Why I side with Whitby not Welby on the dating of Easter

Pope Francis exchanging gifts with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013 (AP)

The delightfully peaceful seaside town of Whitby is rarely stirred to public indignation, but last week its civic leaders made their voices heard in protest over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal that Christians should adopt a fixed and common date of Easter. Those who favour this change see it as a concrete step towards unity which would also make life easier for those in government, education, tourism and so forth who have to plan around holidays inherited from our religious heritage.

Whitby has a stake in maintaining the status quo. It was there in 664 that the Synod was held at which the kingdom of Northumbria opted for Roman customs, including the Roman manner of calculating Easter, and thus decisively hitched the English church to the continental mainstream.

The computus, the calculation of Easter we presently use, is based on the decision of the Council of Nicaea in 325. This fixed Easter as the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It took several centuries for this to result effectively in a common date, partly because of the practical difficulty of fixing the date of the equinox by observation. This resulted in a decision to consider the equinox as falling on March 21, although the astronomical event can vary by a day or so either side of this date.

This method of fixing the date of Easter is now followed by all western Christian churches. Eastern Orthodox follow the same principle, but they come up with a different date most years because they reckon March 21 according to the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian. Churches historically located beyond the Eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire, like the Assyrian Church of the East, follow yet another, slight variant resulting in a different date from the other Eastern Churches four times every 532 years.

If you find this confusing, you should try looking into the astronomical calculations, which will baffle all but the geekiest mathematical nerds. Easter can fall as early as the March 22 – it last did so in 1818 and will not do so again until 2285. The latest possible date is April 25 (last time 1944, next occurrence 2038). The variations, though baffling, are not completely irregular and unpredictable. Apparently, the whole cycle of dates repeats itself exactly every 5,700,000 years. This, however, is not likely to be of much use to planners, not even to the thriftiest of parish priests hoping to re-use the missalettes.

It is entirely comprehensible, then, that many people should favour a more predictable way of fixing the festival. Justin Welby’s proposal has been, at least ostensibly, received favourably by the most influential church leaders. The Catholic Church has pronounced itself willing (those tempted to ascribe this to an appetite for innovation on the part of the present Pope should be reminded that Benedict XVI had already endorsed the idea). Coptic Pope Tawadros II is also favourable to it – and this is significant since the computus adopted at Nicaea was elaborated originally at Alexandria. The Copts and other Oriental Orthodox are not of course in communion with Byzantine Orthodoxy, but Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has also expressed acceptance in principle. So, on the surface Archbishop Welby seems justified in his apparent confidence that a deal is in sight whereby secular authorities and the various churches will settle on the second Sunday in April.

I don’t want to spoil anybody’s party, but I am more than sceptical that this will occur any time soon enough to concern anybody now old enough to read this. Neither am I convinced that it would be a good idea.

First of all, the chances of the Orthodox Churches agreeing among themselves to abandon their current practice can be elaborated with mathematical precision at zero for the foreseeable future. The Moscow patriarchate is unlikely almost on principle to sign up to a deal brokered by its rival on the Bosphorus. Bartholomew himself is unable to deliver the consent even of those churches more closely linked to the moral prestige of Constantinople. In 1923, when the Greek state adopted the Gregorian Calendar and made the Church follow suit for the fixed feasts, a chaotic schism ensued. The notoriously fissiparous Greek old calendarists (at the last count at least five competing, and mutually anathematising synods claimed to represent the “Genuine Orthodox Christians” of Greece) are relatively few in number, but they represent an ominous sign of trouble to come if the mainstream Orthodox leaders attempt change.

Many western Christians fail to understand the weight and authority of tradition, nor the strength of anti-ecumenical feeling within Orthodoxy. The fact that the proposals for change come from the “heterodox” West is enough to rule them out for many Orthodox. Even if that could be overcome, and a common date were to be sought, the proposal for a fixed date would involve setting aside the decision of an Ecumenical Council, and that is a deal breaker for Orthodoxy as a whole.

Patriarch Bartholomew is aware of this of course. He knows he cannot deliver, so why is he appearing to consent? The reasons are to be found in the parlous position of his Patriarchate, whose position as “first among equals” in Orthodoxy is threatened even as a purely honorific status. Friendly relations with western leaders, both religious and political, are essential to what little prestige and influence he has beyond his minuscule flock in Turkey. For him, the process of ecumenism is more important than the outcome. He can protest his willingness, and when the inevitable becomes apparent, it will be clear that the responsibility for the failure to reach agreement will not be his.

The work of ecumenism must go on, but it requires patience and a greater sensitivity to Orthodox concerns. Moreover, who says that a common date of Easter is necessary for Christian Unity at all? St Irenaeus, the great Greek bishop of Lyons, was already pleading in the second century for local churches to be left to follow their own traditions without breaking communion. Even today eastern rite Catholics like the Ukrainians follow the Julian Calendar without any detriment to their union with Rome.

I will add another reason for being unenthusiastic about a common date. The current situation has allowed people like me, kept busy by pastoral obligations in our own Holy Week, to be present at the whole, magnificent cycle at the Orthodox ceremonies. Whenever the date has coincided I have missed this opportunity. It may seem selfish to allow personal preference to override the interests of unity, but many others on both sides of the divide have told me of being spiritually enriched by the possibility of experiencing different expressions of the same mystery in this practical expression of unity in diversity. The opportunity to experience at first hand the liturgical prayer of other traditions is an important impetus to ecumenism.

The proposal for a fixed date makes me reticent for another reason. It represents yet another example of Christians being willing to abandon their traditions for our own convenience on the one hand, and in order to placate the impatience of the secular on the other. I do not think that this tendency, which led us to truncate the twelve days of Christmas this year by celebrating Epiphany on January 3, is good for us spiritually. Nor does it make our witness more credible to those we should be evangelising. Until we are seen to be willing to organise our life around our faith, and not the other way round, we will surely not appear sufficiently convinced of its value to be able to convince others.