HL Deb 20 February 1967 vol 280 cc570-82

5.18 p.m.

LORD MERTHYR rose to ask Her Majesty's Government upon what date it is intended to bring into force the Easter Act 1928. The noble Lord said: My Lords, as I have a bad cold I must apologise for the condition of my voice. On January 17 of this year I asked a similar Question in your Lordships' House, and I ask this Question to-day because I was dissatisfied with the Answer. I found it an unsatisfactory reply. There is nothing personal in this criticism, but I regret to say that the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, who answered my Question, and who I think will answer again to-day introduced to a slight degree a Party political matter. When I said that the Bill had been passed and received the Royal Assent 39 years ago, he chided me by saying that of course a Conservative Government could be expected to do this sort of thing. I hope the House will agree that this has nothing to do with Party politics. In fact, if we are to apportion the blame for the inordinate delay in this Bill's coming into force, I will try to help the House by saying that it seems to me that the Conservative Party must be accounted 28/39ths to blame, the Labour Party 11/39ths to blame; and, my Lords, as for the Liberal Party, their record is spotless, pure and unsullied.

The Act of 1928 contains only two sections. The first is the operative one, which fixes Easter day as the day following the second Saturday in April. Your Lordships may ask why that day was chosen. I understand that there are two reasons, but the right reverend Prelate will, I hope, correct me if I am wrong. First, that day is the average of all the several dates which now can be Easter Sunday, and, secondly, I understand that it is the Sunday following the actual anniversary of the first Easter Day. The second Section is the one which states when the Act is to come into force. It is to come into force by two provisos operating: the first is that there is to be an Order in Council laid before both Houses of Parliament for Affirmative approval. I have no quarrel whatever with that, and all I want is that it should be done.

The second proviso contains the words which have really caused all the bother. It says: …regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. Those are the words, and your Lordships will know that there is not one word in the whole of the Act about securing the agreement of the Churches. I have no objection to that proviso either—all I say is, please carry out these two provisos. That is all I am asking for, but Her Majesty's Government—and I charge them with this—following many other Governments, have read into the Act something which is not there. They have imagined words to be in the Act which cannot be found, and I say that no Government have any right to do this. To have regard to opinions expressed is a task which could easily be completed in 39 months, let alone 39 years, which it has taken so far.

On December 8, 1965, I asked Her Majesty's Government in this House how many opinions officially expressed had so far been received, and the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, said "None". As a matter of fact he said, "None in this present Parliament", which was not quite what I had asked him, if I may say so, but I think it is safe to say that the answer is none, ever, in all those years. If I am wrong I shall be corrected.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to repeat that question? I am afraid that I did not quite hear it, as I was trying to look up some information.


My Lords, I was just saying that when I asked how many opinions "officially expressed" had been received in 1965 since 1928, the noble Lord said "None", meaning "None by this Government". But nobody has ever told me of any received by any other Government, so I think it is probably safe to say "None ever". However, if I am wrong, I shall be corrected.

Then the noble Lord said to me, "Wait one more year". Fair enough, my Lords! That is not very much in 40 years. But that was 14 months ago. So one year has now expired, and I am still waiting.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowles, agreed with me that there is not a word in this Act about securing anybody's agreement, of Churches or otherwise; and he then made a very profound statement, if I may respectfully say so. He said—and he is quite right; and I entirely agree: So all the Churches seem to agree pro vided that the other Churches agree."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8/12/65, col. 293.] So, my Lords, we go round and round and round. I want to know—and that is why I am here to-day—who will break this vicious circle? Why will nobody take any action in this matter? Parliament—and this is rather unusual—has taken its action. So often private Members come to your Lordships' House and plead that Parliament should pass a Bill. I am not doing that to-day: Parliament has already done it. I want some action to be taken on the Act. Suppose, if I may for a minute or two, that agreement among the Churches had been necessary under the Act—and I should be the first to agree with most people who would think it desirable. Supposing it was necessary, may I then answer that by telling your Lordships a little of the history of this matter?

On February 17, 1928, the honourable Member for Oxford City, the late Captain Bourne (and I expect a number of your Lordships will remember him) introduced in the House of Commons a Private Member's Bill to fix Easter. That Bill is now the Easter Act 1928. There were some opposition noises, if I may so put it, from both sides of the House. A Motion for the rejection of the Bill was moved and seconded, but was later withdrawn, without a vote, because, I suppose, the opposition were then satisfied. The Bill was supported by His Majesty's Government (as it then was) and the spokesman for the Government was the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, who ended his speech by saying this—and I would ask your Lordships to note his words: If the House of Commons passes the Bill, I shall regared is as a direction on their part to get to work with the negotiations, and I shall do it with the feeling that I have the House of commons behind me". The Bill was passed without a Division, and I do not know whether he began the negotiations. What I am asking is whether the Home Secretary of to-day has completed the negotiations.

