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Lord Hacking: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene before the right reverend Prelate sits down. Has he not identified the problem between the religious significance and celebration of Easter and its secular importance as a holiday and, indeed, a bank holiday? If the right reverend Prelate wants to keep the secular holiday linked to the religious holiday--that would mean that people would have time away from work in which to consider the religious significance--do we not have to recognise the problem that the secular holidays are "concertinaed" at that time of year? We have the Easter holiday, the May Day holiday and then the Spring bank holiday. We have three secular holidays within a period of eight weeks. We go through to August for the next bank holiday, and then there is a great blank until the end of the year. The problem on the secular side is that holidays are not distributed evenly throughout the year. If the right reverend Prelate is advocating that there should be a religious and a secular holiday at the same time, surely we must recognise the concertina problem with regard to the secular holidays.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly. First, the Churches want to keep a link between the Holy Day and the holiday because we believe that that is deeply embedded in our cultural life. Secondly, some continental countries have as many as 50--or even 60 or 70--public holidays a year. The European tradition--and certainly that of our continental brothers and sisters--suggests that a certain degree of "concertinaing" is not necessarily a bad thing.

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10.18 p.m.

Lord Manton: My Lords, about 20 years ago I had to give evidence to a Royal Commission looking into the future of horse-racing. Your Lordships may say that that has nothing to do with Easter, but it has. Having been cross-questioned by the dozen or so members of the Royal Commission for about an hour and a half--apparently, two hours were set aside for the inquisition--the chairman, the then Lord Rothschild, asked whether I and my two companions would like to put any questions to the commission. That took the wind slightly out of our sails. At that time I was responsible for preparing the fixture list for all horse-racing for 59 race courses on about 340-odd days of the year. I said, rather off-the-cuff, to the commission, "Why cannot we have a fixed Easter?" I have to say that most of its members seemed very much in favour of the proposition. Lord Rothschild said, "Why cannot we have a fixed Easter?" There were all these fairly intelligent people, and none of them really had a view. They mumbled something about the Church or some Churches not agreeing.

Luckily for them, or for Lord Rothschild, the Home Office provided a civil servant, an adviser to all Royal Commissions, who came up with a very simple answer. This was 20 years ago so I am not necessarily disagreeing with the right reverend Prelate. The civil servant said, "The Church of England is quite prepared to have a fixed date for Easter, provided of course that the Church of Rome agrees." He added, "What is more, the Church of Rome is quite prepared to have a fixed Easter, provided the two Orthodox Churches agree but, as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches have never agreed on anything, it is not very likely to happen."

The commercial aspects are extremely strong. I disagree with the right reverend Prelate. To market anything it must be done in the same week of the year all the time. Anything like a fixture list, whether it be sporting, commercial or whatever--it might even be the school syllabus--is much simpler if done in the same week every year. I am very supportive of the Bill.

10.22 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I find myself speaking to both sides of the fence. I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lord Dartmouth who has made out a persuasive case for a fixed Easter. It is possible to have a reasonable interval between the Christmas and spring holidays and the noble Lord rightly referred to the easier planning made possible in all aspects of our national life. My noble friend Lord Manton referred in particular to the racing calendar, but I include commerce, education, tourism and many other aspects of our national life. In rationality there can be no other solution.

This subject was, I believe, last debated in your Lordships' House on 7th April 1984 when our late noble colleague Lord Airedale made a speech of such distinction that it was quoted at his memorial service by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. Lord Airedale, while recognising the Christian aspects of the problem, wished

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to see Easter sufficiently far into April to guarantee a reasonable chance of better weather, and at the same time not to bring it too close to the spring holiday. In his winding-up speech my noble friend Lord Elton, then the Minister at the Home Office, said that the government's view was that they wished to await the outcome of talks between the Churches. And that is the Opposition's view today.

Easter is not only a secular holiday. It is historically a Christian one, as has been recognised in the debate. In saying that I am fully aware of the significant proportion of the population of this country who are not of the Christian faith, nor indeed of any faith at all. Nevertheless, Easter has its historic roots in the Christian Church and I suggest to your Lordships-- a point made strongly by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Oxford--that the initiative for any change in the date of Easter must lie in the first instance with the Christian Churches, not only in Great Britain but internationally. I say that through no theological dogma; it is a practical move.

As noble Lords pointed out, the present Easter was fixed by Pope Gregory XII in 1582 and it is a fact often taken for granted that one of the early manifestations of ecumenism is that all the western Churches have followed that formula. The complication is, of course, the Orthodox Church, to which noble Lords referred. Incidentally, that makes the Orthodox Church an unlikely bedfellow of the United Kingdom Inland Revenue in that the two are apparently the only two bodies that follow the old Julian Calendar.

The right reverend Prelate assured us that talks are in hand with the Churches, both east and west, to agree a common date, though I understand from his speech that it will still be moveable. If, as appears unlikely, they agree a fixed date, the object of this Bill will presumably have been satisfied. Nevertheless, the common date will be a start.

Let us consider one or two practical implications of this Bill were it to be implemented. Citizens of the United Kingdom going for the UK Easter holiday, say to continental Europe, to celebrate Easter may well find that Easter in that country will be celebrated one week later. Or we can consider the case of an employer who receives a request from a committed Christian in his employment to be allowed to take off Good Friday because it is being observed in Rome and elsewhere. Those are just two instances of the complications which would arise were the United Kingdom, on this question, to go it alone.

