HL Deb 05 April 1984 vol 450 cc876-90

8.22 p.m.

Lord Airedale rose to move, That this House would welcome the coming into operation of the Easter Act 1928 to provide that Easter Day shall be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It is over half a century since Parliament passed the Easter Act 1928, and I think one is entitled to ask why is it that the Act still has not been implemented. If you ask that question to the man in the street, the answer that you are likely to get is that it must be because the churches have not managed to agree about it, but that is a popular misconception.

The 1928 Act does not mention the agreement of the churches. The nearest it gets to that is in Section 2(2). I had better read the very words—and there are few of them—in order that the matter may be absolutely clear: regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body".

That is a long way from saying that the churches have to agree. The World Council of Churches has 239 members, and I do not imagine that Parliament in 1928 ever supposed that all the churches in Christendom would ever agree unanimously about anything. The Churches have had over half a century in which to express their opinions and I should have thought that that was time enough. The date of Easter under the present arrangements can vary by more than a month. It can be as early as 22nd March; it can be as late as 25th April. That is dictated by the behaviour of the moon. If any noble Lord supposes that it is the real moon up in the sky upon which Mr. Neil Armstrong and Mr. Buzz Aldrin took their historic stroll, may I say that it is not. It is a notional, imaginary moon having no substance whatever. I can only say that this is surely a flimsy formula to adopt in order to commemorate I suppose possibly the most momentous event in human history.

Easter Day presumably has to be on a Sunday, and that means it can never be fixed precisely in the way that Christmas can be fixed, and that perhaps is a pleasing thought for those who like some variation in the date of Easter. But the present variation has far too wide implications. For instance, when most of us were at school I think the Lent school term was of a certain length and Easter sometimes fell in term time and sometimes in the holidays. But the present practice seems to be to wrap the school holidays around Easter. That may be a perfectly proper and sensible arrangement; but it is plain that with Easter wandering about the calendar in the way that it does, that plays havoc with the length of school terms. That must be a great inconvenience to those who have to arrange the school curricula.

Then Easter is regarded by many people as the first outdoor holiday of the year—with any luck. You do not want Easter to fall in March because March is much too fickle and can never make up its mind whether it is a lamb or a lion. The chances of a decent, fine weekend must be greater in April when the sun is higher in the sky than in March. But if Easter is very late, as it is this year, it is running up close to the new May Day holiday that we introduced a few years ago. As to that matter, I think I can do no better than quote shortly from my noble leader Lady Seear, speaking at Question Time in this House on 16th April 1980, when she said (at col. 294 of Hansard): My Lords, would the Minister not agree that, if it is quite impossible to get a sensible arrangement over the date of Easter, it calls for a further review of our public holidays? Next year Easter falls on 19th April.".

This year it is the 22nd April. This means that we shall have four of our precious public holidays pushed into a period of seven and a half weeks … It is quite ridiculous to concentrate four public holidays—Good Friday, Easter Monday, the May Day holiday and the Spring Holiday—in seven and a half weeks.

Lord Belstead replied: My Lords, it is most unfair, but that is life.

Speaking for myself, I do not lie down quite so mildly under unfairness. I take the view that the Almighty gave us brains in order that we might use them to try to eliminate obvious unfairness of this kind.

The Act of 1928 fixes Easter in the sense that Easter cannot be earlier than 9th April nor later than 15th April. I should have thought that Parliament in 1928 got it just about right, and I should have thought that it was time for us to implement their proposals. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House would welcome the coming into operation of the Easter Act 1928 to provide that Easter Day shall be the first Sunday after the Second Saturday in April.—(Lord Airedale.)

8.29 p.m.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, my Christian name being what it is, I reflect that today is the first Thursday after the third Sunday after St. Patrick's Day. My wife, on the other hand, whose Christian name is Mary, probably thinks upon it as being the last Thursday before the festival of St. Mary of Egypt. Some of your Lordships who think in a more secular way may think of it as the fourth day of the week following the Grand National steeplechase.

I put it all in this way for the comfort and convenience of my noble friend Lord Elton who must by this time have had his mind more or less ringing with strange nomenclatures and calculations about the sum which have been adumbrated already by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who has so admirably initiated this debate. He must have realised perfectly-well—because this in any event is in the 1928 Act—that Easter falls upon the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after 21st March, which represents, in fact, the vernal equinox.