Then the Bill came to the really progressive House of Parliament, and here there was no opposition whatsoever. Again it was passed through all its stages without a Division, in this House as in the Commons. Five of your Lordships took part in the debate, and all five supported the Bill. It was introduced, appropriately enough, into your Lordships' House by the then Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, speaking in his personal capacity, because, although he was a member of the Government, he spoke independently owing to the fact that he had taken such a deep and personal interest in the Bill. I hope very much that if we ever get to the stage of fixing Easter, the major part of the credit will be given to the late Lore Desborogh He said that there was. no religious objection raised on behalf of any of the Churches."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2/7/28 col. 796.] A League of Nations Committee had sent questions to forty countries. The answers were unanimously in favour.

Then Lord Desborough made a striking statement, to which I would draw the attention of the right reverend Prelate. He said that a meeting of 250 Anglican Bishops gave the Bill unanimous approval. We are well used to the harmony and concord on the Bishops' Benches of this House, but to get 250 of them to agree with one voice to a measure of this kind was an achievement which I much admire.

The next speaker was a well-known representative of the Roman Catholic Church, the late Lord Fitzalan of Derwent. He said (col. 801): …I believe the authorities of my own Church will certainly acquiesce in and approve of the proposal, provided it is made quite clear that it is the general wish of other countries as a Whole". Then followed, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the Secretary of State for India, speaking from the Government Front Bench. He was not a man who minced words or used ambiguous phrases, as I think the present Lord Chancellor might agree when I remind him that he was none other than the late noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead. He said (col. 801–2): …the Government are entirely in favour of the proposals contained in this Bill…there is an immense potential advantage in it, both nationally and internationally…it must be long since there has been a consensus of opinion so remarkable, in so many countries, and among so many sections of opinion in those countries…We should be resisting a change of the utmost advantage if we were not to do the best we could to forward these proposals. And finally the piece I like best: Too long…has this reform been delayed". That was in 1928. I come here to-day to echo the words of the noble and learned Earl the ex-Lord Chancellor.

Next came the official Opposition speaker. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, said (col. 804): …on every ground of convenience it is obviously preferable that we should have a fixed Easter. And finally the representative of the right reverend Prelates, the Bishop of Southwark, whom many of your Lordships will remember as later Bishop of Winchester and Archbishop of York, Dr. Garbett, supported the Bill. He was speaking on behalf of the most reverend Primate, I think it was Dr. Randall Davidson, who could not be here for the Second Reading but did come for the Committee stage, moved a minor Amendment and said he entirely agreed with the Bill. There were no other speakers. The Bill was passed without a Division, without any opposition. What would all those people have said who heard the Royal Assent given to that Bill in August, 1928, if they had been told that forty years later nothing whatever would have been done about it?

I repeat that there are no religious objections to this Bill. I ask what other objections there can be. In order to check my statement that there were no religious objections I went, about ten years ago, to see the Apostolic Delegate at Wimbledon and asked him whether he could help me to get the opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. He was most helpful and friendly about it and told me that this was entirely a matter for the Vatican Council; and I, being very simple-minded, jumped at that and said, "That is fine. How can I get the opinion of the Vatican Council? I will try and ask them". He smiled and said, "Yes, of course you can"; and he said, "You see, the last meeting of the Vatican Council was in 1870 and the next is not yet fixed".

But the next has now been not only fixed but held. The next meeting of the Vatican Council was a very short time ago, and that body passed a document which I have here, through the courtesy of the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, who I do not think is here to-day. They passed a document called A Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on Revision of the Calendar, and, translated into terms of the voting in your Lordships' House, this was passed as follows: Contents, 2,058;Not-contents, 9. And this is what that very large majority said: The Sacred Council would not object if the Feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that others whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Holy See, are agreed on this matter. So I come back to where I began. Everyone is waiting for everyone else. If I may say so in the presence of more than one ex-Home Secretary—or perhaps not now, but there were a minute or two ago—and without being in the least rude to the representatives of the Home Office, even the Home Office have now had time to consider this matter and try to find out the answers. They have now had time "to get to work on the negotiations", to go back to the words of Sir William Joynson-Hicks, in 1928.

What, then, do I want to-day? All I am asking is that Her Majesty's present Government, no matter what Party it belongs to, shall carry this Act into force by causing to be laid before the House an Order in Council for its approval or otherwise, and then to bring the Act into force in accordance with the Act itself.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for intervening in this debate without due notice. It was by a misunderstanding that my name was not down, for I think that some information about a decision in the Church Assembly of the Church of England may be relevant to some of the points, at any rate, which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has made.

