HL Deb 11 March 1999 vol 598 cc455-64

10.2 p.m.

The Earl of Dartmouth

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. This Bill was originally introduced in 1928 when it passed all its stages in both Houses. However, it did not actually commence. The purpose of the Bill is to permit the 1928 Bill to come into effect so that Easter Day will always be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April.

I shall speak briefly under three main headings. First, I shall tell your Lordships how Easter is currently decided. Secondly, I shall deal with what may be termed the ecclesiastical arguments. Thirdly and finally, I shall refer to the practical arguments.

First, let us consider the interesting question of how Easter is currently decided. Easter Sunday is now fixed in accordance with tables which were drawn up for Pope Gregory XIII when he reformed the calendar in 1582. Those tables are founded on a so-called metonic system. Meton was an Athenian astrologer who lived over 400 years before the birth of Christ. The tables are extremely ingenious but what they really give is not the movement of the moon of the astronomers but an entirely artificial ecclesiastical moon which has been used for convenience ever since.

In short, Easter is currently determined from astronomical tables relating to the movement of the moon originally formulated over 400 years before the normally accepted date of the birth of Christ. The reality is that this long custom of what might be termed the floating date for Easter has its real basis in neither religion nor science but in what might be termed happenstance or even accident. By contrast, I point to the fact that Christmas Day was fixed by law in the fourth century. It was fixed as 25th December from the solar calendar based on the movement of the sun.

I now turn to what might be termed the ecclesiastical arguments. Your Lordships will see that the Bill proposes that the legal Easter be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. It is legitimate to ask why that date has been taken, or to put it more precisely, why that date was selected by my predecessors in 1928. The reason is that, according to the best research, the date of the Crucifixion is normally perceived as being 7th April in our calendar. The date proposed for Easter in the Bill would therefore be as near as possible to the real date of the original Easter virtually 2000 years ago.

However, I concede that it is by no means improbable that the commencement of this Bill might, in a manner of speaking, decouple the Church's day from the Easter holiday. That might be perceived as being a serious, even lethal, objection. However, I point out that there are many people equally Christian and civilised who take differing views of holy days and holidays. Some people seem to believe that one is, as it were, more holy by observing a holy day as a holiday. Another, perhaps a smaller group, takes the entirely contrary view that if one observes a holy day as a holiday one is somehow less holy. Both points of view are entirely legitimate and point to the fact that there is nothing intrinsically wrong in decoupling the Church's holy day from the normally accepted public holiday.

The reality is that in practice there are to some degree different kinds of holy days. For example, Christmas Day is an important religious celebration and a great family festival. However, Ascension Day, which is scarcely less important from a religious point of view, is hardly recognised in the lay world. In so far as it is celebrated at all, it is only observed religiously—if indeed that is the proper word to use in this or in any other debate.

I now address the ecclesiastical arguments. I have not been fortunate enough to have been in correspondence with the present Archbishop of Canterbury, but I have looked up the views of his predecessor in 1928 when the predecessor to this Bill passed through both Houses of Parliament in all its stages. The Archbishop of Canterbury of those days said in this very Chamber: In the view of the Church there is no dogmatic reason why the Church should oppose a fixed date for Easter". I now turn to the practical reasons, which I also touched on in a letter that I sent to every attending Member of this House, to which I received about 15 replies. To give just a few examples, businesses, retailers and all manufacturers would all like to know the date of Easter well in advance. It would enable them to plan ahead and would do something real and helpful for enterprise and prosperity, on which subjects the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Simon, who is not in his place, addressed the House in his customary fashion only yesterday. Such a fixed date would also make life easier for parents, teachers and all would-be tourists and travellers.

As I mentioned earlier, the original Easter Bill that provided for Easter to be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April—this year it would be Sunday, 11th April—was passed in 1928 but never came into effect. As the Archbishop of Canterbury of those days said on 23rd July 1920: And I believe that the establishment of a fixed Easter would be a gain in the civil life and in the ecclesiastical and educational life … of the community as a whole". I hope that this Bill will meet with your Lordships' approval.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Dartmouth.)

