The date of Easter

The dates of UK bank holidays in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are available on the government web site UK Bank Holidays, and next year Good Friday will fall on 25 March 2016. However, at the end of the last parliamentary season, Sir Greg Knight’s question to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills “If he will bring into force the provision contained in the Easter Act 1928 to fix the date of Easter; and if he will make a statement. [227857]”, received the following written answer from Jo Swinson on 24 March 2015:

“My Rt hon Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills does not intend to bring the Easter Act 1928 into force in the near future. The Easter Act 1928 would set the date for Easter to fall on a Sunday between 9 and 15 April each year. The Easter Act 1928 remains on the Statute Book, but has not been brought into force. To do so would require an Order in Council, with the approval of both Houses of Parliament. The Act also requires that, before the Order is made, and “regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian Body”; there is no indication that the Churches are keen to move to a date for Easter fixed in accordance with the Easter Act 1928.”

This is not the first time Parliament has been reminded of the 1928 Act, and a search on Hansard and UK Parliament sites will show for the periods up to 2005, and subsequently. The recent exchange is not dissimilar to the debate in 1930, [Commons Hansard 26 February 1930 Vol 235 Cols 2253-4]:

“EASTER (STABILISATION).

Mr Freeman: asked the Home Secretary whether it is the intention of the Government to take any steps under the Easter Act, 1928, to secure a fixed date for Easter; and, if so, what is the date proposed?

Mr Short In reply to a question by the hon. Member for the Waterloo Division (Captain Bullock) on the 25th November, the Home Secretary explained that His Majesty’s Government was eon-suiting [?consulting] the other European Governments with a view to common action if possible, as was foreshadowed by his predecessor when the Bill was read a Second time. Until there has been time to receive and consider the replies of the various Governments, no further steps can be taken.

Sir W Davison: When does the Under-Secretary expect that a reply will be received and a statement made in the House on the matter?

Mr Short: I am unable to make any statement in that connection”

An insight into the early support of the Act by the Church of England may be gleaned from the speech of The Most Reverend Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1932, [House of Lords Hansard, 15 March 1932 vol 83 cols 868-80], which incidentally followed their Lordships’ third reading of the Chancel Repairs Bill:

“THE EASTER ACT

[…]

My noble friend Lord Desborough is always entitled to our congratulations, because I think he is the only member of the House who has really mastered the intricacies of the present methods of deciding the date of Easter, and I congratulate him on his monopoly of that distinction. I think also he is very much entitled to our sympathy. Year after year he has brought the matter forward. In 1928 he seemed to be within sight of the attainment of his long-desired object, and yet there is this delay. I think the delay is the more regrettable because on three points there is very general agreement. There is general agreement upon the convenience of stabilising the date of Easter. There is almost unanimity on the part of the representatives of industrial, commercial, educational and judicial interests. There is general agreement among ecclesiastical authorities that there is no objection to the proposals of this Act on the grounds of dogma or of essential principles. The objections which are felt, and often very acutely felt, are sentimental, and I use the word “sentimental” in the best sense.

[…]

in 1929, after the passing of the Easter Act of 1928, each House of the Convocation of Canterbury passed the following resolution: In the event of general ecclesiastical concurrence with the object of the Easter Act, 1928, this House is of opinion that the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April should be adopted as Easter Day. The Upper House of York Convocation adopted that resolution, but apparently the Lower House took no action. But your Lordships will see that that resolution is confined to the acceptance of the choice of the date, and stresses again the need of general ecclesiastical concurrence.

In 1930 I took advantage of the presence of the Metropolitans and the 300 Bishops who were present at the Lambeth Conference of that year, and they were unanimously of opinion—unanimously—speaking, many of them, for the great Dominions, that they were cordially in favour of the principle of stabilising Easter. They recognised the general convenience which would thus be met, but they were also unanimous that they could not contemplate consenting to it unless it had the concurrence of the great religious communions of the world.”

Whilst the Church of England’s The Date of Easter and Other Variable Dates currently provides information up to 2040, we assume that this does not reflect a more entrenched position than government.

Comment

On 5 April 2015, The Independent took up the story with Move Easter to a fixed week in April to help parents and businesses, say campaigners, stating “[t]he next government will face immediate demands to enforce a law from the 1920s that would fix the date of Easter.” We would hope that there are more important items on the legislative agenda.