The vernal equinox was celebrated in very ancient times: even before the times of the Venerable Bede, who gave it as his opinion that Easter was named after the goddess of that name spelt either with an 'o' or an 'e'—presumably an ancient English or British goddess whose festival was celebrated at the time of the vernal equinox. The date which we celebrate as Easter, therefore, is at least celebrated by a considerable length of time and antiquity.

It has other connotations coinciding, as of course it does, from a strictly Christian point of view, with the Jewish Passover, for the Feast of the Last Supper was, indeed, the feast of the Passover. The Passover was then, and is now, celebrated on the evening of the 14th of the month of Nisan, which varies from year to year. One could go on in this way for quite a long time and get involved in all sorts of Dominical Sunday letters and notional full moons which would not really shed a great deal of light on the subject.

I do not wish to reinforce anything which has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, beyond saying that I approve of what he is proposing to do. But I will venture to bring him slightly up to date because he has quoted his noble Leader, Lady Seear, as having said, with a good deal of complaint, I think it was two years ago, that we had four bank holidays in seven-and-a-half weeks. This year we have four bank holidays in five-and-a-half weeks. If that was considered exceptional two years ago, what are we to say now?—especially when we considered that the interval after those four bank holidays before the next one is 12 weeks or three months. Holidays are getting pretty crowded about this time of the year, when we do not particularly need them, and, furthermore, the holiday season has not begun. When it does begin we shall get no bank holidays at all. The logic seems to be in favour of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale.

My sole contribution to this debate is really this. I wish to try to dispose, if I can, of what I may describe, perhaps without impropriety, as a kind of long-stop argument, which year after year, for as long as I can remember during my membership of this House, has been trotted out almost inevitably as the final reason why we cannot agree on a fixed date for Easter—or on any date for Easter. It is that nobody is ever going to persuade the Orthodox Church to agree to it. Ministers who have said this have pretty well always got away with it because they could be reasonably certain that there was nobody in either House who could contradict them. It so happens that now there is. I stand before you as possibly the only member, in fact I think certainly the only member, of the Orthodox Church in either House, and I may conceivably be the only member of the Orthodox Church who has ever sat in either House. I will venture to tell you why I think that this argument does not run.

I would guess—and I hope it is not impertinent of me to make this guess—that a number of noble Lords who may be reading Hansard tomorrow will not even know what the Orthodox Church is. I will venture to explain it in 15 seconds, or a few more than that. Years ago, right back at the time at the beginning of the Christian era, there were a number of churches which might be described as loosely federated together under one patriarch, head, Pope, or however you might like to think of him. After about eight or nine centuries there sprung up a movement in the West by which certain churches proposed that the Bishop of Rome—who had always been regarded, so to speak, as the senior bishop—should be regarded as the head of the whole Church. This caused a great schism, for the Western churches then came together under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome (or the Pope), and there they remained.

The Eastern churches, refusing to acknowledge any single head for all their churches, maintained their independence one of another, but under a single titular superior person called ecumenical patriarch who resided in Constantinople; and his position corresponded roughly with that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to the Anglican communion. That is to say, he was deferred to as the primus inter pares, I think you might say, but not deferred to in the same way as the Pope. This was the first great division between East and West, and there was another division later at the Reformation by which the West split in half.

As to the date of Easter, the agreement we are talking about is the one between the churches of the West. The churches of the East, which are all in communion with each other and are known together as the Holy Orthodox Church, have never adopted this date; they have never even gone so far as to adopt the Gregorian calendar. They have not even agreed among themselves as to which calendar they should use; that is to say, they have different methods in some parts of the church for working out the moon. Their method of working out the epact is different. I am sure I need hardly tell your Lordships what an epact is. There are two definitions of the word "epact". One is the difference between the number of days in a lunar year and the number of days in a solar year. The second definition is the number of days of the age of the moon which was in the heavens at the time of New Year's day. That, I am sure, makes it crystal clear—as clear as I can make it, anyway. It does, at any rate, give room for some doubt and uncertainty as to any particular date.