This is an intensely complicated subject. I well remember having an Eastern Orthodox friend staying with us who took my children to an Eastern Orthodox Easter Service. Finding five or six weeks difference in date from our own, my children asked me why, and I did my best to explain the differences between the Julian and the Gregorian Calendars, and the rest of the laborious calculations that have been used over the centuries, only to be floored, as one so often is, by the simple question, "Well, who is right?". And I am still wondering. The subject has been intermittently discussed in this country for the last 1,003 years, when it was fairly decisively settled at the Synod of Whitby, but obviously not quite decisively.

The point which I think is relevant to to-day's discussion is that not so very long ago the Church of England quite clearly expressed its mind in Church Assembly, in a resolution which was moved in a debate on February 14 last year by the Archbishop of York. He moved: That this Assembly would welcome the introduction of a fixed date for Easter, preferably on the Sunday following the second Saturday in April". The context of that discussion was explained by another of the speakers in the debate: that the British Council of Churches had taken the initiative, after the Resolution of the Vatican Council to which reference has just been made, to get this subject moving again on the international plane. The British Council of Churches had approached the World Council of Churches asking them to re-open discussions with the Vatican, and to conduct an inquiry amongst their own200 member Churches, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox, throughout the world.

Obviously the greatest difficulty in the international sphere comes from the difference still observed in wide areas of orthodoxy in the calculation of their calendar. But the present position is that the World Council of Churches is in process of conducting an inquiry throughout its membership, asking them which of the following solutions would be most agreeable: (a) fixing Easter on the Sunday following the second Saturday in April, according to the Gregorian Calendar; or, (b) a solution based on the Resolution of the Council of Nicea—that is to say, the Sunday which follows next after the first full moon of Spring; or (c) Easter to be fixed on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover. Which just illustrates how many ways you could solve this problem.

In the meanwhile, the Archbishop of York and other speakers in the debate in the Church of England were anxious that the whole process should not be held up indefinitely by any one Church refusing to declare its own position. And so, in spite of some amendments which would have asked the Church of England to take no decision until wider agreement had been reached (the amendments were defeated), the Resolution which I have read, suggesting that the Assembly—that is to say, the Church Assembly—would welcome the introduction of a fixed Easter, was accepted on the ground that hereby at least the Church of England could declare its own mind, while at the same time being party to wider negotiations which are going on on an international scale through the World Council of Churches.

5.41 p.m.


The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, paid the Liberal Party a magnificent compliment. I should like to say just one or two words. We have enjoyed during most of this month the sort of weather that people go, in February, to the South of France to enjoy. March looks much like coming in like a lamb, and I rather think it is almost certain that this year March will go out like a lion. Sunday, March 26, will be Easter Sunday. It will be about as early in the year as Easter can possibly be, and the people will be absolutely miserable. They will be spending Easter in conditions which Fleet Street editors describe as "blizzard conditions". Incidentally, I cannot think that any Fleet Street editor has ever been in a real blizzard, because, if he had been, he would not describe severe snowstorms in the South of England in that way. At all events, the people will be most miserable. But good may come of it. I hope they will rise up and say, "Why on earth do we not celebrate Easter at a civilised time of the year? Why on earth did we not listen to the late Lord Desborough? And why on earth are we not now listening to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr?".

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Merthyr, for raising this matter once again. With his usual sense of humour, he accused me of introducing Party politics into the Questions and Answers we indulged in on January 17. He said (column 4 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day): My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that that is exactly what Her Majesty's Government did do, nearly 40 years ago?"; and I replied: My Lords, the noble Lord will remember what Government that was. Obviously he was not too angry with me, because he went on to say how much the Tory Party were responsible in the last forty years for not doing anything, how the Labour Party was guilty of not doing anything, and how completely blameless was the Liberal Party, as the noble Lord, the junior Leader of the Liberal Party, was quick to point out.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, is a most impatient person, because we have just heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter that the matter has been under consideration now for 1003 years. I knew it was about a thousand years, but I did not know it was exactly 1003. However, the position is that we are pressing on. As the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, rightly reminded us, what is now the 1928 Act was a Private Member's Bill introduced by Captain Bourne, who was the Conservative Member for Oxford City. It is clear from the debate on that Bill (the noble Lord has quoted some of the speeches; I have been through them, but obviously have not time to refer to them all) that it was not seriously contemplated by anyone that the Act would be brought into operation unless and until the general agreement of the Christian Churches had been obtained.