10.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, the Christian Churches worldwide are currently taking new steps to agree a common but not a fixed date for Easter. The British Churches would be helped in playing their part in this delicate task if the Easter Act 1928 were not reactivated at the present time. The Easter Act would affect only the United Kingdom. That would create particular difficulties for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which would both continue to observe Easter on the same day as the rest of their world communions. Church authorities would be guided not so much by the convenience of a fixed date but much more by the possibility of an Easter festival celebrated by all Christians throughout the world on the same date.

In the 20th century the Christian Churches have rediscovered a deep concern for Christian unity. Despite substantial progress towards visible unity, a major stumbling block remains the fact that the Eastern and Western Churches calculate the date of Easter in different ways. Essentially, that is due to differences in calendars and lunar tables. Since 1582, Western Christians have calculated the date of Easter using the Gregorian calendar, while Eastern Orthodox Christians have generally continued to use the older Julian calendar. In 2001 the dates of Easter, according to both Eastern and Western calendars, will coincide.

Currently the Churches are considering a set of proposals that will enable a common date—not a fixed date—of Easter to be agreed. The recommendation is threefold: first, to maintain the norms agreed by the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church after New Testament times, the Council of Nicea in AD 325, before East and West began to diverge, namely, that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal new moon; secondly, to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate scientific means; and, thirdly, to use as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's death and resurrection. I believe that when that agreement comes, as I hope and pray it will one day, it will go a long way to meeting the objections made by the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, about the calculations being based upon very old-fashioned science.

The main point is that a fixed date for Easter would obscure and weaken the vital biblical link between the events of Holy Week and Easter, on the one hand, and the Jewish Passover festival, which is still calculated with reference to the vernal equinox, on the other.

The Christian Churches are being invited to study these proposals in principle with a view to consulting together in the year 2001 when, as already mentioned, both East and West will celebrate Easter on the same day. The 1998 Lambeth Conference of all bishops of the Anglican Communion welcomed that initiative, supported the recommendations and invited all the provinces of the Anglican Communion to endorse them.

The noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, mentioned the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, suggesting that at that time the Churches had no principled objection to a fixed date for Easter. However, one of the big changes since then is the fact that the Churches now work closely together and do so on a worldwide basis. That is why Church leaders in this country are perhaps more sensitive now than they were then to the ecumenical and worldwide dimensions of this issue. They will want to keep in step with fellow Christians belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as with the great bulk of western Christianity through the Roman Catholic Church.

It seems likely that in any eventuality the Churches will want to see the link between the religious festival and the public holiday maintained. The origins of the holiday are to give public expression to the Holy Day. In the event of a disjunction—the noble Earl referred to a "decoupling"—between the religious festival and the public holiday, large numbers of Christians would continue to observe the festival on the traditional day and would strongly oppose transference of the name "Easter" to a secular holiday.

Although I listened carefully to the points made about commercial considerations, is it not true that it is possible at the moment to calculate the date of Easter five or 10 years ahead or perhaps even as long ahead as one might want? There is no difficulty at the moment about commercial organisations planning their business as many years ahead as they want. For those reasons, I think that the Christian Churches of all denominations would very strongly want to oppose the idea of a fixed date for Easter.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene before the right reverend Prelate sits down. Has he not identified the problem between the religious significance and celebration of Easter and its secular importance as a holiday and, indeed, a bank holiday'' If the right reverend Prelate wants to keep the secular holiday linked to the religious holiday—that would mean that people would have time away from work in which to consider the religious significance—do we not have to recognise the problem that the secular holidays are "concertinaed" at that time of year? We have the Easter holiday, the May Day holiday and then the Spring bank holiday. We have three secular holidays within a period of eight weeks. We go through to August for the next bank holiday, and then there is a great blank until the end of the year. The problem on the secular side is that holidays are not distributed evenly throughout the year. If the right reverend Prelate is advocating that there should be a religious and a secular holiday at the same time, surely we must recognise the concertina problem with regard to the secular holidays.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly. First, the Churches want to keep a link between the Holy Day and the holiday because we believe that that is deeply embedded in our cultural life. Secondly, some continental countries have as many as 50—or even 60 or 70—public holidays a year. The European tradition—and certainly that of our continental brothers and sisters—suggests that a certain degree of "concertinaing" is not necessarily a bad thing.

10.18 p.m.