There is a point in my telling your Lordships all this. Ministers say—and I hope that if I build up my forces strongly enough I shall prevent my noble friend Lord Elton from saying it—that we cannot agree among all the Churches because of the Orthodox Church; this is the sort of odd man out. That is why I call it the long-stop question: we might get all the others to agree but, no, the tiresome Orthodox Church cannot even agree among themselves.

If they do not agree with the Churches in the West, which are the ones we are really talking about, does it matter one hoot to them or to anyone else whether or not they agree on the change that is proposed here? They do not agree now. They do not have Easter on the same day. It so happens that the Orthodox Easter this year is on 22nd April—it coincides occasionally —but last year it was about a month after the Western Easter. So what is the point of saying that we cannot agree because the Orthodox Church does not agree? Does it care whether or not we in the West change our Easter? To me, this argument seems to fall totally to the ground.

I do hope very much that we shall leave the unfortunate Orthodox Church out of it because, speaking as an Orthodox, I really do not care at all what day you choose for your Easter. Speaking as a member of your Lordships' House, on the other hand, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is absolutely right and I support his motion.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, there are probably two things that I shall never see in my lifetime; one is a fixed Easter and the other is the date on the Minutes of Proceedings printed in English.

Tradition, whether it is based on legend, belief or anything of that kind is extremely difficult to move. Most people talk about Easter because of the Easter holiday. That is what they are concerned about and what will the weather be like. So much of this erudition about the origins and the basis upon which the Man in the Moon fixes Easter is completely lost for a great many people in the country who say: "When is Easter this year? I wonder what the weather will be and whether we shall be able to get out in the garden". This is really what we are talking about.

My belief is that we ought to separate our holidays now from religious ceremonies or celebrations. That is the only way to get holidays rationalised and spread around a little more. We have paid holidays now as we never had before. We have almost a universal five-day week which we did not have before. There is an enormous amount of time off these days. We have Christmas made into a fortnight off from work. What should be a period of sober reflection upon an important historic and religious event is turned into a couple of weeks of guzzling, over-indulgence, drink, the slaughter of animals and poultry and so on. Christmas is a barbarous feast, when you come to think about it. Yet it is supposed to be related to religion; Christianity. Easter, in most people's minds, is also a question of a holiday.

Why cannot bank holidays be converted into worker holidays or national holidays? I suppose this is not how we shall face the future. I used to hear about a fixed Easter when I was a kid; that and the banning of marriage of a man to his deceased wife's sister and other prohibitions and legends of the day.

I am supporting the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in this because I am in favour of anything which re-examines so much upon which our conventions and attitudes are based. I do not know whether we are justified in having the number of holidays in such close proximity in spring as we do; we might have an early spring holiday, a later spring holiday. We have invented the May Day holiday in our time which has created another inconvenience because of its proximity to other holidays.

The only way to deal with this is to introduce a measure a few weeks before Easter to tell Parliament that it cannot rise for the Easter Recess until it has passed a Bill which fixes Easter or at least settles the matter one way or the other for the rest of this century. Then we can get on with other business.

I am sorry to be so light-hearted about this, but this is a matter of holidays and one ought to look at it in that simple way. If we cannot do anything better with Easter than leave it alone, then leave it alone. For what it is worth, I am behind the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, but I do not suppose that a dozen wise and noble Lords in the House will move this matter very much further. The fact that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is in his place is a good indication that he is about to get up and pour cold water over the whole proposition.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I hesitate, as always, to differ from my noble friend Lord Airedale, with whom I usually agree on almost everything, even though this is clearly no party matter. I do so because I think that the Easter Act 1928 was an extremely misconceived Act, should never have been put upon the statute book and should certainly never be brought into force. It may be argued that this is too late a stage for me to intervene. I can only plead that when the Act received its Royal Assent I was still in the womb, and if it has taken me 56 years to mount my opposition, there has equally been 56 years during which the State has, for various reasons, mostly laudable, been unwilling or unable to go ahead with this so-called reform. So my short speech tonight is in the nature of an opening shot in a battle against the Act and, in particular, against the concurrence of the Churches in the Act. For that reason I am particularly pleased to see the most reverend Prelate the Bishop of London in his place, because my argument is really directed to the Churches rather than to the Minister.

