HL Deb 15 March 1932 vol 83 cc868-80

LORD DESBOROUGH asked His Majesty's Government whether they propose to take any steps to put in force the Easter Act of 18 & 19 Geo. V., 1928. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise not for the purpose of putting His Majesty's Government to any embarrassment, but in the hope of getting encouragement and, I may also say, advice. With regard to the Easter Act passed on August 3, 1928, there are one or two points to which I think I might draw attention in explaining the object of my Question. After reciting the Acts which are repealed the operative provision states that there shall be substituted for words which are deleted from the Calendar (New Style) Act, 1750, words to the effect that Easter" is always the first Sunday after the second Saturday is April." As I was a good deal responsible for this Act I might say in a few words why that date was chosen. It has nothing to do with the weather. Easter extends to every latitude and clime and the weather in England has nothing to do with fixing any date for Easter. This particular Sunday was chosen because it is now pretty well agreed that the greatest event in the world's history, the Crucifixion, took place on April 7 and the Sunday following would be April 9. This Act, therefore, might just as well read that Easter Sunday should always be on April 9 if that was a Sunday, and if not, the Sunday following.

This would be a very great and, I venture to think, a very beneficent change if it could be brought about. As we all know, Easter wanders about over a very large number of days—no less than thirty-five, or five weeks. It does so in accordance with the tables drawn up by Clavius for Pope Gregory XIII when the calendar was reformed. The great difficulty in this matter is that it is an impossibility to reconcile the solar and lunar calendars, but the moon adopted by Clavius for the purposes of his complicated and ingenious tables is not the real moon of the heavens, but a fictitious moon established for the purposes of the tables, and Professor Morgan has pointed that out in trenchant language., when he says this moon is a fictitious imitation put wrong on purpose partly to keep Easter out of the way of the Passover and partly for the convenience of calculations. The old controversies over the dates of Easter have long since died down, and Catholic authorities of the highest eminence have long supported a fixed date for the celebration of Easter. Christmas Day, commemorating the birth of our Lord, is fixed in the solar calendar for December 25, but Easter wanders about with a moon which is not really the real moon of the heavens, and I think it is obvious that the celebration of the death and resurrection of our Lord should not wander about for thirty-five days, unless there be some very convincing reason.

In this particular year Easter, as we all know, is very early. Good Friday falls on March 25. That also is Lady Day, and there is an old rhyme that: When our Lord falls in our Lady's lap, There will be a great mishap. I only hope that that will not come true in this particular year. But besides the variations in the dates of Easter being very inconvenient to almost every single citizen of this country, it is also extremely inconvenient to the Church. There are many who celebrate Lady Day, which in old days used to be the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, and which this year falls on Good Friday. One ecclesiastic told me when it happened before that he would have to postpone the celebration to April 5. If Easter fell on a fixed date, as proposed in the Act, it would not only be a convenience to all the laity but would also divide the Christian year equally, and make the celebration of the various feasts and festivals very much more simple than at present.

I do not wish to detain your Lordships. You have been good enough to listen to me very often on this subject, and I only want to say a few words in asking my Question. I have here a table of the fluctuating Easters up to the year 1958. I see that in the year 1940 Easter will be almost as early as it can be according to the tables. It will be celebrated on March 24. In 1943 it will be on the very latest possible date—namely, April 25. Easter cannot come later than that and in 1943, which hope we shall all live to see, it will be on the latest possible date. I need hardly point out the great inconvenience that is caused in respect of schools, Universities, law terms, and, more especially, the great holidays of the people. I have received letters representing many thousands of cotton operatives who are very much put out by the variations of the Whitsuntide holidays. Also the great commercial concerns, the drapery trades, and even the shoemaking trades, are all unanimous in wishing that Easter and the Easter holidays should be fixed. I hope that the representative of the Government will give me some encouragement, and also some advice as to how to proceed.

There is one point in the Act which I hope can be made plain, and that is this. The Act—it is an Act for this country—fixes Easter for the first Sunday after the, second Saturday in April, and there are, some provisos. One of the provisos is that Resolutions must be laid on the Tables of both Houses of Parliament. It is provided also that before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. I do not know whether my noble friend can give me the exact meaning of "regard being had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body." I would like to know whether that means that any Church or other Christian body, by expressing an adverse opinion, can stop this reform, or whether, as I thought when the Bill was being drafted, it merely meant that Churches and other Christian bodies should be consulted before the Bill was actually put into operation.

