The Church of England has attracted controversy over its evolving policies on issues such as homosexuality and the ordination of women. By comparison, the recent announcement that the Anglican Communion intends to fix an annual date for Easter – in cooperation with the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Churches – has met with little comment.
Among Anglo-Saxonists, however, the typical reaction went: “Well, Bede will be spinning in his grave.”
The Venerable Bede (c.673-735 AD) lived at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. His tomb now stands in Durham Cathedral. He is one of the most influential figures in English Christianity: the fact that I’m writing this in 2016, not “the 65th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the third year of the pontificate of Pope Francis” is largely thanks to Bede’s popularisation of the anno domini method of dating.
Bede, was a devoted student of Computus – the calculation of the date of Easter – which brought together his interests in history, theology and astronomy. The system required a thorough understanding of the movements of the cosmos, an appreciation of religious symbolism (including the relationship between Easter and the Jewish Passover) and a detailed knowledge of the history of Christianity. Given his investment in Computus, it is likely that Bede would have been appalled by the idea of fixing an annual date for Easter.
Bede’s writings also played a part in the formation of the English nation. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they established multiple kingdoms and sub-kingdoms within the regions that we now call England. Irish missionaries came across via Iona and began to convert the north of England to Christianity. Roman missionaries came up to Kent and began to convert the English there.
Eventually, as Bede tells us in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, all the English kingdoms were brought together into one unified church. In subsequent centuries, the unity of that church and the popularity of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History both played a part in facilitating the political union of the different regions into a single English kingdom.
Fixing on a date
One of the key episodes in Bede’s narrative was the Synod of Whitby in 664AD.
The Irish and Roman missionaries had brought two different methods of calculating the date of Easter to England: sometimes a Northumbrian king would be celebrating Easter while his Kentish queen was still fasting for Lent. Church and political leaders met in Whitby, at the abbey founded and presided over by the great abbess Hild (St Hilda), to determine which system the kingdom of Northumbria would follow. Bede was as invested in the science of astronomical timekeeping as he was in writing history, so he relates the arguments made at the Synod in great detail.
The difference came about because of the complexity of the calculation. The Crucifixion took place at Passover, so early Christians determined the date of Easter by referring to the Jewish calendar, in which months are based on the cycles of the moon and move about relative to the solar year.
The rules for the calculation gradually became more elaborate in response to cultural shifts in the Mediterranean world and beyond. It was decided that Easter had to fall on a Sunday. Then it was decided that it had to fall on a Sunday that was after Passover, not on Passover itself. Also, it could not fall before the equinox.
The fact that astronomically, a solar cycle isn’t actually a perfect 365 days and a lunar cycle isn’t actually a perfect 28 days complicated matters further. Finding the date of Easter took some serious literacy in maths and astronomy.
Given the evolution of the rules over time, it’s hardly surprising that communities who valued their contemplative isolation on the far fringes of Christendom could end up following slightly different sets of instructions.
What this meant for the English church
The Synod of Whitby also mattered so much to Bede because the unity of Christians mattered. The overarching narrative of the Ecclesiastical History is about the coming together of a united English church. Although Bede had deep respect for Irish scholarship, he was certain that the Synod came to the right decision in adopting the Roman method and so orienting Northumbria (and eventually, England) towards continental Europe and a unified Christendom.
The present discussion about whether to fix the date of Easter has far-reaching implications for the relationships between the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches. To a medievalist taking the long view of the relationship between the English Church and the English nation, it is fascinating that this new announcement about the dating of Easter has come from Canterbury in the very year that Britain looks set to hold a referendum on its role in Europe.
The level of cooperation necessary to make this change to the calendar means that we could again see the Church of England orienting itself towards Europe and strengthening its ties with Rome – even as members of the government in England attempt to turn away from Europe and loosen ties with Brussels.
There are different views on the date of Easter within the church now, as there were in Bede’s time. One of the strongest cases for keeping the date of Easter moveable has been made on the blog “Woolgathering in North East England”, written by the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, former dean of Durham Cathedral. He argues that the moveable date of Easter maintains the intimate connection between Christianity and Judaism and acknowledges the physical and mathematical reality of the movement of celestial bodies.
These priorities and the blog’s associations with north-east England bring us back full circle to the landscape where Bede made his observations and calculations of the movements of the tides and the stars.