Easter in Whitby

To many nowadays Whitby is possibly better known as the place Dracula fictionally landed in England than for its very real part in the Christian past. Yet in 664CE it was the centre of a major controversy which was decided at a conference which has come to be known as the “Synod of Whitby”.

It’s fairly simple to state the basics – by 664, the Church based in Rome was following one way to calculate the date of Easter, and the “Celtic Church”, derived from the missionary efforts of Irish monks and in turn back to the efforts of Romano-British missionaries like Patrick (who was originally from what we now call Wales), was using a different system….

In Britain, where some of the Saxon kingdoms had been converted to Christianity by the Roman mission led by Augustine in Kent, and others by Celtic missions, things reached a head in Northumbria. There a royal marriage saw a king and queen from different traditions, King Oswiu following the Ionan or Celtic tradition, Queen Eanfled following the Roman. The Easter date could vary by about a month, from late March to late April; so awkwardly one half of the court might be celebrating Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of Jesus, and approaching Pentecost/Whitsunday, while the other half was still engaged in the ritual mourning of the pre-Easter fast of Lent. There were also by the way a few other minor Roman v Ionan differences including the form of monkish/priestly tonsures.

Seemingly for some time a Northumbrian counsellor, Aidan, kept things running reasonably smoothly despite the awkwardness, but after his death hotter heads forced the issues and the public disputation of the Synod became inevitable.

I’ve seen the issues of the Synod dealt with in many different ways – but one of the clear points is that both sides saw it as – well, an issue of heresy, as Janina Ramirez explained recently in her BBC series “Saints and Sinners”. In effect, Easter was so important, and thus how you did it so important, that if you were celebrating on different dates the Church was not united – and in that case, one side must be orthodox, and the other heretical….

At this point people often go into argument about which side were the heretics, and of course Protestants will often want to side with the Celts against the Romans and their ‘Catholicism’. I really don’t find that interesting or helpful. Yes, the Synod came down on the side of Rome – but I kind of want to say “So what?” Yes, the Western Churches now celebrate the date by the Roman definition – again, “So what?” Modern thought also tends to say that in a sense it’s “So what?” – so long as we agree over a broad enough area. The question nobody seems to ask is “Does the date matter at all?”

As far as I can discover before the early 300s, insofar as Christians celebrated Easter at all, they didn’t have a specifically Christian date. They celebrated it, apparently, on the date of the Jewish Passover, or to celebrate the ‘first day’ Resurrection, on the Sunday afterwards. And actually I suspect that they didn’t celebrate quite that formally anyway – just that the annual Jewish event would cause the Christians to specially remember the Passover aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice, a sacrifice and subsequent resurrection which they commemorated frequently in the ‘Communion’ service anyway.

The date and the calculation process was decided by the Council of Nicaea in 325, related to the Spring equinox. This was because the Imperial Church needed regular ‘nationally agreed’ holydays/festivals in a way that the early church didn’t because it wasn’t a state religion. I understand the calculations also included a way to actually avoid the Jewish Passover date. Which looks to me a bit perverse….

By the time of Whitby, the break-up of the Roman Empire into East and West under pressure of barbarian invasions, and the spread of Christianity outside the empire, particularly the Celtic areas, and just generally the lack of communication and so on compared to today, meant that only three centuries down the line there was already a variation in the dating. Whence the Whitby problem….


As I said, before 325 the Church wasn’t too bothered about the exact date of Easter. And there’s a reason for that, found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae.

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Col 2:16-17 (NIV)

Paul is dealing with people in the early church who were insisting on precise observance of the Jewish Law. And they would ‘judge/condemn’ those who weren’t fussy about the observances. And Paul simply says “That kind of thing isn’t important. All the Old Testament rules, ‘kosher’ dietary rules, rules for festivals and so on, were there to prepare in various ways for Jesus’ coming, not intended to carry on after he came. The new ‘kingdom’ of Messiah Jesus would be worldwide, not limited to one ethnic group; and the kingdom is not to be hindered by perpetuating the old rules and imposing them on the new believers in Jesus. Those rules ‘foreshadowed’ Jesus, helped people when he came to understand what he had done; but they were now no more needed as everyday rules than the scaffolding in needed when a building is completed.

Not even the Sabbath, please note. I’ll likely come back to that in another blog soon, in relation to ‘Sunday Observance’. But fussy Easter observance, no. The connection to the Jewish Passover suffices to help give context for Jesus’ sacrificial death as a ‘Passover Lamb’; some new calculation of the date that divorces Easter from Passover was just not needed. On top of which, far from being a major heresy, clearly the disagreement about Easter was a disagreement about something very much man-made centuries after Jesus. And much of the inconvenience that caused the Whitby synod was even more man-made rather than divinely prescribed stuff, like the fasting for the forty days of Lent. Christianity doesn’t need such artificial ritual celebrations – our fasts should be more purposeful as part of special prayer or personal discipline.

And the need for that man-made festival was, if anything, itself part of the bigger heresy of having a ‘Christian’ state in the first place – for more details on that, see the rest of this blog and future posts where I hope to fill some of the gaps in what I’ve already written….

But quick summary – in Jesus’ “kingdom not of this world” things like days and dates are unimportant. Easter needn’t be celebrated annually at all, and so it doesn’t matter if there’s disagreement about the anniversary. Indeed remembering it as Passover connected with the Jewish festival is probably more real than having a special Christian date. One reality here is that effectively we celebrate Easter at every ‘Communion’ meal when we use bread and wine to remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.

And don’t get me started on Christmas…!

Footnote – the full text from Colossians 2, to show how vehement Paul was about it….

16 Let no one, then, judge you in eating or in drinking, or in respect of a feast, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the coming things, and the body is of the Christ; 18 let no one beguile you of your prize, delighting in humble-mindedness and in worship of the messengers (‘angels’ SL), intruding into the things he hath not seen, being vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding the head, from which all the body–through the joints and bands gathering supply, and being knit together–may increase with the increase of God. 20 If, then, ye did die with the Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances? 21 –thou mayest not touch, nor taste, nor handle– 22 which are all for destruction with the using, after the commands and teachings of men, 23 which are, indeed, having a matter of wisdom in will-worship, and humble-mindedness, and neglecting of body–not in any honour, unto a satisfying of the flesh.

Col 2:16-23 (YLT)