Lord Manton

My Lords, about 20 years ago I had to give evidence to a Royal Commission looking into the future of horse-racing. Your Lordships may say that that has nothing to do with Easter, but it has. Having been cross-questioned by the dozen or so members of the Royal Commission for about an hour and a half—apparently, two hours were set aside for the inquisition—the chairman, the then Lord Rothschild, asked whether I and my two companions would like to put any questions to the commission. That took the wind slightly out of our sails. At that time I was responsible for preparing the fixture list for all horse-racing for 59 race courses on about 340-odd days of the year. I said, rather off-the-cuff, to the commission, "Why cannot we have a fixed Easter?" I have to say that most of its members seemed very much in favour of the proposition. Lord Rothschild said, "Why cannot we have a fixed Easter?" There were all these fairly intelligent people, and none of them really had a view. They mumbled something about the Church or some Churches not agreeing.

Luckily for them, or for Lord Rothschild, the Home Office provided a civil servant, an adviser to all Royal Commissions, who came up with a very simple answer. This was 20 years ago so I am not necessarily disagreeing with the right reverend Prelate. The civil servant said, "The Church of England is quite prepared to have a fixed date for Easter, provided of course that the Church of Rome agrees. "He added, "What is more, the Church of Rome is quite prepared to have a fixed Easter, provided the two Orthodox Churches agree but, as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches have never agreed on anything, it is not very likely to happen."

The commercial aspects are extremely strong. I disagree with the right reverend Prelate. To market anything it must be done in the same week of the year all the time. Anything like a fixture list, whether it be sporting, commercial or whatever—it might even be the school syllabus—is much simpler if done in the same week every year. I am very supportive of the Bill.

10.22 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I find myself speaking to both sides of the fence. I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lord Dartmouth who has made out a persuasive case for a fixed Easter. It is possible to have a reasonable interval between the Christmas and spring holidays and the noble Lord rightly referred to the easier planning made possible in all aspects of our national life. My noble friend Lord Manton referred in particular to the racing calendar, but I include commerce, education, tourism and many other aspects of our national life. In rationality there can be no other solution.

This subject was, I believe, last debated in your Lordships' House on 7th April 1984 when our late noble colleague Lord Airedale made a speech of such distinction that it was quoted at his memorial service by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. Lord Airedale, while recognising the Christian aspects of the problem, wished to see Easter sufficiently far into April to guarantee a reasonable chance of better weather, and at the same time not to bring it too close to the spring holiday. In his winding-up speech my noble friend Lord Elton, then the Minister at the Home Office, said that the government's view was that they wished to await the outcome of talks between the Churches. And that is the Opposition's view today.

Easter is not only a secular holiday. It is historically a Christian one, as has been recognised in the debate. In saying that I am fully aware of the significant proportion of the population of this country who are not of the Christian faith, nor indeed of any faith at all. Nevertheless, Easter has its historic roots in the Christian Church and I suggest to your Lordships—a point made strongly by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Oxford—that the initiative for any change in the date of Easter must lie in the first instance with the Christian Churches, not only in Great Britain but internationally. I say that through no theological dogma; it is a practical move.

As noble Lords pointed out, the present Easter was fixed by Pope Gregory XII in 1582 and it is a fact often taken for granted that one of the early manifestations of ecumenism is that all the western Churches have followed that formula. The complication is, of course, the Orthodox Church, to which noble Lords referred. Incidentally, that makes the Orthodox Church an unlikely bedfellow of the United Kingdom Inland Revenue in that the two are apparently the only two bodies that follow the old Julian Calendar.

The right reverend Prelate assured us that talks are in hand with the Churches, both east and west, to agree a common date, though I understand from his speech that it will still be moveable. If, as appears unlikely, they agree a fixed date, the object of this Bill will presumably have been satisfied. Nevertheless, the common date will be a start.

Let us consider one or two practical implications of this Bill were it to be implemented. Citizens of the United Kingdom going for the UK Easter holiday, say to continental Europe, to celebrate Easter may well find that Easter in that country will be celebrated one week later. Or we can consider the case of an employer who receives a request from a committed Christian in his employment to be allowed to take off Good Friday because it is being observed in Rome and elsewhere. Those are just two instances of the complications which would arise were the United Kingdom, on this question, to go it alone.