The Act is a child of its time. The year 1928 marked not only its birth and mine, but is the date of the 1928 Prayer Book, which marks what I believe to be the nadir of the relationship between Church and State in this country. I am critical of the nature of the Establishment of the Church of England. Nevertheless, I hope that this country will continue to be part of that very real entity known as Christendom. But if it is, the relationship between Church and State must be built on the strength of both. That certainly was not so in 1928. The Church not only did not have the courage of its convictions about its worship then, but apparently did not have the wish to raise the fundamental question which is involved in this Act.

That question is that of the lunar calendar. When I went back to the debates on the Act, I was not particularly surprised to find that this question was not raised in the Commons. Another place may occasionally be lunatic (if such a comment is not grossly out of order) but it is not often involved in the further reaches of psychic speculation. I was very surprised, however, to find the subject was not raised in your Lordships' House. I have not been able to get hold of the records of the Church Assembly's debates on the subject.

I am not for one second suggesting that a respect for lunar worship is tied up with the Christian religion, but it is part of our belief that the whole of nature is God's concern and that mankind as a whole has acknowledged throughout its history in the construction of its calendars that our time is swayed to some extent by two different elements: the sun and the moon. Of the two the sun is the dominant, but the moon has refused to be ignored and it should not be ignored now. The tides of the oceans which wash this planet are under the control of the moon and our bodies also answer to its sway.

It is, I believe, for very basic reasons that the calendars of our civilisation have acknowledged the existence of both influences. To some of your Lordships it may be that the argument I am putting forward smacks of credulity and superstition, but it is not so and I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a parallel case which may illuminate our deliberations.

The method of fixing the date of Easter stems originally from the coincidence—no coincidence the Church believes—of our Lord's Passion with the Jewish Passover. The two dates became separated largely because of Christian insistence that the resurrection must be celebrated on the first day of the week; and, of course, every Sunday is also a celebration of Easter Day. But the Jewish Passover is a lunar festival and the Jewish religion is perhaps the least supersititious religion in the world's history.

I ask your Lordships to imagine what would be the reaction of the Jewish authorities should it be suggested that the Jewish Passover be changed so that it was part of the solar calendar to suit the bank holiday requirements of Gentiles? Can you imagine the State of Israel ordering its bank holidays to ignore the religious nature of its traditional festivals? The very idea is absurd. If the Christian Churches would agree on a common formula for fixing the date of Easter, that would be welcome. There would be considerable attraction for many reasons in fixing it on the 14th Nisan or, if for good reasons a Sunday was insisted on, the nearest Sunday to that date. That would go back behind the various disputes between the Eastern and the Western Churches and would underline both our fraternal—might I even say our filial—relationship with the Jewish religion and the correspondence between the exodus from Egypt and the exodus from the bondage of sin on which theologians from St. Paul onwards have insisted and which our Prayer Book still reiterates.

But failing such a happy outcome, any agreement between the Christian Churches on a common date based on the lunar cycle would seem to me to be an acceptable advance. But what it seems to me should be unacceptable to the Churches is an agreement to abandon the lunar calendar completely in order to suit secular convenience.

If the State wishes to juggle its bank holidays about, let it. It has already moved the Whitsun holiday but at least it has not forced us to celebrate Whitsun on any day except that on which the Church has traditionally celebrated it. But let not the Churches move their festivals except for theologically valid reasons!

My Lords, it is primarily for this reason that I wish to oppose this Motion. But there is one more point, perhaps a small one which affects us all, Christian or non-Christian alike. We are in the process of becoming more and more detached from the world of nature. There are those who see it as part of man's growing up. I am not one of them. I believe that the progressive abandonment of the observation of times and seasons as we secularise Sunday, delunarise Easter and perfect the storing and transport of food so that there is no such thing, virtually, any longer as seasonal food, marks a divorce of man from nature which one of these days will entail a terrible backlash. This particular Bill is a very minor step in this process but it is nonetheless a step. I believe that it should be resisted.

8.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, may I begin by making two apologies, first, for not being in my place for the opening sentences of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. I had unfortunately mislaid my notes and I was taking steps to remedying my deficiency. Secondly, may I apologise for not having put down my name to speak in sufficient time for it to be upon the list. As has become already evident in this debate, the problem of the date on which Easter should be observed is not new. I will not weary your Lordships by going over such controversies as those arising in the second century on quartodecimanism or on the difficulties arising in the fourth and fifth centuries out of differences between the Roman and Alexandrian methods of computation.

