HC Deb 25 March 1948 vol 448 cc3436-46

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

In rising to ask the Government, Mr. Speaker, if they will take the steps that are necessary and that are in their power, to arrest the vagrant tendency of Easter, I should like to dispel any idea that this proposal is some academic or theoretical proposition, by drawing the attention of the House to the fact that there is upon the Statute Book a law definitely fixing Easter on the same date and on a specific date in every year. That law needs only the issue of an Order in Council to bring it into full operation. Perhaps I might read part of that Act to the House. It obtained the Royal Assent on 3rd August, 1928. It reads thus: Clause 1. Easter Day shall, in the calendar year next but one after the commencement of this Act and in all subsequent years, be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. I will not go into the complicated ecclesiastical reasons why it should be the second Saturday and not the second Sunday. Those are, I think, identical, except when April happens to begin on Sunday. The Act goes on, in Subsection 2 of Clause 2 to say: Clause 2. This Act shall commence and come into operation on such date as may be fixed by Order of His Majesty in Council. The Subsection concludes with the not unimportant words: before making such draft order, regard shall he had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body I take those words to mean that such opinion shall be given full consideration and not that the opinion shall prevail against other and larger considerations of which account may have to be taken. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman had full regard for the widely representative expressions of opinion against the abolition of university representation, but in spite of those opinions he carried through his nefarious work to the end. The words in the Easter Act mean that the opinion of the Churches should be given full weight, but not that it should necessarily prevail.

I would recall the Debate that took place when the Easter Bill was in process of becoming an Act It was a Private Member's Measure. Those were the days before Private Members' rights were thrust into the dust—although I have to recognise that I am enjoying one of those rights at this moment. The Second Reading of the Bill was moved by a, former Deputy-Chairman of Committees, Captain Bourne, and was seconded by one of my predecessors as junior Burgess for Cambridge University, Sir John Withers. This is one more example of the great utility of university representation. A more important point is that the Bill was given the fullest support in this House by a predecessor of the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, and, even more emphatically in another place by the Earl of Birkenhead, who was at that time Secretary of State for India.

Equally important is the genesis of the Bill. It originated in no ecclesiastical or academic circle, but among those most eminently practical bodies, the Chambers of Commerce of this country, the Commonwealth and the whole world. Resolutions in favour of the fixation of Easter were passed by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, by the Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire meeting at Ottawa, and—much more important —by an international congress of Chambers of Commerce representing 37 nations, very many of them Roman Catholic nations, a fact which is not irrelevant, in view of the opposition which has been manifested at times by the Roman Catholic Church to this proposal.

It is not surprising that business men should feel strongly about the dislocation caused by the errant tendency of Easter year by year. Take a comparatively trivial case, its effect on the school and university terms. A Member of this House was telling me only the day before yesterday that of his two children one was at a school which had already broken up for Easter and the other at a school which had taken Easter in its stride and was not releasing its pupils for some weeks yet. That may be said to be a minor inconvenience, and so it is in the case of a single family, but if we multiply it by some hundreds of thousands of families, it is worth while taking into consideration. This irregularity of Easter also makes for the dislocation of law terms which cannot be spaced as they would otherwise be.

It also complicates life for the railway systems of various countries, as is shown by the very interesting fact that this matter, when brought before the League of Nations, came to it by way of its transit and communications section. When that organisation communicated with the railway systems of various countries they got emphatic replies in favour of the stabilisation of Easter from the railway undertakings of Great Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. I understand that when the Measure was under discussion here, holiday resorts were equally emphatic in desiring a fixed Easter. If I had been a little more enterprising I might have secured the support of the hon. Members who were dealing with holiday resorts earlier today because I am sure they would have agreed unanimously. The drapers, of whose activities I have comparatively small knowledge, also desire this reform because the spring fashions are better brought in in spring, neither at the tail end of winter nor at the beginning of summer. The date fixed in this Measure —the second Sunday in April—commends itself to that branch of the commercial community. What hon. Members opposite, if they were present, might think more important is that the cotton operatives of the North are extremely anxious to have their Whitsun, which is more important to them than Easter, on a fixed date, and the Whitsun holiday is determined by the date of Easter.

