HL Deb 07 May 1974 vol 351 cc467-81

7.45 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, on August 3. 1928, the Royal Assent was given in this House to a Bill to fix the date of Easter Sunday. There was a debate on the Bill in both Houses, but there was no Division in either House; in other words, the Bill was passed with almost no opposition. There were a few noises from the Opposition, but no Division at all. There was support from more than one religious body, including, I may say, the Roman Catholics. I should now like to say, very briefly, what the Bill did and did not say.

What it did not say was that there must be agreement between the Churches on the Bill. Ever since then, I have been told by Her Majesty's Governments, of various denominations, that they will do nothing until the Churches agree. Even the Sunday Times last Sunday got it wrong. They said that the Act requires the agreement of the Christian Churches, but that is quite untrue. The Bill did not say anything of the kind. What it did say was that the Bill was not to be put into effect without an Order in Council laid before both Houses and approved. It went on to say, and these words are very important so I will read them carefully: Regard shall be had to any opinion expressed by any Church or other Christian body.

My Lords, during the past 45 years I have asked in this House how many such opinions have been expressed. I have never received an answer. On one occasion I asked this question with great particularity, and the only answer I got from the particular Government which happened to be in power at the time was that there had been no opinion expressed. I think I am safe in saying that in all these 45 years no opinions at all have been officially expressed by any religious body. If I am wrong, I shall be corrected, but I have never been corrected up to now. So I can say, I hope truthfully, that I have never had an answer to that question. If I am right, then the last excuse that Her Majesty's Government can possibly have for not putting this Bill into effect disappears.

My Lords, I deliberately accuse Her Majesty's Government (and I have said this about Conservative Governments as well as Labour Governments, omitting only Liberal Governments because they have never been in power in this period) of writing something into an Act of Parliament which is not there. I further say that in our democratic country that is a very wrong thing to do. If I am wrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who is to answer me disagrees, then I hope he will say so. But I challenge him to deny that that is the case. I challenge him to deny that Governments have put something into an Act of Parliament which Parliament has never passed.

The Government keep on saying that there must be agreement, but I would remind the House that on one occasion a meeting of 250 Anglican Bishops agreed on a fixed Easter without opposition. I would also remind the House that the last Vatican Council voted on this question, and the voting was: in favour 2,058; against 9. If that is not a big enough majority, I do not know what is. But, most unfortunately and most unhappily, they put in a proviso to this motion which was that it could not be put into force until the Orthodox Church agreed. That, of course, was fatal because nobody really thinks that the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church will ever agree so long as the two countries are constituted as they are now. So we go on. The Orthodox Church, of course, now has a different Easter from what we have; so why in the world we should wait for them to agree with us, I really do not know. Perhaps the noble Lord will explain that to the House, too.

I have very little more to say, because I have said a good deal about this subject on previous occasions. If nothing is done—and this is something I have not said earlier—I prophesy with some confidence, though with regret, that there will be a demand for a secular holiday in the month of April on a fixed date irrepective of Easter Sunday. I, as a Church man, would regret it, and I think many other Church people would regret it. The Church has already lost Whit Monday as a Bank Holiday; it is now only by coincidence that it occurs on the day after Whit Sunday. So we have already lost that. We are in great danger of losing Easter Monday as well, and I am very much afraid there will be a great demand for something to be done on those lines if the Government persist in this stubborn attitude of refusing to do anything.

What I want them to do is, of course, quite obvious. I want them to lay an Order in Council, which they must do under the Act before it comes into operation. I want them to keep the Whips off, because this is not at all a Party matter. And I want by those means to see whether Parliament still wants a fixed Easter, as I believe a great number of people do. I have not spoken for very long because, as I have said before, I have really nothing new to say. I therefore ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support the Question which has been put by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, I cannot promise to be as brief as he has been. At the same time, in the aggregate over the last 45 years, I imagine that my contribution will be very much less than his aggregate contribution in this respect. When he asked me whether I was interested in his Question, I looked back to the debate which I initiated on an Unstarred Question in 1962. I will not conceal from your Lordships that I was put up to it by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, who at that time was Chairman of Committees. He had found out in conversation that I was very interested in this whole matter, having recently been in Australia. So I read through the Report of that debate, which I believe is a most interesting survey of the whole situation as it was then, and which contained a most masterly contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Crook, who made an extremely interesting speech going right back to his association with Cardinal Mercier just after the first World War.