I draw you attention, however, to the fact that happily by the seventh century the various ways had been reduced to three: the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman and the Celtic. Even as late as 651, Queen Eanfleda, following the Roman rule in Northumbria, was keeping Palm Sunday, and therefore fasting, while her husband Oswy, King of Northumbria, was celebrating Easter because he followed the Celtic rule. But even that difference disappeared in 669 because Archbishop Theodor imposed upon the whole of England the Roman custom, and the Celtic practice disappeared. I mention these early developments simply to indicate that although it may seem a long way off since 1928, when the Easter Act was passed, progress is possible.

At present, the differences are mainly between the Western Churches and the Orthodox Church. May I, in passing, refer to the fact that the Orthodox Church is not altogether of a mind on its date, as I was happily able to experience earlier this year when I enjoyed two Christmases. I celebrated Christmas here in this country and then I was on an official visit to the Middle East which coincided with the Orthodox Christmas in Jerusalem where the Greek Patriarch keeps it on that date and I was able to enjoy a second Christmas which included a visit with him to the Grotto in Bethlehem on Christmas night. But although they have differences, it is practically universal in the Orthodox Church to observe Easter at the same time reckoning it by the Julian, the old-style, calendar.

In the matter of seeking some agreement, the Churches are united in a desire to find a solution. In the World Council of Churches Assembly at Nairobi in 1975 (at which I was present) a statement was agreed which made this clear. Before that, the World Council of Churches had conducted an inquiry throughout the Churches and the result was the following. The great majority of the member churches confirm their readiness to accept a common and even fixed date of Easter, e.g., the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Orthodox Member Churches indicate that any change of the present mode of calculating Easter requires an explicit agreement of all Orthodox Churches and that, as long as such an agreement has not been reached, they feel bound to follow the present method of calculating the date. In a resolution adopted by the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church stated that it was prepared to accept a common mobile or fixed date for Easter if agreement between the churches could be established. The Holy See has expressed its willingness to collaborate towards reaching an agreement. There is agreement between the Churches to try to find a solution.

May I refer at this point to the distinction between a common and a fixed date. They are not the same; and this is a very important distinction to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has already alluded. Common date means exactly what it says: the Churches would, while retaining the basis of the lunar month have a common date on which they would all agree. That is quite different from the fixed date. I greatly welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has said about relating our lives in various ways, including the observance of Easter, to the natural rhythms of our existence. I greatly appreciate what the noble Lord had to say and it discharges me from the need to repeat some of what I had prepared in my own speech.

In 1977 there was an Orthodox consultation which went some way towards agreement towards a common Easter. I will not go into the details of that, but it was on the basis of that that the Vatican in 1977, having consulted the various episcopal conferences through-out the world, issued a letter (a copy of which I have in my hand) which was also sent formally to the Church of England and to other Churches of the Anglican Communion. If I may I will quote one or two sentences from it. This is signed by Cardinal Willibrands, who was then President of the Secretariat of Christian Unity. He said: The Orthodox Churches have given serious attention to this proposal. They have publicly stated their desire to see all Christians celebrate Easter together… it seems clear that if the Churches and Communities of the Western tradition were to take their own immediate decision on this proposal, this would not assist us in arriving at the goal of a common celebration by all Christians of the central mystery of their faith. The point there is that for the Western Churches to take unilateral action in this respect would not be conducive to that expressed visible unity of the Christian Churches which many people recognise as a very desirable and necessary goal and which they would not wish to prejudice. The letter goes on: Under these circumstances the Holy Father has judged that the situation is not yet ripe enough for the Roman Catholic Church to change its present method of determining the date of Easter or to put it into effect this year the proposal that this great feast be celebrated on a fixed Sunday in April. That, I understand, is the present position in the Roman Catholic Church and I think I can say it fairly represents the situation in the Church of England. Nevertheless, it would do no harm for the Churches to be given a nudge, because the process is moving. I can say that if the Government thought fit to initiate further discussions with the Churches regarding a common agreement on Easter it would help to keep the process active.