There is another consideration. We live in a day when statistics have very rightly assumed a large place in our national life and comparisons of the statistics of production and other matters are very necessary and desirable, but this habit of Easter makes a comparison of March with March and April with April very difficult, because as a rule we find Easter in March one year—when production goes down because of the interposition of that holiday—but not in March next year, so that all comparison is vitiated. The same is true of an April-to-April comparison.

The thing goes a little further than that and affects the whole of our financial year. It happens that the financial year begins on 6th April, when the oscillations of Easter are in full career. It may well be that in one year there will be two sets of Easter holidays, with the arrest of production that involves, and in the next year no Easter at all. It so happens that at the present moment we are having very interesting examples of the presence and absence of Easter. As the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) mentioned just now in another connection, Easter Sunday happened to be on 6th April in 1947 so that part of the Easter holiday—the Good Friday—was in one financial year and the Easter Monday part was in the next financial year. The consequence is that in the year 1946–47 —I assume that it is desirable that each financial year should contain one set of Easter holidays and only one—there were one and a half Easters and in 1947–48 there are again one and a half, but next year there will be no Easter at all because Easter this year falls before the beginning of the financial year and the next year after the end of the financial year. Therefore, all the statistical comparisons, which are of great value, are vitiated by this wandering tendency on the part of Easter.

So far I have claimed with some confidence that all the arguments are in favour of celebrating Easter on a fixed date, but what is there to be said on the other side? Why should the ecclesiastical bodies in the past have allowed or even instigated Easter to wander in this way —ecclesiastical bodies who, I have no doubt, would have been shocked at the idea of Christmas adopting such tendencies and varying from some date at the end of November to some date at the beginning of January. We have this remarkable anomaly that, speaking with all reverence, the celebration of the birth of Christ is on a fixed date which, as far as can be calculated, is the real anniversary and corresponds with the date of the birth of Christ, whereas the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ are celebrated on different dates which do not, and cannot, bear any possible relevance to the actual event in history.

There is no rational ground whatever for this movability of Easter, and I submit, there never has been. We observe Christmas by the sun, by the solar system, and we observe Easter by the moon, but not by the moon which hon. Members observe in the heavens when they go out at night, but by a purely artificial ecclesiastical moon. It is the outcome of the miscalculations of an Athenian astronomer named Meton who lived about the time of the Peloponnesian war, 43o years before the birth of Christ, when astronomical science had not been carried to a very high degree of accuracy, and it was adopted by the Gregorian Calendar in 1582—but that calendar was not accepted in this country until the year 1752. Hon. Members who are better acquainted with the back pages of the Book of Common Prayer than I am will know how some elaborate operation has to be conducted by way of Dominical Days and Golden Numbers in order to discover in any year where Easter has chosen to pitch down on that particular occasion.

Ecclesiastical assemblies have argued about this question from time to time quite inconclusively. Those numberless students of ecclesiastical history whom I see around me will recall the Council of Nicaea where one aspect of the subject was discussed and decided in A.D. 325, and the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 664, when certain decisions regarding the celebration of Easter in this country were taken. In those discussions, however, there was no great hostility to the idea of the stabilisation of Easter, and when the matter came before the League of Nations in the middle 1920's some singularly interesting discussions took place. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Holy See, and the Oecumenical Patriarch were all invited to send representatives to discuss this question. They did send their representatives, it was discussed, a great deal of harmony was achieved, and it was stated by all three churches that there was no dogmatic objection whatever to the step of stabilising Easter. However, the Roman Catholic Church said that in view of the long tradition of a movable Easter, they would like to bring the matter before an Oecumenical conference. It was reported, when the matter was discussed in another place, that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Davidson, speaking at the Lambeth Conference in 192o to no fewer than 250 bishops—a very awe-inspiring spectacle—put the question to them and found that they were unanimously in favour of this change. During those same debates in another place, Lord FitzAlan of Derwent, who was well known to hon. Members of this House as Mr. Edmund Talbot, and a prominent member of the Roman Catholic Church, expressed the strong belief that the authorities of his Church would approve of the proposal. I am bound to add—particularly since I know that the Home Secretary would do it for me if I did not—that the Roman Catholic Church decided as late as 1942 that they could not approve of this proposal. That is an opinion officially expressed to which regard must be had, in the light of the considerations and restrictions which I have already indicated.

