HL Deb 29 April 1970 vol 309 cc1084-102

4.57 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, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I ought to apologise for troubling your Lordships' House so frequently with this self-same Question, but in self-defence may I say that my reason for doing so is that in my respectful submission I never get an Answer, and I do not get a full or satisfactory reply. Her Majesty's Government have never said when they intend to bring this Act into operation, and that is what I want to know.

There may be one or two Members of the House who were not previously aware that in 1928—that is, 42 years ago—Parliament passed the Easter Act. I will pause at this point to put forward, very shortly, the advantages of a fixed Easter, because Parliament was well aware of the advantages in 1928. Parliament has been aware of them ever since, and I hope is aware of them to-day. I am going to shorten my speech by leaving out all the advantages, on the assumption that your Lordships are fully aware of them. I will mention not the most important advantage but the latest that has come to my notice. Only two days ago I had an entirely unsolicited letter from the British Resorts Association saying what a great advantage it would be for all the coastal resorts and others around the British Isles to have a fixed Easter. The Association listed hundreds of them.

In 1928 not only was this Act passed into law but there was virtually no opposition to it in either House. I say "virtually" no opposition because al-though in the House of Commons a Motion for the rejection of the Bill was put down, after debate the Motion was withdrawn, and the Act was passed into law without a Division in either House of Parliament. In your Lordships' House not only was that so but all the speakers who took part in the debate were in favour of the Bill. They were speakers from the Government and Opposition, Protestants and Roman Catholics. No-body spoke against the Bill, and nobody spoke more strongly in favour of it than the representative of His Majesty's Government. I have said all this in your Lordships' House before, and I do not propose to repeat it to-day. I can only hope that I shall receive credit for that.

In order to explain why I am asking this Question I should say that the Bill, having provided for a fixed Easter, went on to make two provisos. The first was that the Bill should not come into force without an Order in Council, approved by both Houses of Parliament; and nobody, certainly not I, has any objection to that. Nor have I any objection personally to the second of the two provisos, which is, however, for our purposes to-day, by far more important. That proviso said that before it came into force—I will quote the exact words because I think they are quite important: regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. Those are important words and I do not underrate them at all. I only plead that they should be read and interpreted exactly for what they say, and for no more.

Those important words provide the only discernible reason for not bringing the Act into force. I cannot see or find any other possible reasons. Your Lord-ships will note (I have pointed this out before) that in those words there is nothing at all about agreement. Parliament could have said, "We are not going to have this Act until all the Churches have agreed." It did not say so; there was not a word about agreement. And to say, "regard shall be had" is, I submit, different from saying, "agreement shall be obtained ".

So I have repeatedly asked this question: how many officially expressed opinions by the Churches have been received in all the time since 1928? How many have they sent in to His Majesty's and Her Majesty's Governments? In my submission, I have never received an answer to that question. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who was the last Government Minister to reply to me, said he had answered it; but I cannot find that he gave me an answer. The noble Lord, Lord Bowles, whom I am very pleased to see here to-day, went so far as to say that none has been received by this Government—which was not, with all respect, what I asked. He ventured that rather rash remark, and I was very pleased to hear it. But I wanted to know whether any such opinions had ever been received. Because in the absence of any answer to this question, I am going to invite your Lordships to agree with me that there never has been any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other religious body; that is to say, no Church has ever sent in any opinion on this matter to the Government. If I am wrong, I hope that I shall be corrected.

I therefore guess, and suggest, that the true answer to my question is, "None". If it is, will some Minister of the Crown— will the noble Lord who is to answer to-day—be good enough to say so? I shall be much obliged, and of course I shall be very glad to hear it. Because the answer to that question provides, in my opinion, the last remaining justification for delay. If no opinion is ex-pressed, and never has been, by a religious body, there simply is no justification for delay, at any rate if one reads the words of the Act of Parliament carefully, as I submit we all should. The last remaining excuse therefore disappears if the answer is "None". Is it possible that that is why I cannot get an answer to the question?

