A very moveable feast... why Easter still has no fixed future

With Easter this year falling at the end of April, Michael Brown reports on the failed attempts to fix a date for this very moveable feast.

NOT until April 24 will the so-called Queen of Festivals of the Christian calendar be celebrated this time round. And for that you can blame an organisation which is officially dedicated to virtually all the churches of the planet displaying “visible unity in one faith”.

For centuries Christendom has been searching for a common and fixed date for observing Easter which this year, here in the West, falls on April 24 – only one day short of its deadline.

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The last time it attempted to agree a fixed, universal, date was through the World Council of Churches (WCC) at a summit in Syria in 1997. Delegates considered a proposal which would have replaced the present divergent practices of calculating Easter with modern scientific knowledge.

It’s complex stuff, but it would have taken into account actual astronomical instances of the spring equinox and full moon based on the meridian of Jerusalem, while also following the full moon.

The recommended WCC changes would have side-stepped the calendar issues and eliminated the difference in dates between Eastern and Western churches. The reform was proposed for implementation starting in 2001. So far so good, but as it turned out the proposal was adopted by not a single member of the WCC.

The WCC has nearly 350 member-churches. They include almost every church of the Anglican Communion – among them the Church of England, the Orthodox churches of the east and all the main Protestant bodies. While the Roman Catholic Church is not a member, it has sent official observers to all the main WCC gatherings since 1960. And it is a full member of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission.

The Syria flop, though a disappointment, should have been seen coming. The attempt to find a globally common and fixed date for Easter has a long and complex history – involving far more forums and deliberations than even the WCC’s assembly of 14 years ago. It takes in an Asia Minor ecumenical council, a Yorkshire synod, and a British Act of Parliament.

For northerners, the story goes back to 664AD when a synod held at Whitby under the supervision of the Abbess Hilda decided, at the behest of Oswy, King of Northumbria, to bring the Celtic north into line with the practice in the south – of keeping Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon.

Put another way, this meant Easter Day landing somewhere between March 22 at the earliest and April 25 at the latest.

The southern custom had grown following a decision of the Council of Nicea 339 years earlier, and Oswy’s move did more than merely achieve uniformity in Britain and bring this island into line with Roman ways. It also helped his married life.

The Northumbrian monarch had been anxious to establish one custom for the whole country after learning that in 664AD he would be celebrating Easter while his wife, Eanflaed, weaned on Roman ways, was still observing Lent.

The Westminster Act of Parliament comes into the saga 1,264 years after the Whitby synod.

An Easter Act, passed in 1928, provided for – and still provides for – a fixed Easter. It decrees that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. But as ever the devil it seems is in the detail and the Act has built into it a provision that it should come into operation only by Order in Council – and then only by agreement among “all” the churches.

As well as the WCC’s 1997 attempt to agree a fixed and common date, there was an earlier try at an assembly in Nairobi in 1975. But that was vetoed by the Russian Orthodox contingent.

Meanwhile, the unable-to-agree churches apart, pressure from Britain’s secular, commercial world for a fixed Easter quietly continues, though no British Government looks likely to agree to their demands which would, in effect, “secularise” the Paschal feast.

So the inactivated Easter Act of 83 years ago will remain on the statute book and continue to be a mild embarrassment. Any Private Member’s motion to repeal the Act might not suffer Executive resistance but the amount of controversy and misunderstanding that would doubtless arise from any such move in the House of Commons would probably do more harm to church-state relations than the present complicated situation.

Easter it seems is going to remain a moveable feast.