HL Deb 05 December 1968 vol 298 cc299-302

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, with reference to the Easter Act 1928, and in particular to Section 2(2) thereof:—

  1. (1) how many "opinions officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body" have been received since the Royal Assent was given to the Act on August 3, 1928;
  2. (2) how many of such opinions were
    1. (a) in favour of, and
    2. (b) against the Act;
  3. (3) what action, if any, has been taken "having regard to" such opinions;
  4. (4) how much longer time, if any, is to be allowed for the receipt of such opinions;
  5. (5) upon what date it is intended to bring the Act into force.]


My Lords, following the passage of the Easter Act 1928, opinions were sought from 19 Christian Churches in the United Kingdom, and from the Holy See through the diplomatic channel. In March, 1964, a further approach was made to the British Council of Churches and to the Roman Catholic authorities here. It seems that all the major Christian denominations in this country would welcome a fixed Easter but that few, if any, would wish to see it introduced without general agreement among the Western Churches, and with the Roman Catholic Church in particular. The World Council of Churches have been prompted to consider the matter and further action by the Government must now depend upon the amount of agreement they can achieve. So far, of the 232 member Churches and associates 120 have replied. All of these favour a fixed Easter, but only 37—and they with some hesitation—would contemplate Easter being fixed on a regional basis. The Government cannot set a term to the deliberations of the World Council of Churches, nor, in the circumstances, can they predict when it may be possible for the Easter Act to be given effect.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that there is not a word in this Act of Parliament, passed 40 years ago, about the agreement of all the Churches, or any of them?


My Lords, when the Act was passed in 1928 it showed that there was a wide measure of acceptance by the Churches of the principle of a fixed Easter, but it was qualified then, as now, by the wish that this should first be agreed upon among Christian communities in general. The difference between then and now is that active measures are being taken to achieve this wider objective. But if the noble Earl thinks that this Government would think of dictating to the Christian Churches in this matter, then he is quite wrong.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it was on my initiative that the further discussions which he mentioned in March, 1964, were undertaken with the Churches in this country, and that this was done as a deliberate act of policy so as to see whether the Government could speed up a general decision on a fixed date for Easter? Will the noble Lord give an undertaking to your Lordships that the Government will not wash their hands of the matter, but will continue to urge in every way they can that a sufficient measure of agreement should be obtained so that this reform can take place?


My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, that there is no question whatever of the Government washing their hands of action in this matter. Good Friday and Easter Sunday comprise the most solemn Festival in the Christian Calendar, and it is not to be thought of that we should dictate in this matter. As the noble Lord is probably aware, the Vatican Council have declared in favour, in principle, of a fixed Easter, but they have also indicated that they would not go ahead until agreement had been reached with the Eastern Orthodox Church. So far there has been no such agreement. We have to move forward together in this matter. The situation now (and this is a further answer to the noble Lord) is that consultations are to be held between the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council and the Roman Catholic Secretariat for Unity, and these are being held in June of next year. So one can hope that agreement may well be reached in somewhat less than just the "foreseeable future", and in that case the Government will almost assuredly act.


My Lords, the noble Lord said, I think, that there could not be an agreement until the Eastern Orthodox Church had agreed. But their Easter is on a different date now, is it not?


My Lords, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, because they do not use the Gregorian Calendar, Easter Day is different. Before the Vatican Council are prepared to move forward they want to get agreement with the Orthodox Church. In other words, it is unlikely that we shall get this agreement for a fixed Easter unless all the major Churches of the World Council of Churches can come to agreement. That is the particular difficulty that we have yet to overcome.


My Lords, in the absence of the President of the British Council of Churches, the most reverend Primate, may I, as a Vice-President, inquire whether, in the event of the British Council of Churches making a recommendation that the date of Easter be fixed, the Government would give serious consideration to that recommendation regardless of the position of the Orthodox Church?


My Lords, the Government would give serious; consideration to any recommendation of the British Council of Churches. But I would remind the noble Lord of the first Answer I gave, which was that no one was in favour of action on a regional basis. One would imagine (though I cannot really believe that this would happen) that if there were a separate recommendation from the British Council of Churches, as the noble Lord envisages, it could be only on a regional basis, and I should have thought that this ought not to be acceptable to them; and I cannot say that it would be something that would prompt action by the Government in this matter.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that three years ago, when I asked a similar Question, I was told to wait one more year?


My Lords, I am perfectly well aware of that because not only did the noble Lord ask the Question three years ago but I answered it. I think it was then excellent advice, although perhaps slightly too optimistic. But I will say to him again: please wait one more year. I hope that he will be there to ask the Question and that I shall be at this Box to answer it, and that I shall give him a favourable reply.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his answers give complete satisfaction to those of us who sit on these Benches, and that we consider tint he has shown a very exact knowledge of the present state of ecclesiastical opinion on this matter? Secondly, is he aware that there would be very considerable reluctance in Christian circles in England to embark on a fixed Easter which took them out of step with other Christian countries in Western Europe?


My Lords, I am much obliged to the right reverend Prelate for confirming what I understood to be the situation in the British Council of Churches.

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