities which will celebrate the success of the Columban Church which seeded so many worshipping communities the length and breadth of Scotland from the mid 5th century; including, of course, St Machar's. Indeed, as we know, St Machar is supposed to have been a companion of St Columba.

Celebrations of anniversaries can be a bit like fireworks; very exciting in anticipation, thrilling when launched, but a disappointing blackness is left when they have done their thing. Therefore celebrations should leave behind some tangible and lasting impetus for good. We believe that the Columban Church has much insight to give us in the very different age in which we now live. This anniversary is therefore providential in that it has focused our minds on what the Columban Church has to say to us today. Here are some thoughts inspired by three words beginning with "P" which give us some pointers towards aspects of Columban Christianity that could be enormously helpful to us today.

1. Presence

The Columban Church pointed to the presence of God in the midst of life. Its monasteries and other establishments were places of refuge, pastoral care and solidarity with people in the midst of difficult and challenging lives. They were beacons of light in an often dark world.

We all know that patterns of belonging are changing today. Fewer people join the church as teenagers and the idea of the church as a mass membership organisation as it was perhaps only 40 years ago has all but evaporated. Indeed a whole range of other organisations from the Scouts to Trade Unions have suffered the same fate. However, the fact that people do not join the church in the same way as before does not mean that people are no longer religious or interested in spiritual things.

What the church can do well is provide a presence in the community that points to deeper realities at the heart of every-day life. It can provide a nurturing environment in which people can explore the meaning of and celebrate rites of passage in their lives which people so obviously still sincerely desire, such as Christian marriage and baptism, and to explore the value of commitment.

2. Protection

The Columban Church took words seriously. Blessings and curses had more impact on people than a warm embrace or a physical blow. The church exists as an instrument of God, who seeks to bless, protect and consecrate people in the midst of the chances and changes of life. In the Middle Ages the church provided physical sanctuary to fugitives from justice and to countless others who quite simply found the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life trying and difficult. We still have a part of our original sanctuary cross which has now been restored.

12th Century Sanctuary Cross in St Machar's Cathedral

The church should always be a source of comfort, protection, blessing and sanctuary for people who find in the midst of their lives that they need something deeper and more trustworthy on which to rely. We believe that it is important that our doors are always open to provide that sanctuary and safe space for people whether they belong or not. It is our experience that more and more people are seeking out the church for protection or blessing on their lives.

The Columban Church also developed the idea that everyone should have a soul-mate, a mentor or confessor, who offered wise counsel and a compassionate listening ear. In this competitive and hard-nosed age, this is surely what the pastoral ministry of the church should be about.

3. Provisionality

The Columban Church was a very fluid organisation. It understood itself as a pilgrim church, at its structures were therefore always provisional and open to change and reformation in light of prompting from the Holy Spirit and any new circumstances it encountered.

In the new cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves today, it would be wise to consider that more flexible and provisional approach which the Columban Church had. A pilgrim church is not always looking back and guarding every cherished habit and structure, but looking forward in hope. We are firmly of the opinion that we are still the early Christians and that the church has scarcely got going these last 2000 years.

Grasping the insight that the church is provisional ensures that we understand that the church exists for its own redundancy. As someone put it, just as Noah left the ark on Mount Ararat when he no longer had a use for it, so we need to be prepared to let some things go when they are no longer useful in conveying us to the place we want to go, which is into the heart of God.


Around the year 563 AD Columba left his native Donegal and, it is believed, established a Christian Community on the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. From there, missionaries seeded churches throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.

The Columban Church was chiefly characterized by a powerful sense of the presence of the Divine in all things. The nearness of Christ and the Communion of the Saints was emphasised by the power of the spoken work and the ability of a blessing to gain the protection and presence of Christ. The language of poetry was defended as expressing truth over and above fact. Penitential pilgrimage was encouraged as was the importance of soul mates, mentors or confessors; - "A person without a soul mate is like a body without a friend".