Primates call for a common date for Easter in trouble

Moscow only agreeable to Catholics and Protestants adopting the Julian calendar

The Archbishop of Canterbury reports the primates of the Anglican Communion have agreed in principle to enter into talks with other Christian churches to set a common date for Easter. However, the prospects for an early agreement appear remote as the Russian Orthodox Church has said that it would encourage Anglicans to adopt the Julian calendar, but they would never accept the Gregorian calendar.

At the closing press conference of the Canterbury primates gathering on 15 Jan 2016 Archbishop Justin Welby said a fixed date for Easter — acceptable to Catholics, Protestants, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches could be reached in “between five and ten years’ time.”

“I wouldn’t expect it earlier than that not least because most people have probably printed their calendars for the next five years.

“School holidays and so on are all fixed – it affects almost everything you do in the spring and summer. I would love to see it before I retire.” However, he noted that past attempts at a common date had not proven fruitful. “Equally, I think the first attempt to do this was in the 10th century.”

The First Council of Nicaea laid down the rules for determining the date of Easter in 325 AD. Using the Julian Calendar, the Council set the celebration of Easter on a Sunday and constructed special tables to compute the date. Over the course of time the tables were revised with the undivided church adopting a system constructed by the Abbot of Scythia, Dionysis Exiguus in the Sixth century. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the modern calendar (known as the Gregorian calendar) which created a new table of Easter calculations and incorporated a “leap year rule.” While the West soon adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox Churches did not and continue to determine the date of Easter using the older Julian Calendar tables.

The rules set forth in the Gregorian reforms stated that Easter would fall on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox; that this particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a new moon; and that the vernal equinox would be fixed as March 21. The resulting calculations means that Easter Sunday will fall within a range of March 22 to April 25.

In 1923 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople convened a congress which adopted a modified Gregorian Calendar and set the date of Easter according to the astronomical Full Moon for the meridian of Jerusalem. However, the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church and Mount Athos continue to use the Julian Calendar, as do schismatic groups — the Old Calendarists — within the Orthodox Churches who have adopted the modified Gregorian calendar.

The Coptic Orthodox Churches use the Alexandrian Calendar of Ptolemy III adopted in 283 BC. In 25 BC Caesar Augustus reformed the Alexandrian Calendar synchronising it with the Julian calendar, leading to a common date for Easter for the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.

In 2016 churches using the Gregorian calendar will celebrate Easter on March 27, the Orthodox will celebrate Easter on May 1.

The modern push for a common date for Easter began with the Second Vatican Council. In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 4 December 1963, the Catholic Church said: “The Sacred Council would not object if the feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.” In 1975 Paul VI proposed celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the second Saturday of April.

In May 2014 the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II wrote to Pope Francis urged the adoption of a common date for Easter among the Christian churches, and on 3 May 2015 proposed setting Easter on the third Sunday of April of the Gregorian calendar. At his press conference last week Archbishop Welby noted the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I was agreeable to setting a common date for Easter.

The 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council is expected to take up the question of calendar reform. However, Bartholomew and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyrill, are reported to be at odds over which calendar to use.

In an interview with TASS last June, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department of External Church Relations, said the Russians would be happy for Catholics and Protestants to adopt the Russian Orthodox Julian calendar.

“If the Church of Rome intends to abandon Easter according to the Gregorian calendar, introduced in the sixteenth century, and go back to the old one, used at a time when the Church of the East and West were united and used to date by the Orthodox, then this intention is welcome.”

However, if the plan was to adopt a “fixed date for Easter and not tie it to the first full moon after the spring equinox, as established in the East and in the West by the Council of Nicaea in 325, then this proposal is totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church”, Fr Balashov said.

The former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazi Ali on Friday told Premier Christian Radio he supported the call for a common date for Easter for the Eastern and Western churches, but agreed that it should not be a fixed date, but tied to the celebration of Passover.

A fixed date “further distance the celebration from the Jewish Passover, with which of course it is intrinsically linked because Jesus suffered at the time of the Passover, [and] he’s understood as the Passover lamb sacrificed for us.”

“If governments and local authorities want to have school holidays for a fixed period then that’s up to them, but I would not want Christians to be further distanced from their Jewish roots and Easter’s connection with Passover.”

“For the Christian Church, to retain the link with the Jewish Passover overrides these considerations,” Bishop Nazir Ali said.

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