Therefore the position now is that if the Government should decide to exercise their powers under the Act of 1928—

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

Can my hon. Friend say anything about the attitude of the Orthodox Churches on a fixed Easter? He did not deal with those as fully as he did with the Roman Catholic Church?

Mr. Harris

I will say a word about that in a moment. The position now is that if the Home Secretary should decide in his discretion before the end of this year to bring the Act into effect by means of an Order in Council, the Easter of 195o would be fixed for the Sunday after the second Saturday in April, and would remain on that date for all future time so far as this country is concerned. The question arises whether such action could properly be taken, or could be taken at all, by a single country, and the obvious answer is that it could. There is a considerable differenc even between this country and Scotland in the observation of certain religious events. I took the opportunity of ascertaining from the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan), who speaks with unrivalled authority on the strange habits of his native country, that Christmas goes practically unobserved North of the Tweed, the holiday being mostly shifted to New Year's Day. If two countries so closely associated as England and Scotland can differ in this way individual action by Great Britain is clearly possible. There is a great deal to be said for a single country giving a lead in this matter, particularly as such long notice would have to be given.

In answer to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge), it is a fact that the Orthodox Church already celebrates Easter on a different day from most of the rest of Europe, but it would not be a practicable proposition at the moment to approach the Orthodox Church on the matter. But at a time when the States of Western Europe are drawing closer and closer together in many respects, the, opportunity might well be taken to suggest to the 16 States of Western Europe now co-operating in so many fields that this sensible reform might be adopted in place of the anarchic situation which exists in regard to Easter at present.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

There would be an opportunity this coming summer, when the Lambeth Conference will be attended not only by 300 Anglican bishops from all over the world, but also by Orthodox prelates from Warsaw, Finland, Greece and other parts of the world.

Mr. Harris

In view of that, I gladly modify my remarks, and say that if advantage can be taken of that, I shall be glad. I do not claim this as a major reform, but I believe the Government would have the support of all sections in this House, and in the country, except, possibly, some sections—but I think not all—in the Roman Catholic Church, if they took the step which is in their power to take and placed the celebration of the great Christian festival of Easter on a rational basis, instead of the irrational basis on which it has rested up to this time.

4.48 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris) has ranged over a very wide area in his survey of this problem. He has dealt with it from a commercial, economic and recreational point of view, and I am bound to say he has made out a very good case for consideration of giving effect to the Act of 1928. However, I think that he has very considerably under-estimated the strength of the objections that would be raised to carrying out this proposal by the various churches. I also very much doubt whether, if it came to putting this into effect, it would be as easy to get international agreement as he seemed to suggest. I also think it would be quite impossible for this country to take this step alone.

After all, we were the last people in Western Europe to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, and our failure to adopt it led to very considerable inconvenience, but when the country finally decided to adopt it and Parliament decreed that it should come into force in this country, it was accompanied by riots and agitations among people who thought that somehow or other they had been swindled out of II days of their lives, or in some mysterious way without realising it, they had worked the II days for which they had not been paid.

Mr. Wilson Harris

Nothing very serious has happened as a consequence.

Mr. Ede

No, but they were ignorant people in those days. They were opposing something which had the full weight of most of the ecclesiastical opinion behind it. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we cannot ignore the specific obligation that is placed on us by the Act of Parliament that regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.