I submit, with all respect, that Her Majesty's Government are reading into this Act something which is not there. They keep on saying that they must get agreement from the Churches. I have said already that there is nothing in the Act about agreement by the Churches. What I am always told, every time I ask this Question—and I suppose I may be told it again to-day—is: "Wait another year." I do not know how many years it is since I was first asked to "Wait another year"; it is at least five. I am wondering very much whether I shall be told that again today. I am still waiting. My Lords, we are all waiting after 42 years. If, in 1928, any Member of either House had been told that 42 years later this Act would not be in operation, I do not think he would have believed the statement at all. It would have been thought that we were all rather mad to think it was possible for such delay to occur.

However, suppose that agreement were needed—I am not admitting that agreement was needed, but supposing it was. Let us see what the result would then be. The Church of England is certainly, I submit, in agreement. In justification for that remark, I quote the fact that 250 Anglican Bishops expressed unanimously the opinion that this Act was a good Act and ought to be brought into law. I was not in the House much yesterday, but I read in the Press this morning— and I say this with great respect to the right reverend Prelates—that they were not in complete agreement yesterday; and I believe that your Lordships respect them all the more for it. That they should express their own individual opinions in this House, I think is a matter for congratulation and for nothing else. As I say, we respect them all the more for it. Then all the more, perhaps, I can plead with justification that when we have 250 right reverend Prelates saying the same thing—"I think Easter ought to be fixed"—that is a powerful argument in favour of bringing this Act into force. I would mention only incidentally (I have said it before) that the League of Nations took the trouble to inquire of 40 countries whether they were in favour of a fixed Easter. They all said, "Yes." I could quote many more figures, but I shall refrain.

I now pass to the Roman Catholic Church. Although I am not a Catholic, I agree that we ought to try to meet the views of the members of that Church, many of whom live in this country. What do we find? Until 1963, I know to my cost that it was rather difficult to find out what the Roman Catholic Church did think. But since 1963 it has not been so difficult. In 1963 a Vatican Council was held and, as I have said in this House before, a large number of people were voting in the Council. And if I may again translate the voting figures into the figures which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would have used had he been announcing the result of the voting, he would have said to your Lordships: "There have voted, Contents, 2,058; Not-Contents, 9", showing a majority in the Vatican Council of 2,049. My Lords, is that not enough?

Now may I remind the House (and I do so quite seriously) what the motion was that was passed by the Vatican Council. I think that this is important and we should know it. It said: The Sacred Council would not object if the Feast of Faster 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. That was the motion that was passed by such a vast majority.

I will not shrink from dealing with the proviso in that motion. I think we must all meet it. If it means that the agreement of every single other Church has to be obtained, then I admit straight away that we shall never get anywhere, because as I think the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, said on the last occasion, every Church is agreed, provided every other Church agrees. If we are going to wait until we get the agreement of the un-known number of Churches in the world —and I believe the number is unknown— we shall never get anywhere. But are we going to wait all that time?

I leave it at that, my Lords. But before I sit down I want to make a suggestion. If the Government are so reluctant to bring into force this Act of Parliament which Parliament has so decisively said it wants—and no body have said that they do not want it—if they are going to wait any longer, will they now lay before both Houses of Parliament an Order in Council to see whether both Houses will pass it, because both Houses must pass it before the Act comes into force. Would it not be a fair test if they would do that? If they agreed to that I would ask them not to put the Whips on because we want a real, independent vote showing the actual opinions of Members of both houses. Provided that the Whips are kept off, I would ask the Government to lay an Order now in order to see whether Parliament is of the same opinion as it was 42 years ago.

If the Government did that, all the arguments could be stated. As your Lordships know, there can be a debate on an Order in Council which requires the assent of both Houses of Parliament; and the great advantage would be that Parliament would decide this matter, I would hope, finally and for all. If Parliament said, "No", I would accept it and I would say no more, ever again, about Easter; but I would very much hope that Parliament might be of the same opinion as it was in 1928. Is there any other course consistent with true democracy than the one which I have suggested?

