And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 24. mars 2016

Saint Wilfrid and the Easter controversy

In the Christian year, the celebration of Easter is the mystical climax and the most important feast of the annual cycle. Since Easter is a movable feast there have been many debates throughout the early Christian centuries about when the feast should be celebrated, and there have been many attempts at calculating a calendar cycle that would accurately predict the time of Easter.

One of the arguably best known examples of this ongoing Easter controversy took place in England at the Synod of Whitby in 664, where representatives of the Celtic and the Roman churches presented their arguments for their respective views. The story is perhaps most famously recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, book III, chapter 25, but it is also expounded in dramatic detail in the Life of Wilfrid written by Eddius Stephanus in 720. Wilfrid (d.709) was a monk from Lindisfarne who studied in Rome and became bishop of York, and he was among the representatives from the Roman church at the Synod in 664. In the account by Eddius Stephanus' it is Wilfrid who single-handedly is responsible for the victory of the Roman party and the introduction of the Roman calculation in all of Britain.

I will not go into great detail here regarding the Synod of Whitby (an introduction can be found here). Suffice it to say that the matter was one of great importance, since there were in Britain at that time two competing Christian traditions. The Celtic church had its origin in the Roman era and had established its own missionary tradition which had founded centres on the Continent, and which had a strong influence in the north of England. The other side is referred to as the Roman side since it had been established by the missionary work from Rome as ordered by Pope Gregory the Great. At Whitby, therefore, not only correct religious observance - itself an important issue - but also ecclesiastical power struggles were at play.

As an overview of this event and as a reminder of the importance of Easter, I will here quote from J. F. Webb's translation of Eddius Stephanus' Life of Wilfrid, published in The Age of Bede, Penguin Classics, 2004: 116-17. The account is found in chapter 10. Eddius' introductory information about Bishop Colman is largely incorrect (see Webb 2004: 116). It is also worth noting that this takes place before Wilfrid ascended to the episcopacy of York.

October, with Wilfrid on the far right
BL MS Royal 17 A XVI, almanac, England, c.1420
Courtesy of British Library

On a certain occasion while Colman was bishop of York and metropolitan archbishop, during the reign of Oswiu and Alhfrith, abbots, priests, and clerics of every rank gathered at Whitby Abbey in the presence of the most holy Abbess Hilda, the two kings and Bishop Colman and Agilberht, to discuss the proper time for celebrating Easter: whether the practice of the British, Scots, and the northern province of keeping it on the Sunday between the fourteenth and twenty-ssecond day of th moon was correct or whether they ought to give way to the Roman plan for fixing it for the Sunday between the fifteenth and twenty-first days of the moon. Bishop Colman, as was proper, was given the first chance to state his case. He spoke with complete confidence, as follows: 'Our fathers and theirs before them, clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit,as was Columba, stipulated that Easter Sunday should be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the moon if that day were a Sunday, following the example of St John the Evangelist "who leaned on the Lord's breast at supper", the disciple whom Jesus loved. He celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, as did his disciples and Polycarp and his disciples, and as we do on their authority. Out of respect to our fathers we dare not change, nor do we have the least desire to do so. I have spoken for our party. Now let us hear your side of the question.'

Agilberht, the foreign prelate, and his priest Agatho bade St Wilfrid, priest and abbot, use his winning eloquence to express in his own words the case of the Roman Church and Apostolic See. His speech was, as usual, humble. 

'This question has already been admirably treated by a gathering of our most holy and learned fathers, three hundred and eighteen strong, at Nicaea, a city in Bithynia. Among other things they decided upon a lunar cycle recurring every nineteen years. This cycle gives no room for celebrating Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon. This is the rule followed by the Apostolic See and by nearly the whole world. At the end of the decrees of the fathers of Nicaea come these words: "Let him who condemns any one of these decrees be anathema."'

These are Wilfrid's word on the subject, and the chapter continues with the king asking rhetorically the synod whose authority is the greatest, Columba or Peter the apostle. Since no one can deny the primacy of the prince of apostle, the case is settled and Colman is allowed to resign rather than having to enforce a break with his own tradition.

The Easter controversy was a matter of great contention, and we do well in treating Eddius' report with due skepticism. However, what we know for certain is that the Roman party won, and Wilfrid solidified his reputation as a learned man in these debates.  

As a final note of explanation: Bishop Colman argues that they follow the tradition established by Saint John the Evangelist, and although both this and the Roman use of Saint Peter are questionable in historical weight, this highlights the importance of longevity, tradition and Biblical roots in church ritual. What is of particular interest to a saint-scholar like me is the reference to Polycarp (d.155). He was martyred in Smyrna and was believed to have been the disciple of John the Evangelist, hence his inclusion in Colman's argument of the chain of tradition. Aside from being a valuable insight to the rhetoric of the period, Colman's speech gives us also a glimpse of the standing of Saint Polycarp in seventh-century Britain.

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