The Home Secretary of the day was, as he said, Sir William Joynson-Hicks. He is the esteemed father of the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, and he said, speaking on Second Reading in another place on February 17, 1928, at col. 1137 of the Commons OFFICIAL REPORT: I for one would have no part or lot what ever in attempting to 'fix'—I use my noble friend's expression"— his noble friend was the Lord Hugh Cecil— the date of Easter if it were not absolutely certain that it would be entirely approved by the ecclesiastical authorities in this country and in other countries concerned, and indeed, unless the change was made with the full assent of the ecclesiastical authorities. Those were the words of the then Home Secretary. The noble Lord referred to his speech, but he did not quote that, which would not have helped his case much. This was the view of the Government in 1928; and I think this is the answer to the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, put to me on January 17. He pointed out, quite correctly, that the Act required merely that before an Order was made bringing it into force regard should be had to any opinion Officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body; and he asked me if I did not agree that if Parliament had desired in 1928 that the agreement of the Churches should be obtained it would have said so. It was not, I believe, envisaged that we should necessarily await complete agreement between all the Churches.

In 1951, in a debate initiated by the noble Lord himself, the most reverend Primate, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, said that he detected in the 1928 debates that the reason the provision was put in the form in which it appears in the Act was so that if any of the great denominations were unwilling to make the change great regard would be paid to their objection, but that if some small sect objected it would be possible to proceed without their consent. He went on to say that the Church of England regarded this condition of general consent as quite advisable, and that he would not be prepared to give any continued support to the Easter Act unless that condition was fulfilled. This, I think, has always been the attitude of the Church of England.

I had a word last week with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, who also joined in the exchanges that we had on the last occasion. He questioned me on January 17, and seemed, to imply some criticism and impatience. He said that he was sorry he could not come today, but I am sure he will not mind my answering his apparent criticism now. He seemed to show some impatience of the delay in reaching a decision on this matter, and your Lordships may recall that in the debate which we had on this subject on July 24, 1962, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter himself reaffirmed the view that there should be general agreement among the Churches before the Act came into force. He said—and I quote from column 981 of Hansard of July 24, 1962: But what we do feel very strongly is that we would not be prepared to agree to a fixed Easter in isolation from other Churches of the West. He went on to say (col. 982): It would be indeed unfortunate if here in England some of us Christians observed Easter on one day and others on another. These comments show that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter was concerned primarily with securing the agreement of the Churches in this country. In his questions to me on January 17, he said that the Church of England had agreed and the Vatican Council had agreed, and he appeared to suggest that little more was needed, since it was unlikely that there would ever be universal agreement throughout all the Churches.

But, my Lords, the matter is surely not as simple as that. Following the approach from the World Council of Churches just referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, the Standing Committee, under the chairmanship of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, which considered the case for a fixed Easter reported in January last year as follows: There would seem to be no ecclesiastical objection in the Church of England to a fixed Easter. It would seem advisable to express the hope that all Churches would agree to the same date (preferably the Sunday after the second Saturday in April). If all Churches were not in agreement, the question should be considered again in the light of the opinions expressed throughout Christendom. This followed a declaration by the Second Vatican Council that The Sacred Council would not object it the Feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, pro vided that others whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Holy See, are agreed on this matter. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, rightly, though rather picturesquely, referred to as "the vicious circle". If all the other Churches agree to break this "vicious circle", I assure him that we will try to assist in doing so. These two declarations show that, while the Church of England and the Vatican Council have, as the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Exeter, indicated, agreed in principle to a fixed Easter, their agreement is conditional on agreement being reached with the other Christian Churches.

In our brief debate on January 17 I informed the House that by August last year 74 out of the 221 Churches to whom the World Council of Churches had addressed a questionnaire had sent in their replies. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, could not resist asking whether it was the intention of the Government, when it had taken forty years to get those replies from seventy churches, to wait another forty years. The House will recall that it was only in February, 1964, that the then Home Secretary (now the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor) announced in another place that he would institute consultations with the Churches in this country as to the possibility of agreement being reached among them. It was as a result of this approach that the British Council of Churches later in that year invited the World Council to consider the matter, and the Executive Committee of the World Council agreed in July, 1965, to send out a questionnaire to all the member Churches. My latest inquiries have shown that about one half of the member Churches have now replied—not just 74 out of the 221, but about half. The British Council of Churches met in Windsor last week, and when I asked whether they had any further information than that which I had in my possession, that was their reply—about half had replied. So it is getting on. It appears that there have been another fifty replies in the last week since our earlier discussions on this matter.

Those who have replied are unanimous in their desire to have a fixed Easter, and the great majority favour the adoption of the date in April for which the 1928 Act provides. There is reason to hope that when a meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council takes place in August this year the views of all the important member Churches will be known. In our earlier discussions I asked the noble Lord whether he could not wait a year, because I knew that this questionnaire was to be sent out. I was not to know that it was going to take quite so long, so T do not think he can accuse me of trying to mislead him or put him off. When the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches meets in August, we hope that by then all the important member Churches will have given their views. I am sure the House agrees that we cannot carry the matter further at the present. Good progress has been made. We must await the out come of the meeting of the World Council, and consider in the light of that what action we should then take.