Since that date in 1962, the importance of the matter to the man in the street has been to a considerable extent reduced by the fixing of the Spring Bank Holiday and the August Bank Holiday in terms of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act. If one turns to the Reports of the debates in both Houses on that Act, one gets a further insight into this problem of holidays, to which the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has referred in very real terms, in connection with April. If your Lordships turn to the Schedules of the Act—though very few noble Lords, I imagine, will be sufficiently interested to study them—you will find the days there. Schedule 1 states: The following are to be bank holidays in England and Wales:— Easter Monday. The last Monday in May. The last Monday in August. 26th December, if it be not a Sunday. 27th December in a year in which 25th or 26th December is a Sunday. and so on for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If any noble Lord cares to study those against pencilled figures of the existing dates of Easter and the dates that would be Easter under the Act, I think he will find it extremely interesting, if only because those dates—particularly the one for the August Bank Holiday which I have just read out—have been arrived at after trial and error. I know I am right in saying that the first Monday in August was first tried, and obviously the last Monday is much the best, but if that needs to be altered it can be altered. Similarly, with the Spring Bank Holiday—I have not been able to find the authority for this, but I understand that it is so—if Whit Monday falls on the last Monday in May, then the Government have the power to choose a Monday in June.

As the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, said, this is not a Party matter. This flexibility has been reached after Socialist Governments and Conservative Governments have dealt with it and handled the details practically in terms of the man in the street. I will not elaborate at this late hour about the relation between these dates in the Schedule and the date of Easter, but I will confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has said; that the Churches have become more sympathetic towards the Act as it stands. I have already explained that the fixing of the dates of the Spring and Autumn Bank Holidays have reduced the real pressure which existed in 1962 to get something done.

But as the water has, as it were, flowed under the bridge, the Churches have become more sympathetic, and I will take issue with the noble Lord who has asked this Question about the fact that nothing official has been said. The Church of Scotland has passed a resolution, in confirming the Report of the Church and Nation Committee—I think it was six or seven years ago—in which they approved of this arrangement under the Act. If one wants to turn to what the Church of England says, one finds that in a Question and Answer in March, 1962, the noble Lord, Lord Fisher, quoted Archbishop Davidson in his approval of this fixing of the date of Easter.

Apart from the man in the street, the education authorities, and particularly the universities and medical schools and the like, still suffer considerable inconvenience from this wide variation in the date of Easter, which affects their estimates of the length of terms and the dates for their examinations, and so on. It is still possible for there to be two Easters in one fiscal year, to be followed by a fiscal year with no Easter in it at all. This has a bearing on statistics, and the like, but in the Episcopal Church it also has a bearing on the Easter Giving in the hands of the priest and the taxation that he, the priest, pays upon it. The fishing trade is adversely affected. There is the problem of the enormous demand for fish on Good Friday and during Lent—a matter of real importance to towns such as Aberdeen. These difficulties could be avoided if the Act was put into force, in that you would not have these very early Easters which mean fishing in times of the equinoctials.

In that debate in 1962, the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, made a most interesting speech, in which, speaking as a North Countryman, he referred to the Wakes Weeks and the problem of fixing them in relation to Easter. In the North of England, as in Scotland, they have this sensible arrangement whereby they do not all have a spring holiday, or an August holiday, on the same weekend, and so you have your Yorkshire Wakes and Lancashire Wakes, just as you have your Glasgow Fair and Edinburgh holidays. The noble Lord pointed out to me, when he said that he regretted that he could not be here to-night, that this problem of fixing the Wakes Weeks could be settled once and for all if you had this Act in force. The problem of the Wakes Weeks can have a bearing on the selection of a date for an election, because you cannot have a General Election if the whole of Yorkshire or Lancashire is on a Wakes Week holiday.

I shall not make more than a passing reference to the southern hemisphere. It is all very well talking of Easter and spring, but we must remember that for half the world Easter is in the autumn. There are various points that one could make, but I pick out only two of them. One is the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. If you had an early Easter, it would then fall at a time so close to their midsummer that it would be very trying for the animals. The conditions for the show itself, and for the growers of fruit and flowers and the other magnificent exhibits that you see, are very hot. I do not know how many of your Lordships have been to this Show, but if Easter is early then the heat is excessive and the fruit is not on top form. In South America they make a great thing of Shrove Tuesday, which they call Carnival. An early Easter makes it difficult for the big holidays that they have at Carnival and Shrove Tuesday.

There are a number of reasons why this Act need not be put into effect, most important of which is, "Why cannot we leave the thing be?", laissez-faire. But there are so many reasons why it should be put into effect that, in my view, they quite outweigh the objections. I look forward to the Minister's reply in the hope that, even if the Government cannot yet indicate a date for the implementation of the Act—and I would not for one moment expect that they can or will do so—they will take the initiative, which is what I think the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, suggested. Who asks whom? Where does it start? It must be for the Home Office to take the initiative so that Parliament's will, as expressed in their enactment of 1928, may be made effective before half-a-century has passed, as it will have in four years' time.

