THE CALENDAR QUESTION IN BRITISH HISTORY

Written by Vladimir Moss

THE CALENDAR QUESTION IN BRITISH HISTORY

 

     It is sometimes thought that disputes over the ecclesiastical calendar have taken place only in the Orthodox East. But this is not so. Two such disputes took place in British history, which are instructive for us even today.

 

     In about the year 600, St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, with the blessing of his spiritual father, St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, travelled to the west of Britain to meet the remnants of the British or Welsh Church, which had fled to the west during the barbarian invasions in the fifth century. Augustine had been given authority over the British bishops by St. Gregory; but the task of uniting with the British, as described by Bede, did not prove to be easy.

 

     The first obstacle was that the British, having suffered much from the Anglo-Saxons, were not willing to join with Augustine in trying to convert them to the Faith. The second obstacle was that as a result of their isolation from the Church on the continent, the British did not know that the rest of the Universal Church had adopted a slightly different method of calculating the date of Pascha based on cycles of nineteen years. Unfortunately, the British and the Irish had not been informed of this change, and so they still celebrated Pascha according to a calendar based on a cycle of eighty-four years which they claimed derived from the holy Apostle John. This meant that on some years they celebrated Pascha on the 14th day of Nisan, whereas the Council of Nicaea had decreed that it should never be celebrated before the 15th. A third obstacle was that the British performed the sacrament of Baptism in an irregular manner.

 

     St. Augustine stipulated three conditions for union: that the British should correct the two canonical irregularities; and that they should cooperate with him in converting the Saxons.

 

     However, the British refused to accede on any of these points. At length, Augustine suggested that they pray to God to reveal His will in the following manner: "Let a sick person be brought near, and by whosoever's prayers he will be healed, let the faith and works of that one be judged devout before God and an example for men to follow."

 

     The British reluctantly agreed, and a blind Saxon was brought before them.

 

     The British clergy tried, but failed to heal him. But through Augustine's prayers he received recovery of his sight. The British were impressed, but pleaded for time in which to discuss these questions with their elders before coming to a decision.

 

     Augustine travelled to his second meeting with the British accompanied by Saints Mellitus and Justus. The British were represented by seven bishops and Abbot Dinoth of the great monastery of Bangor, which had well over a thousand monks. Before the meeting they had approached a hermit and asked him how they should answer Augustine. He said that if Augustine rose when they entered, this showed that he was humble and should be obeyed. If he did not rise, then they should not accede to him. Therefore when Augustine did not rise at their entrance, the British became angry and refused both to accept his stipulations and to acknowledge him as their archbishop. As the meeting broke up, St. Augustine prophesied that since the British had refused to cooperate in the conversion of the pagan English they would themselves be put to sword by the same English - a prophecy which was fulfilled a few years later, in 616, when the pagan King Aethelfrid of Northumbria defeated the British in battle at Chester and killed 1200 of the monks of Bangor, who had come to pray for their king.

 

     In the next fifty years, the mission of St. Augustine and his successors was blessed with extraordinary success, and most of the east of Britain was re-converted to Christ. However, the British Christians in the West remained stubbornly separate. They refused to help in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons out of hatred for them as the conquerors of their homeland. 

 

     With the British refusing to cooperate, the mission field was left to the Romans, who came from the south and east and concentrated on the old Roman towns, and to the Irish, who came from the north and west and concentrated on the country districts. For the Irish did not have the Britons? hatred of the English, and some were converted to the Roman-Byzantine Paschalion. Thus in 634 the Irish Monk Cummian, who had accepted the Roman-Byzantine Paschalion, wrote to the Abbot of a Scottish monastery with considerable irony: ?Rome is mistaken; Jerusalem is mistaken; Antioch is mistaken; the whole world is mistaken; the British and Irish alone hold the truth!?

