HL Deb 31 March 1988 vol 495 cc862-4

11.10 a.m.

Lord Airedale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made towards implementing the Easter Act 1928 so as to ensure that Easter is always celebrated during the first half of April.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I understand that the prospect of the Orthodox Churches making any progress towards a common date is not likely to be immediate.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer, which was rather what I expected. Is the Minister aware that people generally regard Easter as the first outdoor holiday of the year? Even allowing for the vagaries of the British climate, is there not a better chance of good weather in April than in March? However, with the fairly recent introduction of the May Day holiday, Easter is not suitable for the second half of April, because we want to avoid the bunching of Bank Holidays. Therefore did not our elders and betters get it about right in 1928?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has asked questions about the holidays and the weather. The actual Question he put down on the Order Paper was about Easter. Easter is a religious festival. We think that it would be undesirable that the changing of the festival of Easter should be undertaken without the agreement of the Churches.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us find his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, most reassuring? Will the Government continue to bear in mind that as Easter is the chief festival of the Christian year its date is much more a matter for the Churches than for governments?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that encouraging remark. Having heard noble Lords ask this same question and some poor noble Lord answer it from this Dispatch Box over the past 20 years, I never expected to find myself in this position. My noble friend is quite correct. The method of calculating when Easter should fall was established by resolution of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. It was given statutory authority in this country by the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, my noble friend said that it is up to the Orthodox Churches to make this decision. What, for example, has the Greek Orthodox Church to do with the date we celebrate our Easter?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is desirable that there should be agreement with all the Churches of which the Greek Orthodox is one. When my noble friend Lord Elton occupied this hazardous seat he wrote, after receiving such a Question from your Lordships, to the Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain to see if he could ask the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople how matters stood on adopting a common date. My noble friend was told in the reply that the second Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Conference of the Holy Orthodox Church was held in 1982 and considered the subject of the common celebration of Easter by all Christians.

The conference heard that, besides scientific akribeia, the whole problem is a problem of ecclesiological consciousness of one and indivisible Orthodoxy, the unity of which should in no way be undermined; it requires a proper assessment by the Church in her pastoral responsibility and in accordance with the needs of her flock; in the present state of Church affairs, the believing God's people have not been prepared, or in any case have not been sufficiently informed, for accepting changes in determining the date of Easter.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, only once in seven years does the Orthodox Easter coincide with the western Easter. In any case, the decision is not a matter of summer holidays for children. As has already been said, it concerns one of the greatest religious festivals of the year.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. That occurs, I believe, because the Holy Orthodox Church is still on the Julian calendar whereas we are on the Gregorian calendar. We changed in 1752 and lost 11 days in the process. I understand that the Holy Orthodox Church has been talking for some centuries about changing but has not yet decided to do so.

Lord Soper

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the evangelical fervour and scholarship that he has demonstrated in your Lordships' House today is extremely acceptable to many of us who would desire a greater attention to the inner meaning of Easter whether it falls on a particular date or not? We would desire to commend that spirit of anticipation because we believe the celebration of Easter as the culmination and fulfilment of the promise of God is of the utmost importance for our own welfare.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I may say so that is a most appropriate note, be it in the form of a question which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has addressed on this particular occasion.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that when I was first Home Secretary just over 20 years ago I rashly tried to solve this problem but with no more success than he has achieved? However, there did appear to be very considerable support for a fixed Easter among the Anglican communion and also in the Roman Catholic Church. As the noble Earl has informed us, it is the Greek Church that has raised difficulties. Are there not precedents where Christian festivals are celebrated on different days in the Greek Church to the western Church?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that may well be; the point about changing the Easter Act is that it was suggested that this should only be done after we had had regard to the opinions officially expressed by other Churches. I am delighted, if I may so put it, that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, did not succeed in changing it. I am sure that he would agree that it is not for the Government to change the date of Easter; it is a matter for the Churches. Of course it is a complicated matter to know the date on which Easter does fall. I have done a little research. I discover that it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the 21st day of March. If the full moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter Day is the following Sunday. But the moon referred to is not the real moon of the heaven; it is a hypothetical moon whose being full determines the date of Easter.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is not the noble Earl to be congratulated on the profound depth of his researches and for adding to our vocabulary the word "ecclesiological"?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I was prompted to do my researches having seen the awful mill through which my predecessors had been put by your Lordships on this subject.