Meanwhile, may I make three points? First, it is a Christian festival that we are talking about. It is a Christian festival and, with respect, I would submit that it is for the Churches to decide, although in this country it clearly has other effects as well. I would also wish to support strongly what the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said and I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that when I hear the word "rationalisation" I get very suspicious because I always feel that some baby is going to be turned out with some bathwater, and we are going to lose some fundamental and essential element in our human life.

I am well aware of the problem of bank holidays in late spring and early summer. Let me give you an example, my Lords, It has been customary from time immemorial, so far as I can make out, for the Bishop of London to hold his staff meetings on Mondays. This year between the 5th April and the 28th May there are three Mondays which are bank holidays, and this presents us with great difficulties. I believe that it is unfair to blame the Church for that. It is rather like the cuckoo taking over from the bird whose nest it really is to suggest that we should deal with the problem of Easter in the way proposed and to allow secular holidays to occupy the position. I might say it does not seem to me that the practice of adopting secular holidays actually affords a very happy experience. It is precisely the adoption of secular holidays for May Day and for Whitsun which has in fact led to this unhappy situation, and I do not see why Easter should be made to carry the responsibility for it.

My third point, however, is this. The Orthodox Churches are no longer confined, as they largely were some years ago, to Eastern countries. There is a very sizeable presence here. I am very happy to know Archbishop Methodios. He is a remarkable man. I know him well and I know something of the burdens he carries in his country as Archbishop of the Greek congregation here. There are other Orthodox Churches which are represented in this country and represented by a variety of people. They are not all Greek, all Russian or all Cypriot: there is a great range.

The fixing of the date of Easter without their agreement, in my judgment, would have a divisive rather than a unifying effect in our society. They are, as is well known, largely in the great cities where the effect would be, as it were, concentrated in those places. It is not as though the effect would be spread out evenly over our country—not that that would make it any more justified, but it would not be so evident if that were the case. However, it is not the case: they are concentrated in the cities and we hear much today—and rightly so—about the need to develop harmony in our multi-cultural and multi-racial society. That is very properly so. It would not be helpful to increase the area of difference, and that is precisely what would happen if in fact the Churches of the West in this country sought to take action without carrying with them their brethren of the Orthodox Churches, who. as I say, are in this country in considerable numbers. We must act in this matter, I believe, in a way which would unite Christians in this country and not seem to add to the unhappy divisions which already exist. So I would not wish to support this Motion but I would hope that perhaps the occasion of this debate might be used to inspire, as I said, a little "nudging" to the Churches to look at the matter again.

I end by saying that for practical reasons, and for the reasons suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, I do not think that it is very likely or wise that the churches should be pressed for a fixed Easter. I think the most likely thing, if the Orthodox Churches are to be carried with us, would be to have a common Easter.

I believe that we have a right and a duty to maintain our own feasts in the right way. If the result be that the secular holidays should be arranged separately, I should deeply regret it because, as a Christian, I believe that the great mystery of Easter is in fact of significance for all mankind and for all life. I would not wish therefore to see the celebration of Easter separated from what was a natural human occasion as well. But if it comes to the test I believe that we have to put our Christian understanding and the nature of Easter first and, if need be, allow secular holidays to take their place as seems fit to those whose responsibility it is to determine them.

9.8 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, for adding his name to the list of those who from time to time have drawn the attention of your Lordships' House to the provisions of the Easter Act 1928. The argument that he advanced is one which has received the attention of this House for some years, as a perusal of the Official Report will show. However, it has been thought desirable to do no more than draw attention to the measure.

