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Welby: We could have a fixed date for Easter 'in five to ten years'

22 January 2016


Same sun, different calendars: Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Novogrudok, Belarus, where morning temperatures fell to -13°C last Sunday

Same sun, different calendars: Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Novogrudok, Belarus, where morning temperatures fell to -13°C last Sunday

A MOVE by the Coptic Pope to unify and fix the date of Easter was supported by the Primates during their gathering, the Archbishop of Canterbury reported last week.

Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria has proposed that all Churches celebrate Easter on the second Sunday of April. The Primates joined Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch in supporting this, Archbishop Welby said last Friday. There was a "promising chance" that the proposal would come to fruition, he said, despite the fact that "the first attempt to do this was in the tenth century; so it may take a little while." He predicted that it would take "between five and ten years" to come into effect.

"I can’t imagine it would be earlier than that — not least because most people have already printed their calendars for the next five years, and school holidays are all fixed, and that kind of thing. It affects almost everything that you do in the spring and the summer."

Eastern and Western Churches use the same formula to calculate the date of Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. They arrive at different dates because Eastern Churches use the Julian calendar and base calculations on the actual, astronomical full moon, and the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem, while the Western Church uses the Gregorian calendar and applies a fixed date of 21 March for the vernal equinox, and uses tables of new moons.

In 1928, the British Parliament passed the Easter Act, fixing Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The subject of regular Parliamentary questions, it has not come into effect, because the law requires "regard . . . to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body".

In 1932, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, spoke in favour of the Act. There was "general agreement upon the convenience of stabilising the date of Easter". Objections were "sentimental". The 1930 Lambeth Conference had been "unanimous" in support, he said, but "could not contemplate consenting to it unless it had the concurrence of the great religious communions".

In 1997, the World Council of Churches held a consultation in Aleppo, Syria, which recommended a unified rather than fixed date.

The latest proposal has elicited a mixed reaction. The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, a former Dean of Durham, suggested that, in disconnecting the date from its roots, "our capacity for religious imagination is at stake."

The calculation, based on astronomy, gave Easter a dimension "nothing less than cosmic", he wrote on his blog. It was also part of the "vital link" between Christianity and Judaism. Easter Day fell on the first Sunday after the Paschal Moon, which determined the date of Passover. It was "hard-wired to Judaism and the Festival of Passover.

"This is made much of in the New Testament where the passion and resurrection accounts are shot through with passover imagery. . . The entire biblical theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection is premised on it. We should not sacrifice it."


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