I would just cap what the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, said by quoting what was answered to a Question of mine in 1962; and I am referring to HANSARD of March 22, 1962, column 627. The Minister replied to me: Her Majesty's Government would not feel justified in initiating action …". The noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, said further in the exchanges: I made it quite clear in my Answer that we believe it is up to the Churches concerned. On July 24, 1962, at column 970, I went on: Is it, my Lords? With due respect, it can be maintained that the Act does not say that the approval of any Church must be obtained; this is the point which the noble Lord, Merthyr, made— only that 'regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed'. If no such opinion is expressed, it could be said that there is no reason why the Order in Council should not be made. There is one last point which has been made to me recently in discussing this subject with a friend. To implement the Act might well be another step, however small, towards a better understanding between the Churches.

8.6 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord is able to give me some enlightenment on one subject. I am personally very much in favour of the attitude of the two noble Lords who have spoken, but there is one point which has been referred to me fairly recently, namely that, historically speaking, Easter is inextricably linked with the Jewish Passover. From those of my friends who are practising Jews I have tried to discover whether the Jewish Passover is a moveable or a fixed feast. Most of them seem to think that it is moveable, but what governed its movement I do not think any of them knew. Of course Easter would always have to be moveable within seven days because Easter Day has to be a Sunday, and therefore the date will not always be the same. I wonder whether that is the case with Passover. I do not think that is nearly so important as the points that my noble friend Lord Merthyr has raised, and therefore if it cannot be arranged to fit in with the Jewish Passover I am not prepared in the least to protest about it.

8.8 p.m.


My Lords, as I am here, I should like to say a few words on this point. As the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, is so well aware, Easter is a Christian festival and is basically a united day on which all Christians should, and do, celebrate the resurrection of the risen Christ. Be one of any Christian faith or not, it is obviously slightly stupid to have a different face of Christianity celebrating this day of the risen Christ on different days of the year. Although I know and appreciate that the Act has been passed, I think that this caveat is important.

We are living in a Christian world, and we do not want to devalue Christian holidays into merely secular holidays. We must make a difference. What was Mary's day has become May Day and Labour Day. I am not decrying that because it is Labour Day—perhaps one day we may have a Tory Day—but I want to emphasise that holy days should be kept as something that is good. This is important, and this caveat upon which all Christian Churches should agree, is not something to be lightly shoved aside. This problem has existed for centuries. The great argument of St. Wilfred at the Synod of Whitby was the fixed or unfixed date of Easter. That was back, if I remember rightly, in the seventh century. This is not a new problem. I, as a Roman Catholic totally subscribe to what the Second Vatican Council said, and the Conservative Party, as your Lordships are well aware are totally in agreement with any point on which can be agreed this fixed Easter. But to have different Churches celebrating Easter on different days, and to have a United Kingdom Parliament legislating that this will be a fixed Easter, with the rest of Europe and the rest of the Commonwealth not necessarily following suit, is asking a little much of commonsense on what is essentially a day of Christian rejoicing. How can you have the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, and myself and the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, celebrating Easter here on one day, and our brothers or cousins in Australia on another day, and our brothers in Canada, perhaps if they have a Russian Orthodox Group there, on yet another day. We are bringing the matter more to an absurdity than we need.


My Lords, is that not what they do now, celebrate it on different days?


My Lords, at the moment we have two days, but if the Act is now brought into effect, we might have three different days. Instead of having just the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Easter, we would probably—for want of a better phrase—have the British Easter as well, and so we might have three instead of two different Easters. We may be making matters worse. In this case I think patience might be a virtue. I am not speaking for my Party, although I am speaking from this Dispatch Box, but I think I am speaking for a general consensus of opinion of my Party, which is why I am taking the liberty of speaking at this moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, referred to the talks of Cardinal Mercier, the Malines talks, and the then Lord Halifax. This has been a matter greatly in men's minds, and nobody is keener on this than myself. I believe a fixed Easter is generally and universally wanted. But if it is going to make matters more diverse than at the moment, then I for one, speaking for myself rather than for the Party, but speaking probably for a consensus of my Party, would say, "Let us go slowly if there is a chance later of getting a general opinion of agreement".

8.13 p.m.