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, if I may, to say a few words in support of the Question which has been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. I am particularly glad to do this, for I believe that the subject is not an academic one but has much more practical importance to all of us than may appear on the surface. I cannot pretend to be an authority on the subject with which this Question deals, and I say this with the more deference in the presence of two distinguished members of the Bishops' Bench. How-ever, I have made such study as I can.

Since I have been in your Lordships' House there have been, as the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has already said, Motions and Questions on a number of occasions appealing on grounds of general national convenience for the establishment of a fixed Easter on the lines of the Act of 1928. But to the best of my recollection we have always had the same reply, to which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has already referred. That reply is that communications have been addressed to all the heads of the Western Christian Churches in order to get uniformity, and that a number of these have not yet replied.

No doubt if uniformity could be obtained it would be most desirable. But, my Lords, is it really such a vital necessity? This great Feast of Easter— the greatest of all the Feasts in the Christian calendar—is held to record and celebrate the fact of Christ's Resurrection: not the date of it, otherwise the date would not vary from year to year Moreover, the whole idea of a uniform date for the celebration of Easter throughout Christendom—though it was hallowed, I believe I am right in saying, by a decision of the Council of Nicea in the year 325—was followed by further disputations, and it seems that for a very long time it was honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. For instance, I have found, from an exploration in that mine of information, the Encyclopædia Britannica, which I hope may be regarded as authoritative, that St. Augustine—who I am sure we may regard as dependable—said definitely that in his day, in the year 387, the Churches in Gaul kept Easter on March 21; the Churches in Italy kept Easter on April 18, and the Churches of Egypt kept it on April 25.

I will not go further into the discussions and disputations of those early days; nor will I refer to the complicated question of the Golden Number, for not only do I find it extremely difficult to under-stand but I believe it is entirely irrelevant to our present situation. Indeed, I apologise for going into such very ancient history at all. But I wanted to make it clear—and I hope I have done so— that though, since what I believe has been the last decision on this subject, at the time of the correction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1588, Easter has been celebrated over the whole area of Western Christendom on the dates laid down at that time, there is nothing which is fundamental to the Christian faith that such a thing should be so. In fact, I believe it has become steadily clearer that, though such a decision may have been justified 400 years ago, a system which results in Easter being celebrated in this country at widely differing dates, as between one year and another, is no longer suitable to the times in which we live.

In this country, Easter is not only a Feast of the Church, it is a public holiday; and in view of the idiosyncracies of our climate, all too often (as has happened in this very year) that holiday has had to be held far too early to be of any pleasure to those working people for whom it is intended. I do not know what the spring climate of Nicea was, but ours, as we all know, is extremely uncertain, and this is something that we ought to take into account. If a date were fixed—say the third Sunday in April—and if it were to be the same every year, everybody would be happier; it would be far easier for people to make their arrangements, and I cannot see that the basic principles of the Christian faith would suffer in any way.

Therefore, my Lords, if the reply we are to receive this evening, as in the past, is to be that answers have not yet been received from all the countries who have been consulted, my reply is, "Let us snap our fingers at those other countries and do what is most convenient to us". We have waited 42 years; we cannot wait for ever. If what we do is reasonable we may fairly expect that those other countries will in due course come round to our view. I submit, with great deference, that that is the sensible view. Therefore I hope that both the Government and the ecclesiastical authorities will on this particular occasion, in contrast to previous occasions, give a favourable reply to our request, and will make it clear that they are ready to bring a fixed date for Easter into operation, in accordance with what is already the existing law of the land, as soon as arrangements can be completed.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, and the noble Marquess in what they have said. I hope very much that the noble Lord will extract from the Government their reason for not implementing the Act of 1928. All I can do is to state what I believe is the reason why there have been difficulties on the ecclesiastical side, though I hope that these difficulties will no longer stand in the way, because I believe that most of them are quite imaginary and irrelevant.