We are fortunate in that today there is a spirit of co-operation between Churches across the world far greater than in 1928 and--dare I say?--possibly 1984. The arguments for a fixed Easter are persuasive. While acknowledging that the rules for subsidiarity permit holidays in member states of the European Union to be fixed nationally, in the worldwide village it is only practical for the Easter holiday dates to be agreed at an international level, and that must be at the initiative of the Churches. This season is so central to the Christian faith that it must be left, in the first instance, to those Churches. Once progress has been made on that front,

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of which we have been assured by the right reverend Prelate, then the time will be right to revisit this question; in other words, not yet. Therefore we do not support this Bill but will not be opposing it at Second Reading.

10.27 p.m.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I listened with great interest to the points made in the course of this debate. Also, this is a matter to which the House has returned on many occasions. I say to the noble Earl that his Bill is a further expression of the concerns of your Lordships' House.

I can understand the point that has been pertinently put regarding the question of whether to see the date of Easter put on a more settled and comprehensive footing. There are good arguments for that. It is true, and indeed it was explained to us by the noble Earl, that the way at which we arrive at it is a mystery to many people. As he said, it derives from a resolution of the Council of Nicea in AD325 and was given statutory authority by the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750.

For those who do not keep a close eye on the calendar--the noble Earl is evidently one--Easter can often come as something of a surprise, and I admit that. However, I do not find the arguments that have been made here tonight about the convenience of a fixed Easter wholly persuasive. The date of Easter is well known in advance. For example, Whittakers Almanack provides the dates of Easter up to the year 2040 and the Book of Common Prayer, even beyond. So no one who needs to be aware of the dates for the purposes of planning, including the tourist industry, schools and businesses, has any grounds for uncertainty.

An argument is sometimes made that a date fixed in accordance with the Easter Act would improve the chances of better weather at Easter; indeed, that has been said again tonight. However, knowing the vagaries of our weather, I should point out that we are just as likely to get good weather with an early Easter as we are with one which falls a little later. We have considered all such proposals.

Mention has also been made about the "bunching" of holidays, especially by my noble friend Lord Hacking. Perhaps I may point out to him that the present pattern is now well-established. Unless agreement can be reached between the Churches, a fixed date could lead to an extra holiday being established in this period. So, in that respect, we could find ourselves in a worse situation, especially if the Churches did not recognise it.

Up to this point I have dealt with secular concerns, but there is another consideration, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, which overrides all of this. Fixing a date for Easter is not simply a matter of deciding upon another Bank Holiday: Easter is a religious festival of great significance. I do not believe that any attempt to change its date would be possible without the support of the Churches. Indeed, when the 1928 Act was passed, it was recognised that regard should be had to any opinions officially expressed by the Churches, or other Christian bodies, before an order was made to fix the date for Easter.

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As noble Lords will be aware--and it has been said again tonight--the Western Churches have always said that they would be willing to consider a change in the method of calculating Easter. However, as the right reverend Prelate said, they would not want to do this without a consensus being arrived at between the Eastern and Western Churches. There has, of course, been movement in that direction, but the fact remains that the stumbling block has been that the method of calculating the date of Easter between the Eastern and the Western Churches differs. As has been said, they differ as regards the calendar introduced by Pope Gregory, which is the one recognised by the Western Christian Church, and the Julian calendar, which is the one recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The differences between the latter to date have always been regarded as a major obstacle, but in 1997 there was consultation in Syria, sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. As has been said, proposals emerged for establishing a common date for Easter. Surely now is not the time to begin the change.

Such matters are under consideration by the Churches worldwide. I should stress that there are three proposals involved. The first is to retain the norms agreed at the Council of Nicea in AD325; namely, that Easter should fall on a Sunday following the first vernal new moon. That would also allow the link between Easter and, most importantly, the Jewish Passover Festival to be retained.

The second proposal is to calculate the astronomical dates by the most accurate scientific data available. I hope that that goes some way towards meeting the points raised by the noble Earl. The third proposal is to use the meridian of Jerusalem as the basis for reckoning. The Christian Churches are being invited to study these proposals in principle with a view to consulting together again in 2001. Significantly, in that year, both East and West will celebrate Easter on the same day.

I should make clear, as has been said during the course of the debate, that the acceptance of those proposals by the Churches would not result in a fixed date for Easter. However, it would result in the Eastern and Western Christian Churches worldwide having a common date to celebrate Easter. Moreover, as the right reverend Prelate said, the Churches place great importance on retaining the biblical link between Easter on the one hand, and the Jewish Passover on the other. It is thought that a fixed date for Easter would weaken and obscure that.

Serious deliberations are currently being undertaken by the Christian Churches worldwide on this issue. The British Churches would not be helped in this process by now bringing into force the Easter Act 1928. Moreover, it is likely that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church would continue to observe Easter on the same day as the rest of their world communions.

In the absence of any significant support among the Churches for fixing the date of Easter in accordance with the 1928 Act the Government do not consider that they could lend their support to this Bill.

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