As has been said, the fixing of Easter is one of great importance to the Churches, and indeed the Act acknowledges that. The festival of Easter is the greatest part of the Christian calendar and not just a bank holiday, although the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is rightly concerned on that aspect, too. Good Friday, of course,which precedes Easter Day, is a most solemn day commemorating the crucifixion and death of Christ before his resurrection on what we now term Easter Day. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, referred to Easter as the most momentous event in human history. Therefore, the determination of the date of Easter is a matter of great concern to the Churches, as the right reverend Prelate has pointed out, and indeed as the 1928 Act accepts. But it is a matter of concern not only to the Anglican Church, but to the Roman Catholics and indeed not only to British Churches but to world Churches, as we have been reminded. We should also remember that for millions the Passover is of most solemn significance.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has rightly reminded us of the provisions in the Act and I would mention that they provide that before making a draft order which has to be placed before and approved by both Houses, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. As the noble Lord invokes the 1928 Act, he will also rightly accept its requirements. I recognise that the noble Lord has done a service, not least by using this particular peg to draw attention to the need for some rationalisation of public holidays. I would remind him that at present there is no doubt about the date of future Easters. There is no uncertainty about it, because the Prayer Book details them right up to the second decade of the next century. I think I am right in saying that. When my attention wanders during some sermons, it is surprising what one can read in the Prayer Book. Therefore, the dates are already fixed and nationally accepted for many years to come, which is very helpful to the tourist trade and to many others.

I wish to show a degree of neutrality on this matter and suggest that the Churches and others may wish to consider your Lordships' comments. But the case of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, which is also supported by my noble friend Lord Houghton, for a change arises from the nearness of bank holidays, including May Day. This year, Easter Day is on the 22nd April, May Day is on the 7th May, spring bank holiday is on the 28th May and Whit Sunday is on the 10th June. Doubtless, when the bank holidays of May Day and spring bank holiday were fixed more recently than the 1928 Act, regard was paid to the long-established formula for fixing Easter several decades into the future.

This debate is useful because there may be a good reason to have public holidays reasonably spaced, not least to make life less complicated for working people, students, tourists and many others. The question arises as to whether invoking an Act which was passed in 1928, many years ago, with its special requirements, is the best way to achieve it when there may be other ways.

We should not overlook the fact that the EEC, for instance, of which we are a member is also associated in the minds of many with surpluses. European countries appear to have many more public holidays than the United Kingdom and it is surely one of the surpluses that we should not be aiming to dispose of, especially when the microchip age is gaining pace and for many, either rightly or wrongly, provides more time for leisure. I venture to suggest that getting harmonisation with the EEC on the matter of holidays would be no easier than getting it with the Churches, if one were to invoke the 1928 Act.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, for drawing attention to the provisions of the Act, but also, and more important, for his service in drawing attention to the problems of public holidays and to the need for rational spacing. Whatever changes are sought in the fixing of public holidays, they will in any case require consultation with many more interests than the Churches under the 1928 Act. I believe that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has said, this is a matter that could be considered and I think that initiatives for such changes may now be timely.

9.13 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think I can safely say that this debate has been both shorter and more interesting than many to which one listens in your Lordships' House, and it has covered a great deal of interesting ground. I do, indeed, well understand the frustration which afflicts those who would like to modernise the mechanism by which the date of Easter is chosen. They would like to pin it tidily down in one place, rather than see it wander about the calendar. That would fit in much better with our modern, secular way of doing things. There is indeed, as they remind us, an Act which has been waiting patiently on the statute book ever since 1928 for just this purpose.

Much of the impatience is understandably secular. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is as concerned as is the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, over the variability of the weather at Easter, though if the date were fixed in these islands I doubt very much whether the weather would be any more reliable or clement than it now is. But that is a note in passing. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is concerned about school holidays. These are all practical matters, and I understand the impatience. Some of the impatience is perhaps more ecclesiastical. Until I heard the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, I had thought that I was probably alone among your Lordships in having mastered, in the long and meandering reaches of many childhood sermons, the mysteries of the golden number for the calculation of Easter in the opening pages of the Book of Common Prayer. On this issue we have to become a little conditioned to patience.

If we look at the issue at all closely, we discover that 56 years is a very short time. The Act which the Easter Act has been poised for half a century to supersede is a recently arrived item on the statute book, having been on it for only 234 years, since 1750, but it meticulously reproduces a mechanism of very great seniority. The method, as I calculate it, has been in working order for at least the 1,659 years which separate us from the council held in Nicaea in 325 AD. However, the right reverend Prelate, with greater erudition than I can command, has suggested that it goes back further still. I would not challenge him on that point. As he has reminded us, there have been earlier reviews, notably that of the Synod of Whitby in 664, when opinion and practice in England were divided on this and a number of other matters between the Roman and the Celtic rite. Tempers ran a little high, if I remember my Bede, and the debate was long, but in the end it all was decided on uniformity and the system established at Nicaea prevailed. The synod—again I find that I am treading in the footsteps of the right reverend Prelate—was convened by Oswiu, King of Northumbria, but I think I am right in saying that the debate and the decisions were largely carried by the clergy and the monks. That must remind us that what we are dealing with is not a whim of antiquarians but a matter central to the concerns of several branches of the Christian faith.

