An excursus on the Synod of Whitby (AD 664) and Celtic Christianity

Whitby Abbey

As I travel through the messiness that is church history from Constantine to the Reformation, hunting for those whom the institutional church hunted, I would like to branch off on the cusp of the big issues of the Middle Ages to bring to you …

The Synod of Whitby

Why is the Synod of Whitby worth bold letters in the centre of the page? Because the popular myth that surrounds Whitby, one that is intimately linked with modern visions of the ‘Celtic Church’, is that in 664, when King Oswiu and Northumberland chose to follow the current Roman calculations for Easter, they became ‘aligned’ with the Roman Church against the ‘Celtic’ Church in a clash of civilisations and worldviews. It was free-spirited Celt vs bureaucratic, legalistic Roman. Many people call 664 the end of Celtic Christianity. If you’re interested in Celtic spirituality, don’t look any later than this.

So, especially since the gathering was called by the King of Northumberland, it seems the perfect fit for the nastiness that is the official church and its organisms after Constantine ruined everything by daring to give bishops tax-free status.

I just read Benedicta Ward’s little booklet A True Easter: The Synod of Whiby 664 AD, and, well, the truth is messier and, quite frankly, doesn’t support the above reading which draws more upon nineteenth-century nationalism and contemporary Protestant/agnostic searches for early (Christian) spirituality that doesn’t require the presence of a Bishop in Rome.

First, what was this gathering actually about? It was about two things: the date of Easter and how monks should shave their heads. True story. That is all it was about. The latter is not so important. The former, on the other hand, was a big deal all over the ancient and early mediaeval church.

Why is the date of Easter a big deal? Why does it matter whether people celebrate it at the same time? Well, as the Venerable Bede points out, when the King of Northumberland celebrated Easter on one date and his Queen another, one would be feasting while the other was fasting (this is how similar the two practices were; basically the date was the only difference). This is the general complaint about different dates of Easter from time immemorial. It also matters because almost the entire liturgical year is centred around Easter; it sets the dates for the fast of Lent as well as the baptisms which traditionally occur at Easter and Pentecost. It was important for the ancient and mediaeval Christians, who lived in an almost completely oral society for whom visible signs meant more than they do today, that those who are united internally — that is, doctrinally — be united visibly as well.

The dispute about Easter first pops up, according to tradition, in the late 100s when some Christians in Asia Minor were found to be always celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan, that is, Passover — they were accordingly called Quartodecimans. Some people call the Roman episcopus Victor who sent the letter on this issue to the eastern churches the first ‘Pope’. Whatever that’s worth, Quartodecimans were not the end of such disputes, since calculating Easter is a bit tricky. Constantine, who very often tried to help the church find unity and uniformity in various matters, ruled that everyone should follow the Bishop of Alexandria, since Egyptians are good at astronomy and stuff. This didn’t stop Pope Leo I a little over a hundred years later arguing with the Bishop of Alexandria about what the right date would be.

Around 457 (while a frustrated Leo was Bishop of Rome), the Church in Rome decided to follow the Easter tables by Victorius of Aquitaine. This usage spread to the whole western Church that was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, including the Church in Ireland, which was in the process of being evangelised by missionary-bishop-monks sent from Rome.

So how do the Rome-evangelised churches in the south of England, and the Ireland-evangelised churches in the north of England end up with different dates for Easter?

Well, in 525, everyone’s favourite short monk from Scythia, Dionysius Exiguus, came up with new tables for calculating the date of Easter that would run until 1063. These were a bit better at calculating the combined solar-lunar cycle that determines Easter (apparently a tricky thing to this day), so the Roman Church and those in communion with her on the continent adopted the new cycle.

Ireland and Wales (and, as a result, the missions in Scotland and England) did not. I imagine this is because there was not a lot of contact between them and Spain and Gaul (let alone Italy!), especially since Spain and Gaul were busy being consolidated into barbarian kingdoms at the time, with the occasional invasion by a neighbour. When Augustine of Canterbury turned up in 597, the Welsh Christians resisted his calculation of Easter; for them, it does seem to have been a mark of resistance and individuality.

Sixty-seven years later at Whitby, however, the Irish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons and Irish who favoured the old Roman dating of Easter, and the Kentish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons who favoured the new Roman dating, were all simply appealing to what they saw as the authentic tradition. They had all partnered in mission, and some of them were married to people from the other side of the debate.  Theologically, they were in agreement. It was the thorny issue of Easter and how to shave a monk’s head over which they disagreed. As Benedicta Ward paints the scene, this was a meeting of friends, of Christians who loved one another who wanted to solve a problem.

Except possibly Oswiu, for whom this was also a matter of secular politicking.

Anyway, the new Roman position won. Although Colman resigned his bishopric and monastery, his replacements in Lindisfarne were still Irish-trained; the only difference was the fact that they would follow the new date of Easter. When he left, some of the English monks followed him to Iona.

Ward points out that Bede speaks highly of the Irish missionaries and monks, finding their obstinacy concerning dating Easter as the only general fault. Their devotion to the theological truths of Easter he praises.

Eventually, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the isles adopted the new Roman date of Easter. While this may sound like reading history backwards, it still strikes me as inevitable. The entire church on the continent followed this practice, as did the churches in southern England with a mix in Northumberland. The Church of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages  esteemed unity, and the celebration of the Church’s chiefest and principal feast was an important demonstration of that unity.

If you’re looking for a Roman church imposing its power over local practices, look not to the Synod of Whitby.

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