We are fortunate in that today there is a spirit of co-operation between Churches across the world far greater than in 1928 and—dare I say?—possibly 1984. The arguments for a fixed Easter are persuasive. While acknowledging that the rules for subsidiarity permit holidays in member states of the European Union to be fixed nationally, in the worldwide village it is only practical for the Easter holiday dates to be agreed at an international level, and that must be at the initiative of the Churches. This season is so central to the Christian faith that it must be left, in the first instance, to those Churches. Once progress has been made on that front, of which we have been assured by the right reverend Prelate, then the time will be right to revisit this question; in other words, not yet. Therefore we do not support this Bill but will not be opposing it at Second Reading.

10.27 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the points made in the course of this debate. Also, this is a matter to which the House has returned on many occasions. I say to the noble Earl that his Bill is a further expression of the concerns of your Lordships' House.

I can understand the point that has been pertinently put regarding the question of whether to see the date of Easter put on a more settled and comprehensive footing. There are good arguments for that. It is true, and indeed it was explained to us by the noble Earl, that the way at which we arrive at it is a mystery to many people. As he said, it derives from a resolution of the Council of Nicea in AD325 and was given statutory authority by the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750.

For those who do not keep a close eye on the calendar—the noble Earl is evidently one—Easter can often come as something of a surprise, and I admit that. However, I do not find the arguments that have been made here tonight about the convenience of a fixed Easter wholly persuasive. The date of Easter is well known in advance. For example, Whittakers Almanack provides the dates of Easter up to the year 2040 and the Book of Common Prayer, even beyond. So no one who needs to be aware of the dates for the purposes of planning, including the tourist industry, schools and businesses, has any grounds for uncertainty.

An argument is sometimes made that a date fixed in accordance with the Easter Act would improve the chances of better weather at Easter; indeed, that has been said again tonight. However, knowing the vagaries of our weather, I should point out that we are just as likely to get good weather with an early Easter as we are with one which falls a little later. We have considered all such proposals.

Mention has also been made about the "bunching" of holidays, especially by my noble friend Lord Hacking. Perhaps I may point out to him that the present pattern is now well-established. Unless agreement can be reached between the Churches, a fixed date could lead to an extra holiday being established in this period. So, in that respect, we could find ourselves in a worse situation, especially if the Churches did not recognise it.

Up to this point I have dealt with secular concerns, but there is another consideration, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, which overrides all of this. Fixing a date for Easter is not simply a matter of deciding upon another Bank Holiday: Easter is a religious festival of great significance. I do not believe that any attempt to change its date would be possible without the support of the Churches. Indeed, when the 1928 Act was passed, it was recognised that regard should be had to any opinions officially expressed by the Churches, or other Christian bodies, before an order was made to fix the date for Easter.

As noble Lords will be aware—and it has been said again tonight—the Western Churches have always said that they would be willing to consider a change in the method of calculating Easter. However, as the right reverend Prelate said, they would not want to do this without a consensus being arrived at between the Eastern and Western Churches. There has, of course, been movement in that direction, but the fact remains that the stumbling block has been that the method of calculating the date of Easter between the Eastern and the Western Churches differs. As has been said, they differ as regards the calendar introduced by Pope Gregory, which is the one recognised by the Western Christian Church, and the Julian calendar, which is the one recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The differences between the latter to date have always been regarded as a major obstacle, but in 1997 there was consultation in Syria, sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. As has been said, proposals emerged for establishing a common date for Easter. Surely now is not the time to begin the change.

Such matters are under consideration by the Churches worldwide. I should stress that there are three proposals involved. The first is to retain the norms agreed at the Council of Nicea in AD325; namely, that Easter should fall on a Sunday following the first vernal new moon. That would also allow the link between Easter and, most importantly, the Jewish Passover Festival to be retained.

The second proposal is to calculate the astronomical dates by the most accurate scientific data available. I hope that that goes some way towards meeting the points raised by the noble Earl. The third proposal is to use the meridian of Jerusalem as the basis for reckoning. The Christian Churches are being invited to study these proposals in principle with a view to consulting together again in 2001. Significantly, in that year, both East and West will celebrate Easter on the same day.

I should make clear, as has been said during the course of the debate, that the acceptance of those proposals by the Churches would not result in a fixed date for Easter. However, it would result in the Eastern and Western Christian Churches worldwide having a common date to celebrate Easter. Moreover, as the right reverend Prelate said, the Churches place great importance on retaining the biblical link between Easter on the one hand, and the Jewish Passover on the other. It is thought that a fixed date for Easter would weaken and obscure that.