Let me say first that the present way of dating Easter comes, as the noble Marquess has reminded us, from the Council of Nicea, in A.D. 325, and the main intention of that Council was a common date acceptable to all Churches. It was not to be dependent on the Jewish calculation of the Passover, and was accordingly fixed as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. But, as we have been reminded, there was a certain amount of disparity and differences of practice, and indeed following the famous Synod of Whitby in 664, when Northumbria adopted the Nicean principle and relinquished that held by the Celtic Church, we then had a difference of practice between Northumbria and the Celtic Church in this country.

In the course of time—this is where the real difficulty begins to come out— the Julian Calendar ruling at the date of the Council of Nicea was seen to be inaccurate, and in 1582 Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian Calendar, which was adopted in England and Scotland only in 1752. The Western Churches have all based their Easter on this calendar, but most of the Eastern Churches base it still on the Julian. There can therefore be as much as five weks difference between the Western and the Eastern calendars, although occasionally they coincide. This year the Eastern Easter was exactly one month after the Western Easter, but, as we have already heard this afternoon, there is a great desire among most Christians to have a common date for Easter.

Perhaps I ought to say to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, that when he refers to the Second Vatican Council I am not quite sure that his deduction is correct. As he said, there was this notable vote, with the contents 2,058 and the not-contents only nine. But it was, I think, for a common date for Easter, rather than a fixed date. It may be that that implied a fixed date; but, on the other hand, one might say that what they were chiefly wanting was to bring East and West together with a common date. Fair enough; that is stage one, but if you get them to agree to stage one it will not be very long before stage two arises. There is no doubt that the Church of England want both stage one and stage two, because the Church Assembly, in 1966, in response to the question from the World Council of Churches whether the Church of England considered it desirable to have a common date for Easter throughout Christendom, debated a memorandum prepared by the standing committee, which recommended fixing Easter on the Sunday following the second Saturday in April. The Assembly passed this resolution: That this Assembly would welcome the introduction of a fixed date for Easter, prefer-ably on the Sunday following the second Saturday in April. I would, however, hasten to assure the noble Marquess that that was really a suggested date, and if Parliament preferred another date I am sure that the Church would be as ready to accept it.

I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, knows that it is only recently that the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, at their third meeting near Geneva last month, found two possibilities for fixing Easter: either the third Sunday following the vernal full moon or the Sunday following the second Saturday in April, which is again what the Church of England suggested through the General Assembly. Therefore we have the World Council of Churches and the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church wanting certainly a common date, and, I should have thought, a fixed date as well.

What are the difficulties? As I under-stand it, they are these: that Rome, and I suppose perhaps the Anglican Church, does not like making decisions without consulting the great Eastern Orthodox Churches, which number among others the Churches of Greece and Russia. Customs there can be altered only by a Panorthodox conference; that is to say, there must be representatives from the many Orthodox Churches from the East under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. But at once you are landed into political difficulties, because I do not think there has been such a Panorthodox conference since the Revolution and it is very unlikely that there will be one in the foreseeable future, because of the political difficulties vis-à-vis Russia and Greece and Russia and some of the other Orthodox Churches. I say frankly that if we are going to wait for agreement and consultation between the Roman Church and ourselves and all the other Churches, on the one hand, and the Panorthodox Churches, on the other, we shall wait till Kingdom come, and I think it is just unrealistic. The only thing we can do is to go ahead.

My Lords, does it really matter? We have two Easters as it is. The worst that could happen is that just a. section of Christendom would still have a date for Easter which the great majority of Christians would not have. But that would be far better than what exists at the present time, where the great majority of Christians, those other than the Orthodox, are just going from one date to another date, to another date. At least we, the non-Orthodox—and I am using non-Orthodox in the strictest technical sense of those who do not belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church—would all have the one date. And does the fact that the Orthodox are going to have Easter on another date really affect us? Is it really going to upset the Orthodox?