I hope it may be possible to clear up that point. I ask this Question in the hope that we may get some encouragement. There are two things which I personally fear. The first is that impatience in this matter may reach such a point that this Act may be put into operation for this Empire alone. I should deprecate that personally. I would like to see this step taken for the whole of Christendom. Secondly, I hope that I may be given some advice as to how to approach the Holy See. This matter has been before the League of Nations. They addressed questions to all the representatives of the various religions, who said that so far as dogma was concerned there was absolutely no bar to the Act being passed. They also consulted the great industries of the whole of Europe, and I believe the response was absolutely in favour of a fixed date. With these few words I beg to ask the Question which I have put upon the Paper.


My Lords, before the noble Lord who represents the Government replies, I think I ought to say something about this matter, which is one of very great importance. 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. They are based upon adherence to deeply rooted convictions and traditions. There is also general agreement as to the choice of the date proposed for this stabilised Easter. But in spite of this general agreement there remains the conviction, which certainly the Church of England strongly holds, that no action can be taken until the consent of all the leading Christian communities has been obtained; and that I suppose is the reason of the delay. The noble Lord has called your Lordships' attention to the provisions of the Act of 1928, particularly the one that provides that before any draft Order in Council is laid before the two Houses of Parliament regard should be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. I think it right to call your Lordships' attention to the position in which we now stand with regard to these consents.

As you have heard, the matter has been taken up for some years now by the League of Nations. It has been dealt with by a sub-committee of the Standing Committee—which sounds an odd one to be considering questions of religious festivals—the Committee on Communications and Transit. That sub-committee issued a report in which it clearly said that the stabilisation of Easter is a reform on which the Christian religious communities would have to pronounce before anything decisive can be done. Accordingly great efforts were made to obtain the views of these religious communities and a conference was held in 1923 at which, by invitation, representatives of the Holy See, of the Œcumenical Patriarch and of the Archbishop of Canterbury were present, and that conference drew up a report in which, while making it plain that it was most desirable that this reform should be carried out, it also said that" in the opinion of all, no reform of the calendar, and in particular no decision regarding the fixing of Easter—a question which is essentially a religious one—was practicable without an agreement between the various high religous authorities concerned".

Let me explain to your Lordships the position of the Church of England in this matter. It is twelve years, I think, since the noble Lord, Lord Desborongh, moved in this House that the Government should be invited to undertake a conference among religious authorities as well as public bodies, and my predecessor, Archbishop Davidson, said we should expect concurrence on the part of the Roman Catholic authorities and, failing that concurrence, we should have to consider our position; but, given this concurrence, so far as the Church of England is concerned, both at home and overseas, he was convinced that no objection would be made, and he said that after consulting the 250 Bishops from all parts of the world belonging to the Anglican communion, who were assembled for the Lambeth Conference of 1920. Again, in 1921, when the noble Lord moved the Second Reading of the parent of this Act of 1928, Archbishop Davidson moved an Amendment that steps should first be taken by His Majesty's Government to ascertain the views of Christian Churches in Europe, together with those of the civil authorities, and that the Bill should not be proceeded with till such information had been procured. I think that that Amendment was carried; at any rate, it had the effect of no proceedings being taken at the moment.


The debate was adjourned.


The debate was adjourned and, apparently, never renewed.




Since then, in 1925, both Houses of Convocation of Canterbury dealt with this matter, and they resolved that there was no dogmatic reason why the Church should oppose a fixed date for Easter, but the Church of England could not consent to the proposed change unless it was accepted by the other Christian communions. Again, 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. Last year the League of Nations had a conference on the matter, and invited me to send a representative, which I did, and he laid the attitude of the Church of England before the Committee of the League. And so the matter stands.

With regard to other Churches,, the Orthodox Church has always been, in general terms, in favour of the principle of stabilising Easter. That is a very great concession on their part, because your Lordships will remember that from time immemorial the Orthodox Church has clung to its own observance of Easter, which is different from that of the whole Church of the West; but it is now willing to consider the general reform of its calendar, and in particular the date of Easter. In 1924 the Œcumenical Patriarch communicated his view to the League of Nations that, subject to a common agreement being reached among the Christian Churches, the Orthodox Church would be prepared to pronounce in favour of the fixing of the date of Easter. The League has already received, so far as the Protestant Churches are concerned, intimation from eighty-two Churches or federations in all parts of the world cordially favouring the principle of the stabilising of Easter.

