[ACNS] The Primates of the Anglican Communion have agreed to support moves by the Coptic Pope to unify and fix the date of Easter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said last week at the end of the Primates Meeting in Canterbury Cathedral.
Currently, both eastern and western churches use the same formula for calculating the date of Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. But the eastern churches use the older Julian calendar while the western churches use the Gregorian calendar.
And while the eastern church bases its calculations on the actual, astronomical full moon and the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem; the western church applies a fixed date of 21 March for the vernal equinox and uses ecclesiastical tables of new moons rather than actual astronomical full moons; resulting in different dates in the east and west despite the common formula.
There have been longstanding calls for the dates for the “movable feast” to be fixed by both secular lawmakers, concerned about the disruption to planning caused by the irregular pattern; and from church leaders concerned about the impact on mission caused by different branches of the church celebrating the resurrection on different dates.
In 1928 the British Parliament passed the Easter Act, which sets the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April each year. But, although it has received Royal Assent, it has not come into effect because the law requires “regard . . . to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.”
In 1997, the World Council of Churches held a consultation in Aleppo, Syria, which concluded with recommendations that would unify, rather than fix, the date of Easter. The church leaders present at the consultation recommended that “that the churches now undertake a period of study and reflection towards the goal of establishing as soon as possible a common date for Easter/Pascha”; but very little progress was made subsequently.
Now Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has taken the reigns and has proposed a unified fixed date for Easter, suggesting that all churches should celebrate it on the second Sunday of April.
The move has already been welcomed by Pope Francis for the Roman Catholic Church and also by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
At a press conference following last week’s Primates Meeting, Archbishop Welby spoke of the “slightly unexpected and unusual thing” that had come up following his discussions with other church leaders, and said: “the Primates decided . . . that we wish to join with Pope Tawadros in what looks like a promising chance of unifying and fixing the date on which Easter is celebrated by the global Church.
“At the moment, as you are well aware, most of us spend this part of the year saying 'now, when exactly is Easter this year?' and it varies from late April to mid March.
“Pope Tawadros has put forward the idea to churches in the Eastern tradition and the Western tradition that it be fixed somewhere around the second or third Sunday of April. And we will certainly be joining in. We have agreed that we support that.”
When asked how such a move could be achieved, Archbishop Welby admitted: “I don’t know” before joking: “I think the first attempt to do this was in the 10th Century so it may take a little while.”
He had already warned the British government that the churches were working on the idea and he would now go back to Pope Tawadros. He thought it would take “between five and 10 years” for the move 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.”
This year, the western churches will celebrate Easter on 27 March; while in the eastern churches, the resurrection will be celebrated on 1 May.