I am rather in favour of two Easters. I was in the Middle East three or four years ago, representing the Church of England, and I had all sorts of most charming invitations from Archbishops, from the Roman Church and from other Churches in the Middle East. I went to one party after another for the best part of a week and felt rather sad, when the Thursday or Friday had come, that those parties were at an end; only to find that the Orthodox were starting their Easter the next Sunday and so a whole new series of invitations came. I went from one Patriarch to another and flew to Constantinople for a marvellous Easter banquet with the Ecumenical Patriarch. As far as I know, nobody was offended, nor did it do anything to create difficulties between the Churches.

Let us come home. Many Anglican churches in this country are used now by other denominations, to help them in their difficulties. There are many people who come into England from Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Orthodox world, and we are glad to lend them our churches. I think there are three or four churches in my own diocese which are used for this purpose. Only last week the Eastern Orthodox were keeping the Holy Week, and only last Sunday their Easter Day, and I was privileged to receive a gracious invitation from one, who made use of one of my churches near Richmond, to be present at one of their churches. I cannot begin to see that this creates difficulties for the Church of England Orthodox Church.

So I hope very much that the Government will go ahead. I am sure that the Government will have the support of a great majority of Christians in all denominations. And if the Government are still hesitant about accepting the suggestion that has been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, may I suggest that in any case we have a trial period of ten years and have a look at the matter again; just as with double summer time we are having this trial period and presumably there will be a time when we shall look at it again if we feel that there are a sufficient number of people in this country who are really put out by double summer time. If, after ten years, it is found that this fixed date for Easter does put real hardship on Christians or other groups, which I believe to be most improbable if not impossible, then I am sure that the Government would be sufficiently gracious to have a look at it again. I should prefer the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, to be accepted as it is, but I put forward this slight amendment to it, a trial period of ten years, merely to help the Government to make some move. That move is badly wanted, not least by the churches, because it will help us considerably if we can work to a fixed calendar.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate has just said, I cannot really see the necessity for agreement with the Eastern Church. Last year I had one Easter in Cyprus and another in Greece and there was one week's difference, but apparently Easters can get as far apart as five weeks, which I did not know. What does it matter if we con- tinue to have this difference through an act on our part? Eventually they may come to agree with our date. From the secular point of view, the great thing really is that the Eastern Orthodox people and the people of the Western Churches are separate. One does not get influxes of tourists from one area to the other, so from the secular holiday point of view, providing that the Roman Catholics and ourselves of the Protestant Churches agree on a date, it does not matter in the least if the Orthodox Churches find it takes them a long time to make up their own minds. If Her Majesty's Government can get some agreement between the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans I think they ought to go ahead, because I feel certain that the Free Churches will follow the date chosen.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, there have been such informed, confident and authoritative speeches made that I feel a little diffident in intervening in this discussion at all. There is one thing on which I think we should all agree, and that is that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has absolutely no need to apologise for raising this matter again. I have never heard any matter raised in a more pleasing and agreeable fashion than has been the case this afternoon and on earlier occasions. When the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, raised the matter in February, 1967, which was a year in which Easter Day fell on March 26, it was the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who predicted that people would be spending Easter in "blizzard conditions". I am not sure whether that prediction was in fact fulfilled, but this year, with Easter Day on March 30, in Southern England at any rate we did have a blizzard. It may well be that this was the reason why the noble Lord raised the matter again to-day. I am bound to add that a more comprehensive analysis of the weather situation around this period shows that if we had a later Easter it would be a warmer, but a wetter, Easter. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, prefer to be at the coastal resorts on a wet day or a cold day, but for myself I do not think the argument is absolutely conclusive that a later Easter would be better from the point of view of recreation.


My Lords, the noble Lord is speaking with enormous confidence. Has the noble Lord taken the statistics from the Meteorological Office on this matter, or is this his own opinion?