I was brought up as a Nonconformist, and it was always a great mystery to me how Easter was fixed, until a school fellow of mine, who attended the rites of the Established Church, explained to me that during a dull sermon he used to work out the dates of hypothetical Easters in the future from the tables in the last pages of the Book of Common Prayer.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

In the first pages.

Mr. Ede

That shows that I still remain a good sound Nonconformist. The Roman Catholic Church has consistently opposed the fixing of Easter. I have no doubt that in this country there is strong feeling among lay opinion in favour of making the change, but the Church of England has taken the line that it could accept it only if it is accepted by the other Christian communities. That, of course, places us in a very great difficulty. I am quite sure that these two Churches command a sufficient number of adherents in this country to make it very difficult for any Government, if it wanted to do so, to do anything that would offend them in a matter such as this.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman the occasion on which the statement of the Anglican Church was made, and the authority on which it was issued?

Mr. Ede

I understand that it is a statement that has been made with the full authority of the Church of England, and, so far as I know, has never previously been disputed. It has been frequently stated by my predecessors in this House as being the view of the Church of England, and in accordance with the general line which they adopt on matters of this kind.

In 1938, the Vatican made it clear that it would be unwilling to move in the matter without first calling the General Council of the Church, and the British representative at the Vatican was given to understand that this was a step which His Holiness the Pope would be reluctant to take. I would not say that it would not be possible to force this particular Order in Council on the country, but I am quite certain that it would provoke very considerable controversy, and I doubt if we should get full support from some of the other churches which I have not named in my survey of the subject.

Mr. Wilson Harris

There is one rather important point. The right hon. Gentleman does not go so far as to say that he would regard the veto of a single church as fatal to Government action?

Mr. Ede

No. I must not be taken as saying that the Government could regard the veto of any church as being fatal to Government action, if there was a strong and insistent demand from the mass of the people of the country.

While there is a general feeling among the people who are not adherents of the Churches I have mentioned, or adherents who would follow their Churches in this particular matter, I imagine there would be members of both Churches who would be inclined to think—

Mr. Driberg rose

Mr. Ede

I wish to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member and then I will give way. There is undoubtedly at the moment a very strong feeling among some of the adherents of some of the Churches. I concede to the hon. Gentleman that many millions of people in this country, if asked, would say they preferred that Easter should be fixed, for some of the reasons that he gave.

Mr. Driberg

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that in the last two years there has grown up a much closer liaison and relationship between the various Churches, such as the Church of England Council for Foreign Relations, and would it be worth sounding them at this stage?

Mr. Ede

I will undertake to keep my eyes open and ascertain if there is any move in the direction suggested by my hon. Friend with regard to such matters. But such information as I have at the moment is that there is no immediate prospect of agreement in this matter among the religious communities, and therefore we might be faced with very considerable difficulty if we attempted to make this Order -in Council.

I can see very great advantages in the fixing of Easter. I also do not share these ecclesiastical objections, but, holding the office which I do, I have to respect the tender consciences of other people. One does find sometimes that their consciences are hurt by the most unexpected things, especially when they are offended by some form of Government action in which the secular Government appears to desire to override what they regard as the religious customs in which they have been brought up. It may be that at some time there will be so strong an expression of lay opinion in this country that the Government will feel that the time has come when this reform, which in principle has been approved by Parliament, should be brought about.

On the other hand, it may be that ecclesiastical opinion, Church opinion, may not be as strong in the future as it has undoubtedly been in the past. I do not think this matter has been very accurately canvassed during recent years. I recall the time when the Bill to which the hon. Gentleman referred became an Act of Parliament, and at that time there was undoubtedly a very strong feeling in the matter. With regard especially to the use that could be made of a fixed Easter, for travel on the continent and things of that kind, I suggest that it would be very desirable that any action that was taken should at least have the co-operation of other nations with whom we are most nearly associated.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

May I take this appropriate opportunity of wishing a very happy Easter to the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris), and the Home Secretary?

Mr. Ede

Is it in Order for the hon. Gentleman to speak twice?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It being Easter, we are lenient.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute to Five o'Clock till Tuesday, 6th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.