My Lords, with respect to my noble friend who has just spoken, I think you have to go back to 400 A.D. and remember that it was at that time that the Greek Orthodox, the Eastern Church, separated from the Western Church almost entirely at the date of Easter. The date that was fixed for Easter bears little relationship to the Passover, as the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was saying; indeed, it bears little relationship to the actual date of the crucifixion.

I am very much impressed by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, that if we do not do something about this, then the nation itself will do something. People will not stand for what has now become a minority group of Christians in this country dictating to the rest, and I think something will come through. I have great respect for the noble Lord on our Front Bench here, the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, in his prosecution of the view of the Roman Catholics. I have for at least 15 years, possibly longer, been a member of the British Council of Churches, and from my experience I would say, almost unhesitatingly, that the Reformed Churches, both in this country and in North America, have no real opposition to a fixed Easter. I have heard the subject debated from time to time. Admittedly, the Roman Catholic Church are not full-time members, but are just Observers at the British Council of Churches, where I have heard the subject debated from time to time, and always in an inconclusive manner.


My Lords, if I may interrupt my noble friend, I think he must have totally misunderstood what I was saying. I was saying that I totally agreed that a fixed Easter was a very good thing provided the other Christian Churches agreed. All I was saying was that I thought a proliferation of different Easters was a bad thing because it would tend to proliferate the Christian feeling. I do not understand where my noble friend got the idea that the Roman Catholic Church—which I am not speaking for to-night-is against a fixed Easter. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Church of Scotland, and all the Churches, I understand, are totally in agreement that a fixed Easter is a good thing, provided we can get agreement on the date. But please do not say that I am against it.


My Lords, my noble friend advocated that we should proceed slowly. But has anything gone more slowly through the legislation of this country? It goes back a very long time indeed. I am sorry if I imputed something too strong to the Roman Catholic Church. I realised that the relative silence of their Observers in the British Council of Churches was not a matter without significance, although it was always pointed out at that time—a point that my noble friend has made—that so long as the Churches on the Continent would not agree to a fixed Easter, therefore we could not fix it either. I think that the time has come when we should ignore that fact. Even though we are in the Common Market, I do not see why we should not have a fixed Easter if we so want.

What strikes me about this matter to date is that if there was any substantial opposition in the Churches to a fixed Easter, your Lordships' House would have been overwhelmed with Prelates, but we have not had one present here to support the idea of continuing Easter as it is just now. We should also have had the other professional ecclesiastics who are Members of the House present and speaking on the subject, but none of them has come along. My argument is that the Churches in this country would welcome the Government taking a strong line and fixing Easter, and I suggest that if the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, were accepted, then we should have a real test of what the Churches in this country want. I am pretty certain that they would be only too happy to have it imposed upon them. Therefore I beseech the Government to take courage.

8.20 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with considerable interest to what has been said to-night and I spent some considerable time reading what has been said on former occasions. At the outset let me say that I fear I am not going to be of much value to the purpose of the Unstarred Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, referred to the absence of the Bishops. I think, with great respect, that one would be entitled to say that the fact that there is no Bishop here tonight may indicate that a fixed Easter is of very little importance to them.


Hear, hear!


I think that interpretation is a reasonable one, but may I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that a succession of Home Secretaries, a succession of Governments, as the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has pointed out, going back something like 46 years have found it necessary to stand by a sentence in the Act which reads: Regard should be had to any opinion officially expressed by a church or other Christian body". The interpretation of that can be whatever one wants it to be, but as I said, a succession of Home Secretaries and Governments have decided to rest on the official opinion of the Church and other Christian bodies.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? Have the Government received from any of the Reformed Churches within the last ten years an indication of a desire that Easter should not become a fixed date and that we should continue as we are doing?


If the noble Lord will allow me, I hope to come to that in due course. The requirement of full assent so far has not been fulfilled. I must point out to your Lordships that patient negotiations are continuing at this moment, but it seems unlikely that there will be progress in the near future. It is true that many Churches are willing to move to a fixed date but others so far have not yet come to any firm conclusion.


My Lords, we hear that these negotiations are proceeding. Is this between the Government and the Churches or between the Churches internationally or between the Churches in this country?


My Lords, if I may reply to my noble friend, it is between the Churches themselves. In 1970 an ad hoc commission with representatives from the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church concluded that a common date could and should be reached, but that it was important to arrive at a common date by mutual consent. They recommended that the World Council should continue its consultation with the aim of making a definite proposal to its member Churches when sufficient support had been secured. These consultations are continuing and it is our hope that the matter will be placed on the agenda of the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches which is to be held in 1975.

