The Easter Act 1928 sets the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. However, the commencement order to bring it into force has never been passed. Kasim Khorasanee considers the age-old dispute over the date of Easter – and its place in the debate over the role of Christianity in British life.
Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is perhaps the most important date in the Christian calendar. However, disagreement over when to mark it dates back to the earliest years of Christianity. Originally celebrated to coincide with Passover on the 14th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, dispute arose when certain churches moved to celebrate it on the following Sunday.
The separation from the Jewish calendar was endorsed by the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. In 1582 A.D. a further split occurred when the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches adopted the Gregorian calendar to improve the accuracy of the Easter date. The Orthodox churches maintained the older calculations relying on the Julian calendar. This distinction between the churches remains to this day and is reflected in other important dates, such as the celebration of Christmas.
The League of Nations and passage of the Easter Act 1928
The lunar calculations underlying the timing of Easter cause it to ‘float’ relative to the calendar date. For this reason the Protestant and Roman Catholic celebration of Easter can fall any time between 22 March and 25 April. This variation was identified as ripe for reform by the ‘Advisory and Technical Committee for Communications and Transit’ of the League of Nations. (Other issues on the Committee’s agenda included deciding whether a year should have twelve or thirteen months!) Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches joined the committee, and a report issued in 1926 endorsed stabilising the date of Easter on the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. This proposal, supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was carried into UK law in the form of the Easter Act 1928.
However, commencement of the Easter Act was left subject to the passage of a statutory instrument through the affirmative procedure. This procedure requires both chambers of parliament to vote on a commencement order to bring the Easter Act into force. The Easter Act also specified that before bringing any such vote, ‘…regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.’ At present the Easter Act remains on the statute books, awaiting a commencement order to bring it into force.
Since 1928 parliamentarians have regularly urged the government to implement the Easter Act. The debates which arose on the issue illuminate the alternative approaches to the problem.
The secular arguments were linked to the bank holidays which accompany Easter. They highlighted the importance of regularising school terms for the benefit of teachers and students, simplicity for businesses and tourists, preventing the bunching of bank holidays together, and the likelihood of better bank holiday weather later in April. In the words of Lord Houghton of Sowerby in 1984, ‘…this is a matter of holidays and one ought to look at in that simple way.’
On the other side of the debate, the fundamentally Christian nature of Easter was emphasised, the importance of not acting prematurely when the world’s churches were seeking to agree a shared Easter date, and the fact that the date could already be calculated decades in advance, providing certainty for businesses. The conclusion of each debate to date has been that parliament should follow the lead of the church. Lord Hoyle, on behalf of the government, put it as follows in 1999: ‘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.’
At their heart the parliamentary debates around the date of Easter turn on whether it is seen as a secular problem of bank holiday timing, or as a central plank of the Christian faith.These types of issues were brought to the fore recently over the National Trust’s branding of its ‘Cadbury Egg Hunt’ this Easter. Following the Archbishop of York, Theresa May described it as ‘absolutely ridiculous’, and was joined in her condemnation by Jeremy Corbyn, who stated that it reflected ‘commercialisation gone a bit too far.’
Over the years there have been repeated attempts to agree a shared date between the churches for Easter. Notably, in 1997 the World Council of Churches recommended that it should be set as the Sunday after the first spring full moon, based on the most accurate possible scientific data, and using the meridian of Jerusalem as the measuring point. As recently as early 2016 the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed hope that the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches could agree within the next five to ten years on a fixed date – most likely the second or third Sunday of April.
Easter and Christianity in 21st century Britain
Given the longstanding competing calendar traditions it appears unlikely that the churches will change their centuries-old Easter policies soon. On the other hand, Britain has undergone significant changes in its religious composition since 1928. Although survey results vary by methodology and question phrasing, recent research suggests as much as half of the UK’s population identifies as having no religion. Despite this the Church of England occupies a privileged place in the UK, being the necessary religion of the head of state and represented by 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. Given this backdrop the fixed Easter debate has in many respects been overtaken by the broader question of the future role of established religion in the UK.
About the author
Kasim Khorasanee is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.