Footnote

The BBC has produced Orthodox Easter 2019: Why are there two Easters?an “explainer article” on Easter in the Orthodox Church.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "The date of Easter" in Law & Religion UK, 6 April 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/04/06/date-of-easter-2016/

8 thoughts on “The date of Easter

  1. Says The Independent:

    “Campaigners believe that holding Easter on the same weekend every year – so that Easter Day fell between 9 and 15 April – could save cash-strapped parents hundreds of pounds in childcare costs, help businesses plan holiday rotas, and let the travel industry prepare better for surges in family holidays. Under the current system, Easter can move by more than a month because of the use of both solar and lunar calendars to determine the date. Just before the dissolution of Parliament last month, Sir Greg Knight … asked ministers if there were any plans to implement a provision in the Easter Act of 1928 to fix the date. This would require the approval of Christian churches, and Business minister Jo Swinson said there was “no indication” they would agree to the idea. Sir Greg said that he has asked the question after frustrated constituents had mentioned the matter to him. He said: “It does seem a bit odd that, 87 years after Parliament agreed that Easter should be on a fixed date, we’re still waiting for the churches to make up their minds. This has been on the statute book for a long time.”

    This one seems to come round with depressing regularity. Is what Greg Knight wants simply a secular Early Spring Bank Holiday divorced from the religious observance? If so, absolutely fine: but it wouldn’t be “Easter” any longer, in the same way that what is now the Late Spring Bank Holiday isn’t Whitsun. I’d have thought that the chances of “the Churches” (by which, I assume, the Easter Act means the Western-rite Churches, because Western-rite and Eastern-rite Easter rarely coincide) agreeing on a fixed date for Easter are precisely zero. The Roman Catholic Church is massively bigger than the C of E and I can’t imagine it taking any notice whatsoever of a UK statute.

    • Sir Greg’s question appears to be an example of the PQ ploy “don’t ask a question unless you know the answer”, aimed at raising political and public awareness of an issue, which it clearly did in The Independent and elsewhere, thereby placing the facts on “the public record”.

      A quick scan of Hansard indicates that Mr Knight, as he then was, asked an almost identical question [2 Feb 2012 : Column 721W] to which Ed Davey gave an almost identical response, likewise in 2006, [30 Mar 2006 : Column 1134W] when Gerry Sutcliffe read from the ministerial script.

      In 1932, Archbishop Lang observed “… is obvious therefore that the key of the position is in the hands of the Holy See. It is the largest and most widespread of all the Christian communions and it seems to me that its consent is essential to this matter being carried through. The existing divisions of Christendom are bad enough and we ought not needlessly to add to them. At present, excepting the Churches which pay allegiance to the Orthodox Church, the whole world observes one Easter Day.”

      Incidentally, he also noted “I do not see how a change can be made in the calendar with the various consequent changes in the Prayer Book without concurrent legislation on the part of the Church.”

      During the Lords’ debate in 1999 on the Easter Act 1928 (Commencement) Bill (which was withdrawn after its second reading in the Lords), the Rt Rev Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford, explained [Lords Hansard, 11 Mar 1999, Col 357]

      “Despite substantial progress towards visible unity, a major stumbling block remains the fact that the Eastern and Western Churches calculate the date of Easter in different ways. Essentially, that is due to differences in calendars and lunar tables. Since 1582, Western Christians have calculated the date of Easter using the Gregorian calendar, while Eastern Orthodox Christians have generally continued to use the older Julian calendar. In 2001 the dates of Easter, according to both Eastern and Western calendars, will coincide.

      Currently the Churches are considering a set of proposals that will enable a common date–not a fixed date–of Easter to be agreed. The recommendation is threefold: first, to maintain the norms agreed by the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church after New Testament times, the Council of Nicea in AD 325, before East and West began to diverge, namely, that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal new moon; secondly, to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate scientific means; and, thirdly, to use as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection. I believe that when that agreement comes, as I hope and pray it will one day, it will go a long way to meeting the objections made by the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, about the calculations being based upon very old-fashioned science”.

      In relation to the argument on commercial considerations, he said [Col 458]

      “is it not true that it is possible at the moment to calculate the date of Easter five or 10 years ahead or perhaps even as long ahead as one might want? There is no difficulty at the moment about commercial organisations planning their business as many years ahead as they want. For those reasons, I think that the Christian Churches of all denominations would very strongly want to oppose the idea of a fixed date for Easter.”

  2. Although it might be best to leave the Easter Act 1928 as the answer to a quiz question, your article is interesting as usual. I did find it troubling, however, to learn that in 1930, “His Majesty’s Government was eon-suiting (sic) the other European Governments.” I hope this pre-war treatment of other governments has since been renounced.

    • Thanks, Alan. I’ve just checked the on-line Hansard: it’s in the text but it must be a typo for “consulting” (so far as I’m aware, the Record Office has been putting older volumes on-line using OCR). I’ve added a correction.

  3. Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, e-mailed the following:

    This additional information on past negotiations may be of interest. Clearly the UK would not go it alone on fixing Easter, but maybe the time has come for another attempt to reach consensus which would aid planning for school terms and the leisure industry”

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  6. This would have solved the Easter date difference between churches that observe the Gregorian calendar and those that observe the Julian calendar. The reform was proposed to be implemented in 2001, but it is not yet adopted. It was established to allow the Easter date to be fixed as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. However, this law was not implemented, although it remains on the UK Statute Law Database.

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