Easter: end to holy row started in 10th century?
Talks to unify the date of Holy Week across the Christian world could spell the first change in a millennium.
Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30
'Easter is early this year'' or "Easter is late this year" are phrases that are routinely uttered without much thought given to why there is such a wide spectrum on when Easter Sunday can fall in a given year.
Tourists visiting Greece can also find themselves out of sorts when they arrive for a post-Easter break only to find that Easter hasn't happened yet in their sun-kissed escape.
However, all that may be about to change as discussions between the various different Christian traditions step up a gear and the search for a common date for Easter intensifies. The Anglican Communion - with some 80 million members worldwide - has become the latest denomination to join the debate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby, has said he thinks a common date for Easter could be arrived at within the next five to 10 years. The Catholic Church has been in discussion with Eastern Orthodox Christians on the issue of a common date, on and off, for over a century.
At present, Easter Sunday can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. That's because, in the Western calendar, the tradition is that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, around March 21. Eastern Christians follow the same basic rule, but because they follow the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar used in the west, the date rarely coincides.
Confused? You should be. The date of Easter has been a bone of contention from the early centuries of Christianity. And the Irish have been to the fore of that controversy almost since day one.
Roman missionaries who arrived in northern Britain in the 6th century were aghast that the Christians there were celebrating Easter Sunday on a different day from the rest of continental Europe. That part of Britain had been largely evangelised from Ireland and the Irish monks followed a different method of calculating Easter from their Roman counterparts.
Controversy ensued and, while the Irish initially held their ground, they fell into line when, in 630AD, Pope Honorius threatened Irish Christians with excommunication if they did not conform to the Roman way.
There have been attempts over the centuries to unify the date, but all proved fruitless. In 1997, the World Council of Churches - which represents virtually all non-Catholic Christians - proposed that Easter should fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox as determined by the meridian of Jerusalem. The plan was that the common date between East and West would take effect in 2001, when both Christian traditions were scheduled to celebrate Easter on the same day. However, since the proposal, over time, would've meant a radical shift to the Eastern calendar, it was decided not to proceed.
Pope Francis's open approach has breathed new life into the idea of a common Easter. He has even hinted that western Christians should cede ground to the East and start to follow the eastern way of calculating the date of the festival. His words are particularly significant given that most Church observers believe that all but the most hardline Protestant churches would follow Catholicism in the concession to the Orthodox.
However, a fixed way of calculating Easter is still a long way from celebrating Easter on the same Sunday each year. The benefits are obvious, particularly for schools. The variation of Easter means that the length of the summer term differs considerably from year to year. It also has implications for sporting fixtures as well as the tourism industry.
News that Anglicans will join the Catholics and Copts in the latest search for a common Easter will intensify the discussions. The most likely date being considered is either the second or third Sunday of April. But it will face huge opposition from elements within Eastern Christianity. Greece in particular is known for fiery monks hostile to any changes that they interpret as a "sell out" to the West. Greeks have very long memories, and while the history of mistrust has its roots in the Great Schism of 1054, any modern initiative that appears like the Western churches are trying to impose a solution will be ferociously resisted.
Speaking at a press conference this week announcing that Anglicans would join the discussion, Archbishop Welby said he "dearly hoped" the discussions could conclude before he is due to retire in five years time. But he's a realist, he noted wryly that he was conscious the first attempt to unify the debate began in the 10th century. Great institutions move ever so slowly.
Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic and on Twitter @MichaelKellyIC