 

     The Roman and Irish missionaries met in the northern English kingdom of Northumbria. But here a problem arose; for King Oswy of Northumbria had been baptised in the Irish Church, following the Celtic calendar, whereas his queen had been baptised in the Roman Church, following the Roman calendar. Displeased that he and his wife were feasting and fasting at different times, the king convened a council of bishops in 663 from both the Roman and Irish traditions in the monastery of Whitby. As a result of this council, it was decided that all the Christians in the kingdom should follow the Roman calendar. A few years later, the Church of England, led by her Greek archbishop, St. Theodore (+691), decreed that all Christians who followed the Celtic calendar were schismatics.

 

     This decision was accepted even by most of those Celtic Christians who had been brought up in the Celtic traditions. Thus St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (+687), whose body was completely incorrupt until the Protestant Reformation, told his monks as he was dying: ?Have no communion with those who err from the Catholic Faith, either by keeping Pascha at the wrong time, or by their perverse life. And know and remember: if of the two evils you are compelled to choose one, I would rather that you take up my bones, and leave these places, to live wherever God may send you, than agree in any way with the wickedness of schismatics, and so place a yoke upon your necks.?

 

     Through the efforts of St. Adomnan and St. Egbert, the great Scottish monastery of Iona accepted the Byzantine Paschalion. The Welsh Church, alone among the Churches of the British Isles, remained in schism for a century. However, in 768 the last Welsh bishop, Edbod of Bangor, returned to the unity of the Orthodox Church.

 

     But this was not the last time that a question relating to the Church calendar disturbed British Christians. And this time, when the British Christians found themselves in conflict with the Church of Rome, it was they who were right, and Rome wrong?

 

     In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new, Gregorian calendar, which was immediately anathematised by the Eastern Patriarchs led by Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople. Most of Europe accepted the change. But the British, who were Protestants, remained with the old calendar.

 

     They were supported in their stubbornness by a great miracle which took place every year in the town of Glastonbury. To this area, in the first years after the resurrection of Christ, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea had come, and there he died. One Christmas Day, when Righteous Joseph was preaching to the pagans, he planted his staff into the ground, and it suddenly sprouted leaves and flowers. The saint used this miracle to explain that Christ was born as a flower of the root of Jesse.

 

     Every year after this the tree would sprout flowers on Christmas Day ? according to the Old Calendar. From the seventeenth century it became a tradition to present some flowers from Joseph?s tree to the king. On receiving the blossom, King Charles I, who was later beheaded during the English revolution, said:

 

     ?Well, this is a miracle, isn?t it??

 

     ?Yes, Your Majesty, a miracle peculiar to England and regarded with great veneration by the [Roman] Catholics.?

 

     ?How?? said the king, ?when this miracle opposes itself to the [Roman] pope? You bring me this miraculous blossom on Christmas Day, Old Style. Does it always observe the Old Style, by which we English celebrate the Nativity, at its time of flowering??

 

     ?Always.?

 

     ?Then the pope and your miracle differ not a little, for he always celebrates Christmas Day ten days earlier by the calendar of the new style??

 

     Finally, in 1752 the British government decided to accept the papist calendar in order to keep in line with the rest of Western Europe. However, at Christmas, crowds gathered to see what the tree would do. The tree did not change calendar, but blossomed on December 25 according to the old, patristic calendar (January 5 new style, the difference being only eleven days at that time)! There were riots, and many at first refused to accept the new calendar.

 

     Today British Orthodox Christians are again divided over a calendar question. The majority follow the new Grigorian calendar, which was imposed upon the official churches of Greece and Romania in 1924, and has now spread to several other churches. A glance at the history of Orthodoxy in our islands will show that the calendar question is an extremely important one, being a question, not of ?thirteen days? merely, but of Christian unity in faith and worship, and that salvation is to be found only in following the Julian calendar sanctioned by the First Ecumenical Council and the Holy Fathers of the One, Holy, Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church.

 

January 6/19, 2005; revised January 22 / February 4, 2014.

 

 

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