An official at the World Council of Churches has called on churches world-wide to point out to churchgoers on April 15 that by a "happy" coincidence of church calendars, all of the world's Christians are celebrating Easter on the same day this year.

Referring to the fact that in most years there are two dates for Easter, Tom Best, executive secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC), told ENI that this was "a terrible counter-witness to the unity we share in Christ. This is the core festival of the Christian faith. An important way to show our unity would be for all Christians to celebrate it together every year."

Best referred to an initiative launched in 1997 by the Middle East Council of Churches and the WCC to enable all churches to celebrate Easter together every year. The initiative has been warmly welcomed by many churches around the world, though hopes that this year might mark the end of division over the dates have proved unrealistic.

Differences over Easter date back to early Christianity. At present Western churches calculate the date of Easter using the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 and now the standard calendar world-wide, whereas most Orthodox churches, including the Russian church, maintain the older Julian calendar to calculate the date of Easter.

The division about what is known as "the Paschal controversies" has prompted many discussions over the centuries, and especially in recent decades, at the highest level in churches. The issue was one of the reasons for calling the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325—on the site of present-day Iznik in Turkey.

At a meeting held in Aleppo, Syria, in March 1997, representatives of the world's main Christian traditions agreed on what the WCC described as "an ingenious proposal to set a common date for Easter."

Best told ENI that the Aleppo proposal sought to avoid a "clash of calendars" by continuing to use the Nicene formula to determine the date of Easter, basing calculations on the best astronomical data available and taking the meridian of Jerusalem as the reference point.

According to Best, about 25 churches have sent positive responses to the WCC over the Aleppo proposal, although the initial response from the (Orthodox) Church of Greece was negative. He pointed out that several international Christian bodies, including the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Conference of European Churches and the Lutheran World Federation have expressed strong interest in the plan. Two leading Orthodox bodies, the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, have informed the WCC that they are studying the proposal, which has also been welcomed by other Orthodox-linked agencies in North America. In the meantime, a leading Russian Orthodox official, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external relations, has called on Western churches to reform their religious calendars and calculate the date of Easter using the Julian system. Orthodox churches in Australia have made a similar suggestion to the WCC.

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Asked by ENI about prospects for the Aleppo proposal, Best told ENI that "the reaction is very positive so far. We understand that the Orthodox churches have particular difficulties with the proposal—the tradition of using the Julian calendar to determine the date of Easter is deeply rooted for the Orthodox churches and we understand that it would be difficult for them to make an abrupt change."

However, he added, the Orthodox churches themselves had anticipated the Aleppo proposal at a meeting at Chambesy, Switzerland in 1977, and the Aleppo proposal responded to many of the Orthodox concerns.

Asked what the prospects were now, given that agreement had not been reached this year as the Aleppo meeting had hoped, Best said that there were possibilities that plans for a common Easter date would be explored by churches on a regional basis—for example in the Middle East, where the division over the celebration of Easter is especially visible. This had in fact been a suggestion of the Aleppo meeting.

He also pointed out that "we are presented—happily—with the fact that in the next few years, Easter will often fall on a common date." In 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 the dates coincide.

"We hope people will get attached to celebrating Easter together," Best said. "We would ask the churches to focus on these years of common celebration, emphasizing this as a sign of our unity. We hope there will be a growing sense that the common celebration of Easter should be the norm, not the exception."

Best said another meeting on the Aleppo proposal was likely in the second half of this year, with officials representing major Christian organizations. The general secretaries of the World Christian Communions supported plans for another meeting, he said.

In a message released April 5, the Russian Orthodox Church's department for external relations has indicated that Metropolitan Kyrill's proposal—which is markedly different from the Aleppo proposal—is the official position of the Russian church and "has been repeatedly stated by official representatives." The statement adds that the Russian church will continue to insist on this solution to the "problem" of Easter dates "regardless of whether or not non-Orthodox Christians are ready to accept [it]."

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Related Elsewhere

"Toward a Common Date for Easter," also known as the Aleppo Statement, was the result of a consultation in Syria between the Middle East Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The groups sought to reconcile the differing methods for determining Easter.

Last week, we reported on Kyrill's proposal that the Western churches adopt Orthodox dates for Easter.

In South Korea, meanwhile, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox will be celebrate Easter together.

Last year, our Christian History Corner examined why Western and Eastern Christians usually celebrate different dates for Easter.

Frequently Asked Questions about Easter Dates and Calculation of the Ecclesiastical Calendar both give more information about the history of Easter calculations. The latter includes a CGI script for calculating Orthodox and Western Ecclesiastical Calendars.

The controversy over Easter is no small matter. As Christian Historyissue 60, "How the Irish Were Saved" pointed out, Celtic and Roman Christians fought over the dates at the Synod of Whitby in 664.