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A 1997 Move for a Common Easter Date

by Edmund Doogue, Ecumenical News International (ENI)

Churches around the world will be asked to cooperate in an international effort to put an end, from the year 2001, to the 400-year-old split over the date of the most important celebration in the Christian calendar, Easter.

At present, Easter - the festival marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead - is usually celebrated on two different dates. This year, for example, most Protestants and Roman Catholics celebrate Easter on 30 March, while most Orthodox, along with some Protestants and Catholics, hold their Easter services almost a month later, on 27 April. The different datings are the result of disagreement over reform of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII 400 years ago.

At a meeting held in Aleppo, Syria, from 5 to 10 March, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), representatives of the world's main Christian traditions agreed on what the WCC yesterday described as "an ingenious proposal to set a common date for Easter". According to the proposal, churches would continue to follow the current formula to calculate the date of Easter, but with the assistance of the most accurate astronomical scientific knowledge available. This would overcome the previous division, under which both traditions insisted upon retaining their old methods for calculating the date, even though they are not always completely faithful to formula laid down by the early church.

Rev. Dr Thomas Fitzgerald, a theologian and senior WCC official who took part in the Aleppo meeting, told ENI that among Christians the division over Easter was "an internal scandal". "And we have to ask what sort of witness this division gives to the world at large," he said. "We're talking about the resurrection of Christ, a sign of our unity and reconciliation," said Dr Fitzgerald, who is also a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, a province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. "There is no greater feast than Easter, and yet when you look at how we celebrate it, we do so in a divided way."

In church circles over the past few years there has been strong pressure for churches to reach an agreement on the Easter date by the end of the century. The year 2001 has long been seen as an ideal year to inaugurate an agreed set of dates, because in that year 15 April happens to be the date according to both present systems of calculation. A proposal from the Aleppo meeting will be sent to churches around the world, along with a chart showing possible dates for Easter in the first 25 years of the 21st century, to be adopted if the proposal is accepted.

Dr Fitzgerald told ENI that while he was "neither optimistic nor pessimistic" about the likelihood of the proposal being accepted in time for 2001, there was great significance attached to the Easter date, and he hoped there could be agreement. The differences over the Easter date "resulted chiefly from the fact that the four Gospels did not provide the actual date of the Resurrection, but only said that it occurred in relationship to Passover and on the first day of the week", Dr Fitzgerald said.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, there was disagreement over the date of Easter, but the problem was resolved at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in AD 325 which produced an acceptable formula, according to which Easter was celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. This formula helped maintain the link between the scriptural record and the yearly celebration of Easter.

According to Dr Fitzgerald, "the Easter controversy in the early Church ultimately led to an important consensus which was expressed at the Council of Nicaea. There was a profound recognition that the celebration of the Resurrection should not be a sign of division among Christians." However, the consensus over Easter was broken when Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar in 1582, thus changing the dates for Easter. Most Orthodox churches did not alter the method for calculating Easter. Even now there are inaccuracies in both methods for calculating the date of Easter. But while there were differences in the methods, there was, as at the Council of Nicaea, basic agreement regarding the formula. The solution proposed at Aleppo - using the most scientifically accurate methods available to calculate the dates of Easter - would be based on the Nicaea formula.

Much of the impetus for fixing a common date for Easter has come from the Middle East where Christians from different traditions live in close proximity, though very much as small Christian minorities. In some parts of the Middle East local churches have between them reached agreement on common dates for Easter. Dr Fitzgerald told ENI that a common date would be of special importance in regions where there was a high level of inter-marriage between Christians from different traditions. He said that in his own home parish, in Manchester, New Hampshire in the US, the Easter date was important as families with members in different Christian traditions had to choose which date to follow.

Dr Fitzgerald said some churches had resisted pressure which had come at various times from big business, educational institutions and governments, to hold Easter on the same date every year. "The churches want to remain in harmony with Nicaea," Dr Fitzgerald said. "The Resurrection is a divine event that breaks into reality, and maybe that variation [of the date celebrated each year] helps us to think about that."
Dr Fitzgerald is the executive director of the Programme for Unity and Renewal, at the World Council of Churches.

The organisations represented at the Aleppo meeting were: the Anglican Communion, Armenian Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Evangelical Churches in the Middle East, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, Lutheran World Federation, Middle East Council of Churches, Old-Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, Patriarchate of Moscow, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the World Council of Churches. The Aleppo gathering was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church."