Now comes the question of the attitude of the Holy See, and that is where the real difficulty at present stands in the way of the Act of 1928 being carried out. In 1921 Archbishop Davidson was able to read to your Lordships a letter from Cardinal Vaughan, in which he said, without speaking in any way officially: I have reason to believe that the attitude of the Holy See is one of willingness to sanction the proposed change provided there be a practically unanimous request to that effect from the principal Governments of the world. I do not think there is any likelihood of the Holy See taking any initiative in the matter. It appears that since then there has been some stiffening of the hesitation on the part of the Holy See because, so far as the League of Nations is concerned, it was intimated to its Committee by the Apostolic Nuncio at Berne, that the Holy See did not consider there was sufficient reason for changing what has been the perpetual usage of the Church handed down by immemorial tradition and sanctioned by councils from early times. Even therefore if it was shown that some change in these conditions were demanded by the general good, the Holy See would not be prepared to consider the question except on the advice of an Œcumenical Council.

That is the present position and it 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. I stress the importance of there being that one day on which all Christians of whatever kind who care in any way for the observance of these stated times, should unite in observing the great fact upon which the Christian faith rests. Certainly, without the concurrence of the Holy See, I do not see how the condition which I have tried to show has always been stressed by the Church of England, could be satisfied, and it would be impossible, I think, so far as I can speak for the Church which I represent, for it to give its consent. If any draft Order were proposed and laid before the Houses of Parliament I should feel bound to express that view very strongly.

So far as this country is concerned, I think we should all agree that while Parliament may settle for public convenience the question at what date the public holiday should be celebrated, it is not for Parliament to determine the question which day the Churches shall authorise for the religious observance of Easter. It might conceivably happen that the State should take the matter into its hands and prescribe that for the purposes of the customary holiday Easter should be regarded as falling on such and such a day, and, conceivably, that the Church would have to decide that for religious purposes Easter Day should be on some other day. That, I think, would be in many ways most unfortunate, but so far as I can see no essential question of principle would be involved.

I ought to add that there are other difficult questions which would have to be considered before this Act came into operation and which, I think, were not duly considered when it passed your Lordships' House. For example, 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. But these are matters it is not necessary to consider now. I hope I have made it clear, and that the noble Lord who has asked this Question will not be in any doubt, that I have no sort of opposition to the principle of the Act. On the contrary, I am cordially in favour of it. I am only compelled to insist upon this matter of general ecclesiastical concurrence. I would very respectfully express the hope that the Holy See may be willing to give its approval to a proposal which is so widely supported, and that a reform which is ardently desired by the representatives of so many public interests and accepted as desirable by so many religions communities may be carried into effect.


My Lords, before a reply is made on behalf of the Government, I think it is important for your Lordships to see that this is not the simple question it appears to be. In the first instance the proposal so often and so ably made by the noble Lord who introduced the discussion this afternoon was made for public convenience. On other occasions he has argued more fully to make it, quite plain that it is to the public advantage, in schools, in colleges, commercially, in Parliament and generally speaking in public life, that Easter should fall evenly in the time between January and August. Then comes the ecclesiastical question which is really so far different that the most rev. Primate has made it plain to us that it is possible for the Church to hold its Easter at one time and that the spring recess should take place at another time.

Then we come back again to the question of public convenience. It would he quite against the public advantage and altogether against public sentiment if the Easter holiday was going on at one time and the Church commemorated Good Friday, Easter Even, and Easter Day at another time. It would always be inevitable that at least those three days should be observed as specially holy and exceptional days in the community at large quite apart from any ecclesiastical propensities. I think it would be quite intolerable if the Roman Catholic Church or any other large body of Christians proposed to celebrate the ecclesiastical festival at a different time from the festival in the Church of England and at a different time from the spring holiday. What would happen if those who owe allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church found themselves bound to be away from their offices and their work, to observe the ecclesiastical festival, while all the time those who belong to the Church of England and other communities who had accepted the new Easter were working away as usual?