Churchmen among your Lordships will not need me to explain that Easter, preceded by Good Friday and followed by Whit Sunday, marks the very focus of the joyful and saving reality of the Christian faith. Feasting is not guzzling, and not all celebrations are secular, even on ecclesiastical festivals. Nor, very sadly, do I have to remind your Lordships that there are in that faith more Churches than one. Very properly, therefore, the draftsman of the Easter Act provided in Section 2(2) that before a draft order can be made regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or Christian body". That is an important provision, and one which must be strictly observed. It does not enjoin conformity, but I agree with the right reverend Prelate that conformity is very desirable indeed. It is proper that we should look for unity, or at least for a coincidence of views. The last thing we want to finish up with is different Easter Sundays for our different Churches, none necessarily coinciding with the secular optimum. If we were to implement the Easter Act, leaving out the Orthodox Easter but embracing the Easters of the other Churches, in many years we should finish up with two Easter Days. If we were to leave out the Orthodox Church and the other Churches, we should end up, in nine years out of 17, with three Easter Sundays. That would be regrettable.

There is also a secular side to uniformity. The Act of 1750 dealt with the calendar in general as well as with the movable date for Easter. A principal purpose of those who drafted the Act, which they acknowledged in the preamble, was that the existing method of computation, and again I quote: according to which the year beginneth on the twenty-fifth day of March", —and that caused me some surprise— hath been found by experience to be attended by divers inconveniences not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in that part of Great Britain called Scotland … and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned… ". It would be very untoward, therefore, for us to finish up with different national dates for Easter when what we are trying to do is to harmonise the existing Western and Eastern Orthodox dates and fix them at a single and perhaps static point on the calendar.

But all is not gloom for modernisers such as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. It does appear that in the past 10 to 15 years the Churches have tended increasingly towards a consensus of view on a common date for Easter. I am clear that my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery speaks as a member of the Orthodox Church. But 1 am not entirely clear if he speaks for the Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain on the matter. I have to tell him that, in any case, for the reasons very ably expounded by the right reverend Prelate, the other Churches within the British Council of Churches have indicated that they would be reluctant to reach an agreement which would exclude the 14 patriarchates of the Orthodox Church.

Perhaps I may go on to say that there is a convergence of views, although not necessarily—and, again, the right reverend Prelate has preceded me in this; and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be pleased to hear this—towards a date that is fixed; the influence of the moon is likely to be with us for a while yet.

It would be premature to expect an early decision or to try to anticipate it, but I believe it is proper to await it with perhaps just a fraction of impatience—sufficient to be visible to the various hierarchies engaged in trying to come to a mutual and welcome conformity. Sub specie aeternitatis, my Lords—or, at least, post-Nicaea—the time that has elapsed since this Private Member's Bill was passed is not so very long. The Churches are well aware from our regular contacts with them of our interests in their conclusions. For the present, I think we should maintain this contact and keep our options open. But perhaps the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, your Lordships' evident impatience, and the right reverend Prelate's speech, will together provide the helpful nudge that seems to be in order.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I always thought that at the end of it I should be better informed than I was at the beginning. I have not been disappointed, and when I have read Hansard tomorrow I shall be better informed still, by a large degree.

The right reverend Prelate spoke of celebrating two Christmases. The late Lord Beveridge used to celebrate two birthdays. His mother thought that his birthday was 6th March, but when she had to produce his birth certificate for his public school she found to her surprise that it showed his birthday as being the 7th March. "Since when", said Lord Beveridge to me on one occasion, "I have celebrated both these dates".

If the nudge I have managed to give the Government can ricochet in the direction of the Churches—and we understand that this will not be unwelcome—then the debate will have served a useful purpose. I do not believe it would do any good dividing the House because I do not suppose there is a quorum. I believe my best course is to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.