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7 April 1999

Towards a common date for Easter

"If we time it right, we can usually get our children's Easter eggs at half price", jokes Peter Bouteneff, executive secretary with the Faith and Order team of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and member of the Orthodox Church in America. Like other Orthodox Christians around the world, the Bouteneff family will celebrate Easter on 11 April, a week later than most Western Christians.

If Christians are united in their belief of the Resurrection, why then do we celebrate Easter on different dates? The reason is that we use two different calendars to calculate the date of Easter. One is the 16th-century Gregorian calendar used mainly by Western churches. The other is the much older Julian calendar used by most Orthodox churches.

Dagmar Heller, an executive secretary with Faith and Order, explains: "This difference has existed since the 16th century when the Gregorian calendar was introduced to replace the Julian calendar. The difference between these two calendars arises from the fact that the astronomical year, the time it takes for the earth to move around the sun once, is not exactly 365 days. In order to divide the year into equal parts the calendar must find ways to correct the difference, which is normally done by means of leap years. Although not absolutely correct, the Gregorian calendar is astronomically more exact than the Julian: the year according to the Gregorian calendar is 26 seconds longer than the time the earth needs to go around the sun, while according to the Julian calendar there is a difference of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. At present the Julian calendar differs from the Gregorian by 13 days; in the year 2100 it will be 14 days."

Especially in regions where Christians of the Western and Eastern traditions live closely together and may even constitute a minority, as for example in the Middle East, this situation is extremely painful.

One milestone in the efforts to establish a common date for Easter was the March 1997 consultation held in Aleppo, Syria, and jointly sponsored by the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches. Of great importance was the recognition that differences in calculating the date of Easter do not depend on basic theological disagreements.

The consultation recommended that the principle of calculation recognised by both Eastern and Western churches and established by the Council of Nicea in the year 325 should be retained. According to this principle, Easter falls on the Sunday which follows the first full moon of spring. The Aleppo participants also recommended that the spring equinox be calculated "by the most accurate possible scientific means". Moreover, the basis for reckoning should be "the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's death and resurrection".

The Aleppo consultation also expressed the hope that the new method of calculation could be introduced in the year 2001, when the date of Easter according to both the Julian and Gregorian calendars falls on 15 April. From then on, the "celebration of Easter/Pascha on the same date should not be the exception but the rule".

The eighth assembly of the WCC, held in Harare, Zimbabwe, last December, also expressed the hope for a common celebration of Easter saying, "We have rejoiced in the developing koinonia (communion) between Christians in many parts of the world, and we affirm once again that God has called us to continue to grow in that communion together, that it may be truly visible. We rejoice in signs of this growth such as the hope for a common date of Easter".

Preliminary responses received from the churches
Churches around the world continue to reflect on the challenge. In summarizing the first responses from the churches, Dagmar Heller said, "it is clear that various churches and groups have given serious thought to the report from Aleppo. The Lambeth Conference (Anglican) and the Lutheran World Federation have commended the Aleppo proposal for consideration by their member churches." According to Heller, the Conference of European Churches plans to do the same and she has received positive reactions from others including Baptists, Methodists, Old Catholics, Presbyterians, Societies of Friends and Free Churches. Heller made specific reference to the positive reaction of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

Orthodox churches, according to Heller, are more varied in their reactions. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), though it welcomes the initiative, does not see the ROC as able to address the issue at this time given its present situation. The response from the Ecumenical Patriarchate was also positive but restrained with regard to implementation, while the reaction of the Greek Orthodox Church was "quite critical". In contrast, Heller noted that the Syrian Orthodox Church would like to see the Aleppo proposal realised as soon as possible.

Both Heller and her Orthodox colleague in Faith and Order, Peter Bouteneff, call for patience. Bouteneff points out that the that the intra-Orthodox theological debate on the Aleppo proposal is not yet conclusive. Moreover, he notes that the Orthodox themselves already experience an internal division in celebrating their liturgical cycle on two different calendars, and further internal division is feared if some churches were to change the way they reckon the date of Easter.

Both Heller and Bouteneff are in favour of continuing the discussion in the coming years. In the West and Middle East, says Heller, "certainly more patience will be necessary, and on the Orthodox side, a development of trust". It must be made clear that "it is not a matter of imposing a Western system on the Orthodox churches", but of a common way of calculating the Easter date that is faithful both to the Church's tradition and to astronomical reality.

In the year 2001 it is planned that there will be a another consultation on a common date for Easter, which will evaluate the process thus far and make a plan for further action.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter, Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6152 (office);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 336, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.