Therefore, the question is not quite as simple as it seems. It is primarily a question of convenience; but the public convenience of the holiday cannot be dissociated from the ecclesiastical occasion, which must be borne in mind. It is not only a Church point of view that shrinks from the thought that we in England or in the British Empire should be celebrating Easter at a different time from the Roman Catholic Church. It would in the end be a great public inconvenience if Easter was not cele- brated simultaneously all over the Western world and if it did not coincide with the public holiday.

I have always had the fear on this subject, and I have heard a great many debates in your Lordships' House, that in the end it would be necessary, if all other difficulties were cleared away, to explain very carefully even to the people of England what has been happening. The most rev. Primate spoke of sentiment in the highest sense. I believe it would be found that there were a great many people not specially ecclesiastically minded, who had a very strong instinct that it was a mistake to alter Easter and to dissociate it from what we call the movements of the Paschal full moon. It would not be such a simple thing as dealing with Christmas Day. Christmas Day stands on a different footing. It does not profess at all accurately to represent the time of Our Lord's birth. I suppose it was instituted largely because there was at that time a festival in Rome and the Christians were wise enough to fix one of their celebrations to correspond with that festival. Anyone who has read the classics will know that a great many of the small details of our Christmas festivities—the giving of presents, the lighting of candles and so on—were taken over from the old festival. Christmas seems to me a simpler matter than Easter, and I fear when the time comes, though personally I am in favour of the proposal, we shall find that the sentiment of the people is against what we are proposing to do.


My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend has returned to the charge, and brought up the question of a fixed Easter, the Act concerning which, we all remember, he was largely instrumental in putting on the Statute Book. I am afraid I cannot follow him into the astronomical part of what he said, although it was most interesting. I had never heard of the false moon and other matters about Easter to which he referred, but I can assure him that the Home Office have always been in favour of this measure, that steps have been taken, and that this matter is going forward, although perhaps it does not advance so quickly as he and I would wish. The most rev. Primate and the right rev. the Bishop of Norwich have also spoken upon this subject, and the most rev. Primate has really given most of the information that I was intending to give to your Lordships; therefore my task in replying will not be a very long one. I shall not go into many of the questions that have been raised, because I only wish to give an assurance to the noble Lord, Lord Desborough, who asked this Question.

I can only remind him that. when the Bill was discussed a definite pledge was given by the Home Secretary in the Second Reading debate that the Government would consult the Churches on the ecclesiastical aspects of the question, and communicate with other European Governments with a view to uniform action if possible. His Majesty's Government was informed that the Fourth General Conference on Communications and Transit of the League of Nations was about to meet for the purpose of discussing among other things the stabilisation of Easter and calendar reform. It was therefore decided to await the proceedings of this Conference in the hope that the full discussion of the matter there might lead to some general agreement among the European nations; and His Majesty's representative at the Conference was instructed to do all in his power to forward a general agreement upon the principle of a fixed Easter. The Conference was held in October last, and it adopted a resolution declaring, firstly, that certain Governments consider, from the economic and social standpoint, that the common good calls for the stabilisation of movable feasts; secondly, that most of the Governments whose representatives have expressed any opinion on the matter consider the most suitable date for Easter would be the Sunday following the second Saturday in April; thirdly, that the Council of the League of Nations be asked to bring the Act to the notice of the religious authorities concerned, with the hope that they would consider it in a favourable spirit; and, further, to notify Governments before April 30, 1933, of any views expressed by the religious authorities on the Act and on the action which they may propose to take upon it.

At its meeting last January the Council decided, as desired by the Conference, to bring the Act to the notice of the religious bodies after May 1, and it is the earnest hope of His Majesty's Govern- ment that this communication to be made by the League of Nations to the religious authorities will meet with a favourable response. It will be noted that the Council has been asked to notify Governments before April 30, 1933, of the views expressed by the religious authorities, and the action which they propose to take. While there can be no question of an indefinite postponement, of the decision to be taken by the Government in regard to the application of the Easter Act, it seems obviously desirable to await the result of the communications to be made by the League to the religious authorities. I do not think there is any further information that I can give my noble friend, but I do assure him that, the Government are very anxious that this Easter Act should be put into force.


My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to my noble friend and also to the most rev. Primate for their kindly encouragement.