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Easter Act 1928 (Commencement) Bill [H.L.]

10.2 p.m.

The Earl of Dartmouth: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. This Bill was originally introduced in 1928 when it passed all its stages in both Houses. However, it did not actually commence. The purpose of the Bill is to permit the 1928 Bill to come into effect so that Easter Day will always be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.

I shall speak briefly under three main headings. First, I shall tell your Lordships how Easter is currently decided. Secondly, I shall deal with what may be termed the ecclesiastical arguments. Thirdly and finally, I shall refer to the practical arguments.

First, let us consider the interesting question of how Easter is currently decided. Easter Sunday is now fixed in accordance with tables which were drawn up for Pope Gregory XIII when he reformed the calendar in 1582. Those tables are founded on a so-called metonic system. Meton was an Athenian astrologer who lived over 400 years before the birth of Christ. The tables are extremely ingenious but what they really give is not the movement of the moon of the astronomers but an entirely artificial ecclesiastical moon which has been used for convenience ever since.

In short, Easter is currently determined from astronomical tables relating to the movement of the moon originally formulated over 400 years before the normally accepted date of the birth of Christ. The reality is that this long custom of what might be termed the floating date for Easter has its real basis in neither religion nor science but in what might be termed happenstance or even accident. By contrast, I point to the fact that Christmas Day was fixed by law in the fourth century. It was fixed as 25th December from the solar calendar based on the movement of the sun.

I now turn to what might be termed the ecclesiastical arguments. Your Lordships will see that the Bill proposes that the legal Easter be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. It is legitimate to ask why that date has been taken, or to put it more precisely, why that date was selected by my predecessors in 1928. The reason is that, according to the best research, the date of the Crucifixion is normally perceived as being 7th April

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in our calendar. The date proposed for Easter in the Bill would therefore be as near as possible to the real date of the original Easter virtually 2000 years ago.

However, I concede that it is by no means improbable that the commencement of this Bill might, in a manner of speaking, decouple the Church's day from the Easter holiday. That might be perceived as being a serious, even lethal, objection. However, I point out that there are many people equally Christian and civilised who take differing views of holy days and holidays. Some people seem to believe that one is, as it were, more holy by observing a holy day as a holiday. Another, perhaps a smaller group, takes the entirely contrary view that if one observes a holy day as a holiday one is somehow less holy. Both points of view are entirely legitimate and point to the fact that there is nothing intrinsically wrong in decoupling the Church's holy day from the normally accepted public holiday.

The reality is that in practice there are to some degree different kinds of holy days. For example, Christmas Day is an important religious celebration and a great family festival. However, Ascension Day, which is scarcely less important from a religious point of view, is hardly recognised in the lay world. In so far as it is celebrated at all, it is only observed religiously--if indeed that is the proper word to use in this or in any other debate.

I now address the ecclesiastical arguments. I have not been fortunate enough to have been in correspondence with the present Archbishop of Canterbury, but I have looked up the views of his predecessor in 1928 when the predecessor to this Bill passed through both Houses of Parliament in all its stages. The Archbishop of Canterbury of those days said in this very Chamber:

    "In the view of the Church there is no dogmatic reason why the Church should oppose a fixed date for Easter".

I now turn to the practical reasons, which I also touched on in a letter that I sent to every attending Member of this House, to which I received about 15 replies. To give just a few examples, businesses, retailers and all manufacturers would all like to know the date of Easter well in advance. It would enable them to plan ahead and would do something real and helpful for enterprise and prosperity, on which subjects the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Simon, who is not in his place, addressed the House in his customary fashion only yesterday. Such a fixed date would also make life easier for parents, teachers and all would-be tourists and travellers.

As I mentioned earlier, the original Easter Bill that provided for Easter to be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April--this year it would be Sunday, 11th April--was passed in 1928 but never came into effect. As the Archbishop of Canterbury of those days said on 23rd July 1920:

    "And I believe that the establishment of a fixed Easter would be a gain in the civil life and in the ecclesiastical and educational life ... of the community as a whole".

I hope that this Bill will meet with your Lordships' approval.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(The Earl of Dartmouth.)

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10.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, the Christian Churches worldwide are currently taking new steps to agree a common but not a fixed date for Easter. The British Churches would be helped in playing their part in this delicate task if the Easter Act 1928 were not reactivated at the present time. The Easter Act would affect only the United Kingdom. That would create particular difficulties for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which would both continue to observe Easter on the same day as the rest of their world communions. Church authorities would be guided not so much by the convenience of a fixed date but much more by the possibility of an Easter festival celebrated by all Christians throughout the world on the same date.

In the 20th century the Christian Churches have rediscovered a deep concern for Christian unity. Despite substantial progress towards visible unity, a major stumbling block remains the fact that the Eastern and Western Churches calculate the date of Easter in different ways. Essentially, that is due to differences in calendars and lunar tables. Since 1582, Western Christians have calculated the date of Easter using the Gregorian calendar, while Eastern Orthodox Christians have generally continued to use the older Julian calendar. In 2001 the dates of Easter, according to both Eastern and Western calendars, will coincide.

Currently the Churches are considering a set of proposals that will enable a common date--not a fixed date--of Easter to be agreed. The recommendation is threefold: first, to maintain the norms agreed by the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church after New Testament times, the Council of Nicea in AD 325, before East and West began to diverge, namely, that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal new moon; secondly, to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate scientific means; and, thirdly, to use as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's death and resurrection. I believe that when that agreement comes, as I hope and pray it will one day, it will go a long way to meeting the objections made by the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, about the calculations being based upon very old-fashioned science.

The main point is that a fixed date for Easter would obscure and weaken the vital biblical link between the events of Holy Week and Easter, on the one hand, and the Jewish Passover festival, which is still calculated with reference to the vernal equinox, on the other.

The Christian Churches are being invited to study these proposals in principle with a view to consulting together in the year 2001 when, as already mentioned, both East and West will celebrate Easter on the same day. The 1998 Lambeth Conference of all bishops of the Anglican Communion welcomed that initiative, supported the recommendations and invited all the provinces of the Anglican Communion to endorse them.

The noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, mentioned the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, suggesting that at that time the Churches had no principled objection to a fixed date for Easter. However, one of the

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big changes since then is the fact that the Churches now work closely together and do so on a worldwide basis. That is why Church leaders in this country are perhaps more sensitive now than they were then to the ecumenical and worldwide dimensions of this issue. They will want to keep in step with fellow Christians belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as with the great bulk of western Christianity through the Roman Catholic Church.

It seems likely that in any eventuality the Churches will want to see the link between the religious festival and the public holiday maintained. The origins of the holiday are to give public expression to the Holy Day. In the event of a disjunction--the noble Earl referred to a "decoupling"--between the religious festival and the public holiday, large numbers of Christians would continue to observe the festival on the traditional day and would strongly oppose transference of the name "Easter" to a secular holiday.

Although I listened carefully to the points made about commercial considerations, is it not true that it is possible at the moment to calculate the date of Easter five or 10 years ahead or perhaps even as long ahead as one might want? There is no difficulty at the moment about commercial organisations planning their business as many years ahead as they want. For those reasons, I think that the Christian Churches of all denominations would very strongly want to oppose the idea of a fixed date for Easter.

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