I do not think, with very great respect, that we can escape from the fact that Easter is a Christian festival and I think members of the Christian community wherever they may be throughout the world would want to observe the festival together on a particular day. One has to face the fact that the Christian community at the moment cannot make up its own mind as to whether to have it as the Act sets out. As your Lordships know, the Act provides that Easter Day shall be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The particular difficulty is that the various Christian communities are not able to come to an agreement among themselves regarding the fixed date.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, made reference to the Roman Catholic Church. We know the position of the Roman Catholic Church in this matter but I think I am right in saying that it is unlikely that His Holiness the Pope would approve a separate arrangement for a fixed Easter for the Western Churches without waiting for the concurrence of the Orthodox Churches. I think I am probably right in saying that.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is so right. Every Christian person from the lowest to the highest, from the most humble sinner to the holiest person, wants the acclamation of the living Christ on the same day. If you get this you get the meaning of Easter. If you get a proliferation of Easters, you lose the force of it. This is the whole meaning of what we are talking about.


My Lords, I would agree with what the noble Lord has said on this matter, but it is a fact that there is remarkably little public interest in this subject. I understand that the appropriate Government Department, namely, the Home Office, gets no correspondence at all on this matter. They get far more on British Summer Time than they do on this. I do not think we can claim that this is a matter of enormous importance or significance to the ordinary person.

I realise that it is frustrating. Some 46 years have passed since the Act was passed and it has not been brought into operation. It may be that some would go on to say that the wishes of the Churches should now be ignored and that the Government should act to fix the date of Easter unilaterally. If I may speak personally—though probably it is not wise for me to do so—I cannot think that this would be right. Good Friday and Easter Sunday comprise the most solemn festival in the Christian calendar, and I share the view that I think all Christians hold, that so far as possible this should be observed and celebrated on the same day. It is of great importance to Christians of all denominations in this country and overseas, and although we have waited 46 years the matter is still being considered and I think perhaps we may have to wait a while longer in the hope that something may be achieved.

Something was said—I cannot remember by which noble Lord—about the action taken by Government in this matter. In 1964 and again in 1972 the Home Secretary wrote to the British Council of Churches and to the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales to draw their attention to the continuing Parliamentary interest in a fixed Easter and to express the hope that they would use their good offices to support the efforts being made to reach an agreement in this matter. In 1970 an ad hoc Commission with representatives from the World Council, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as I said a moment ago, concluded that a common date could and should be reached but that it was important to arrive at a common date by mutual consent.

One noble Lord asked what was the response so far as the Christian bodies are concerned. My information is that in answer to an earlier World Council questionnaire, some 130 of the 232 member Churches replied. Of those who had replied, the majority favoured a fixed date, and the particular date that they favoured was the one provided in the Easter Act 1928. But there is no unanimity at the present moment and I think the general consensus of opinion is that as this is a Christian festival one must try to get some sort of agreement between the Christian bodies wherever they may be.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, raised the question of the Jewish Passover. It may be helpful to him, and to other noble Lords, if I say that the questions put to the Churches were whether they considered it desirable to have a common date for Easter throughout Christendom and whether they were of the opinion that the Church is free to re-examine the question of the date at Easter. They were also asked which of the following solutions they would agree to: fixing Easter on the Sunday following the second Saturday in April; or a solution based on the resolution of the Council of Nicea, the Sunday which follows next after the first full moon of Spring; or Easter to be fixed on the Sunday after the Jewish passover, which I think is the practice now.

I think I am right in saying that Easter comes the week following the Passover. Furthermore, in the event of universal agreement not being achieved, the Churches were asked whether they thought it desirable and possible to establish a regional consensus where different dates are observed by different traditions. So far there is no indication as to what they feel in that respect. This is a matter which I think the Home Secretary, and Governments, find it extremely difficult to pursue.

I mentioned a moment or two ago that the Home Office receives very little correspondence on this subject. It is our impression that the vast majority of the public is content with the status quo. It may even be that some like the variety which a movable Easter brings with it. But my right honourable friend the Home Secretary does not think that it is right to make any change in the date of Easter until we secure the full concurrence of the Churches. We continue to hope that progress is being made towards this end and that ultimately agreement will be reached.

For their part, the Government will continue to take what initiatives are open to them towards the securing of an agreement of some kind. I do not think this is due to the lack of effort on behalf of successive Governments, or on behalf of successive Home Secretaries; rather it is that this is a difficult matter. As I have said, we have some reason to believe, because they have been asked to do it, that the World Council of Churches will put this matter on its agenda for 1975. With great respect, my Lords, I think that we ought to wait to see the outcome, notwithstanding the fact that we have waited so long, in the hope that this matter will be successfully resolved ere long.