No, my Lords, I am taking the analysis which was supplied to me by the Department. I am not venturing to interpose my own personal view against the superior personal view of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke; I am merely giving him the view that was put to me, and saying that in my view—and I now come to my view—it is not necessarily conclusive that a later Easter would be more attractive, or more agreeable to all of us. Indeed, thinking of the weariness that was expressed by certain noble Lords when the House rose at Easter on the last occasion, I think it is not altogether certain—now that we have a fixed Spring Holiday—that if we were to extend the period from Christmas to a later Easter it would be in the best interests of all concerned.

Several noble Lords have referred to the Council of Nicea, and indeed the right reverend Prelate gave us the terms of the formula which they fixed. In fact it went a little further, and perhaps I can set out the three points which the Council at that time agreed should be satisfied: first, that Easter should fall on a Sunday; secondly, if possible, that Sunday should be the same Sunday thoughout Christendom; thirdly, that the Sunday should be the first Sunday—as the right reverend Prelate said—after the full moon following the Vernal Equinox. As has been said, some 1,600 years later this is still the basis of the calculation. The divergence between the date on which Easter is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Churches arises—as the noble Marquess said—from the alteration of the secular calendar, dating, in this country, from 1752, when we changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

It was in February, 1928, shortly be-fore the Second Reading of the Stabilisation of Easter Bill, that the then Arch-bishop of Canterbury set out the view of the Church of England in a letter to the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, was very interested as to what correspondence there has been from any church body to the Home Secretary. At that date the then Archbishop of Canter-bury said: So far as I understand there is at present no objection whatsoever on the part of the ecclesiastical bodies to the Fixed Easter being adopted provided the adoption be general and not confined either to one country or to one part of the Christian Church. It is all very well to say that every-body wants a common date, but there has always been this proviso. The right reverend Prelate said that if there could be agreement as between the Roman Church and the Anglican Church, that is as far as one needed to go for agreement, but the 1963 Vatican Council resolution to which he referred said— and I quote the words which the right reverend Prelate used: The Sacred Council would not object if the Feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian calendar"— with again the proviso— 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 that again, although they agree to have a fixed date, they only agree to this fixed date provided that it is in common with the other Churchss.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that for the reasons I gave it is impossible to have this agreement, because there is no organisation representing the Orthodox Church which is allowed to meet and which could possibly express an opinion?


My Lords, possibly I could just finish what I am saying, and I hope to deal with that point. It may be of historical interest, if the hour is not too late, if I remind your Lord-ships of what was said in 1928, in that debate of which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, reminded us. On the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill on February 17, Captain Bourne said: We do not want to have a civil and ecclesiastical Easter in this country and we do not want to have Easter in this country on a different day from the Easter in France, because that would cause intolerable inconvenience and great difficulty to certain people in regard to their religious beliefs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 17/2/1928, col. 1099.] That was his view, and it is a view to which many people would subscribe. So I do not really believe the noble Marquess is correct when he said, "Let us get on with it in this country". Those who have said in the past that we ought to do something about it have always had regard to the position in certain other countries, if not universally through-out the world.


My Lords, the noble Lord may say that I am not correct, but that is what I think. What these people said 40 years ago has only led to a delay of 40 years, and it looks to me as if there will be a further delay of 40 years unless we take a line of our own.


My Lords, I accept what the noble Marquess has said, but the point is surely that there were people at that time who thought, and there are people to-day who think, that it would certainly be a mistake if we had an Easter in this country which was different from Easter in France, for example. So that a measure of agreement is certainly required.