Serious deliberations are currently being undertaken by the Christian Churches worldwide on this issue. The British Churches would not be helped in this process by now bringing into force the Easter Act 1928. Moreover, it is likely that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church would continue to observe Easter on the same day as the rest of their world communions.

In the absence of any significant support among the Churches for fixing the date of Easter in accordance with the 1928 Act the Government do not consider that they could lend their support to this Bill.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, I say from these Benches that I entirely accept what my noble friend the Minister says; namely, that until the Churches agree on the date of Easter it cannot be fixed because it is a religious ceremony wholly connected with the Christian Churches. However, does not my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a problem as regards the distribution of holidays?

I believe it is a matter of supreme importance in our society to retain the family and the meeting together of the family. I do not have so much experience of European holidays, but I have a great deal of experience of American holidays. The fact is that Labour Day, which comes at the end of September, Thanksgiving, which comes in November, Christmas and the Spring bank holiday—Memorial Day Holiday, as it is called— which comes in May, are occasions for families to join together. We have to recognise that.

If we have our secular holidays bunched, with Easter as a roving date somewhere towards late March— I should disclose the interest that I was born on Easter Sunday in 1938 and I have had only one opportunity to celebrate my birthday on Easter Sunday since that date—there is a problem. I believe that we should address that matter. All I ask the Government to do is to look at the distribution of bank holidays, recognising me point that I believe is essential; namely, that these are occasions when families come together. Families in America come together on Memorial Day, on Labor Day, on Thanksgiving and at Christmas. That is also an important point which should be brought into the equation.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I understand the point my noble friend makes but it is wider than the issue we are discussing tonight. We have considered the bunching of holidays, but they are settled and recognised. I think there is a great coming together of families over Easter. Not only are they celebrating a secular holiday but also one of religious significance. That is of vital importance. I think my noble friend ought to take that into account. I emphasise again what I said earlier. I think it would be totally wrong at this time when the Christian Churches throughout the world are moving towards a common date for we in this country unilaterally to alter it and try to implement the 1928 Act.

10.38 p.m.

The Earl of Dartmouth

My Lords, I shall briefly discuss what has been said by the various speakers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford— the university of which town I am a graduate— mentioned that the Churches are currently negotiating a common but not a fixed date. It may be a common date but that still makes it moveable. Of course these negotiations have been going on for a long time. I believe there is a good argument for breaking the Gordian knot, as it were, and encouraging the Churches to finalise their mutual negotiations by passing this Bill.

The right reverend Prelate answered my points very eloquently. Perhaps I may say for the record that I regard "disjunction" as a much better coinage than my word "decoupling". But neither of us answered the problem very well. The right reverend Prelate made a good point when he said that Easter can be predicted even under the current arrangements. But, of course, very few people have the ability or the commitment to do so. Even if one can predict what the date of Easter will be in five or even 10 years' time, it does not invalidate the point that the date is still moving; is still floating, as it were.

I much appreciated the eloquent support given to my case by my noble friend Lord Manton. I just wish to place that on the record.

I now wish to turn to the points made by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. He is right to say that if the Bill were passed there would be the possibility Easter being celebrated on different days in different countries. But that is exactly what applies at the moment with numerous other holidays apart from Easter. Anyone who has spent time in the United States will know that Thanksgiving and Labor Day are major holidays which are not recognised in other countries. There is also the divergence which presently exists between the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and the western Churches on the very date of Easter itself. It may be of passing amusement to the House to know that I researched most of my material for my speech from the debates which took place in 1928. It was clear from what my noble friend Lord Bridgeman said that most of the research for his speech came from the debates in this House and elsewhere in 1984. On that basis—1928 and 1984—who can say that the Conservative Opposition are not fully wired into the information revolution of the millennium?

I wish to thank the Minister for the serious response he made to my remarks. In particular, I was very taken by the points he made about the 1997 consultation by the Churches. Furthermore, he telegraphed that a further meeting is planned by the Churches in 2001. Even though that meeting between the Churches only envisages a common date for Easter, it is nonetheless a significant stepping stone towards a fixed date for Easter. In view of those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Second Reading.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes before eleven o'clock.