I see that there’s a suggestion doing the rounds that all the churches should agree on a common date for Easter – and stick to it. The impetus for this piece of ecumenism seems entirely secular. It is frightfully inconvenient for the secular world that Easter Sunday can fall as early as late March and as late as late April, so how about we get our act together and settle a common date? Here’s a better idea, how about we don’t, how about we tell the secular world that if it wants to institute some secular holiday on a fixed day, it can, but leave us alone.
The House of Commons passed an act fixing the day of Easter back in 1928 – what, you neither? The World Council of Churches (breathe deeply) says it is a matter of ‘growing urgency’. what it really means is that this one has been knocking around ecumenical circles for a long time, like a lot of other things, but perhaps there could be some ‘movement’ on this. If they want ‘unity’, they could all re-read what the 318 Fathers at Nicaea had to say about Easter. Among the many reasons I would be opposed to any messing about with something that has been settled for so long, is that it would involve yet another jettisoning of our past in favour of something the world wants.
The date of Easter had been an item of controversy for some time by the time the Council met. The dioceses of Asia had followed the custom they had inherited of celebrating Easter at the Jewish Passover, which had several merits, beside being what they had inherited. It showed that even as late as the end of the second century, in that part of Christendom the Jewish heritage of the Christian churches had not been lost. Polycarp, who had the date from St John, celebrated it then, and had I been around back then, I think I’d have been there protesting against the Roman innovation. As it happened, at that time, Pope Victor had to wind his neck in. But the problem did not go away, not least because the Western Church did not follow the Asiatic custom. At Nicaea, the Alexandrian model, followed in the West, prevailed, and the Council fixed it as being the first Sunday following the vernal equinox.
As a proud Yorkshireman (what, you’d not noticed?) I’ve another reason for sticking to what the Council agreed. At Whitby in 664, those converted by Augustine’s mission confronted those who held to the customs imported under the Roman Empire in a Synod to settle the date. The Augustine folk cited the Council, the Celtic Christians preferred a version of what had prevailed in Asia. Modernity won out then.
Should it do so now? My small suggestion is that if we’re going to mess about with things, we go back to the model superseded at Nicaea. The ecumenists should be pleased, as it emphasises the links with our Jewish cousins; the anti-Rome brigade should be happy because it isn’t what Rome won all those centuries ago; and the ‘real traddies’ among us, who think it’s been downhill since St John kicked the bucket, can relish a rare victory.
I look forward to the Monks of Athos throwing a great big spanner (if they have such things here) into the works – and like that long forgotten act of parliament – to suggestions for reform ending up where they deserve to on this occasion – in the long grass.