I have another quotation from the same debate on the same day, from a speech by a Mr. S. Allen, who said (col. 1115): If we accept the Bill in this House it will be necessary to make it quite clear in some way or another that there is no desire or attempt on the part of Parliament and the State to dictate to the Church as to Church Festivals ". He went on to say that it would be absurd to have a change of this kind made here if the rest of the world did not follow; and other speakers went on on the same theme. So I think it is fair to claim that when the Act was passed it was the general opinion that it would not be right to impose a fixed Easter on the religious authorities unless there was wider agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, raised an interesting point about the provisos that were attached to that Act. The then Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (as he then was) had this to say on that point: The honourable and learned Member for South-East Leeds seemed to feel that, if the House were to pass this Bill they would put it in the power of some irresponsible Secretary of State—I supose he had in contemplation a change of Government, because I am sure he would not include myself in that category—to rush through an Order-in-Council without any communication with the ecclesiastical authorities, and get Easter established, so creating a very serious divergence of opinion in the secular and in the ecclesiastical world. Nothing could be further from my thoughts, and I am quite prepared to ask my honourable friends— in fact, I have asked them, and I am authorised by them to say that they will be perfectly willing, as I should, to insert a Clause in the Bill providing that the Order-in-Council shall not be made until after a Resolution has been passed by this House. That, I think, would give everyone complete assurance. Then the Government will be given the formal right to go to the ecclesiastical authorities, backed up by the decision of Parliament." [col. 1143.] That is really the basis of the agreement of 1928—although I hasten to say to the noble Marquess that I am with him all the way if he says that we should not accept everything that was agreed in 1928—and that has been the policy of all Governments since that time. The Christian Churches were asked through their appropriate organisations to make their views known. As I understand it, the Churches feel that they must speak with one voice; but so far they have not been able to do so. The main difficulty, as the right reverend Prelate said, flows from the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Church con-ducts its affairs according to a different secular calendar from that adopted in the West. I have been asked: why can-not the Western Churches give their agreement and let the Eastern Orthodox Easter be fixed by reference to the views of that Church. But I am advised—and I quoted from the authority of the 1963 Resolution—that the Roman Catholic Church feels unable to agree to a fixed Easter which is not acceptable to their Eastern brethren.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has argued in the past—and he made the same point again to-day—that, in taking the necessary statutory action to fix a date for Easter, all the Government have to do is to have regard to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. But what he has not told us is how the Government are to measure one opinion against another. And I suggest that it is not reasonable to suppose that, at a time when the differences represented by national frontiers are continuing to diminish, each country should deal with this in isolation. He and I are at one about certain organisations' advocating a removal of sovereignty in so many fields, and I am sure that he thinks it would be a mistake for us to act unilaterally on this matter.

Then we had the point made that it would be sufficient if secular Governments agreed among themselves about the date of a fixed Easter. But this is simply shutting one's eyes to the fact that Easter is a Christian Festival, and one which forms the very bedrock of the Christian religion. I do not believe for one moment that secular Governments of countries where Christian beliefs pre-dominate would wish to run counter to their national Church authorities. If I may say so, I think that that is over-simplifying a complicated matter, and one in which at least ten Governments in 40 years have felt unable to proceed.

On the other hand—and I was asked: what correspondence has there been, and is this matter quite dead?—we have reason to believe that this matter is not being ignored by Church organisations. They are now seeking an agreed answer among themselves. There was the meeting in Geneva last month, convened by the Faith and Order Secretariat of the World Council of Churches, between representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the World Council of Churches on this matter. The results of those deliberations, I am told, are to be made known at the meeting of the Faith and Order Working Committee next August. It is reported in the Press (and I understand that it has been confirmed by the Church authorities here), that the World Council of Churches hopes to secure sufficient support for one of the suggestions to make a definite proposal which would carry the agreement of both Eastern and Western Churches.

I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has been very patient in this matter, and I think I have recognised that the patience of the noble Marquess is tending to wear a little thin. But as we have waited for 40 years, I think it would be reasonable to see what emerges from that meeting in August.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he deal with my suggestion that an Order might be laid before the House to test the opinion of the House? I mentioned it to him this morning, so I happen to know that he has a reply to it, and I should be sorry to deprive him of the opportunity of giving a reply.


Yes, my Lords. I thought my quotation from the late Sir William Joynson-Hicks was in measure a reply to the noble Lord. But my answer to that question is that it is not proposed to take that action—certainly not before August.