Senior church representatives have come up with an ingenious proposal to set a common date for Easter.
At present, churches in the East and West celebrate Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, on two different dates in most years.
It has long been recognised that to celebrate this fundamental aspect of the Christian Faith on different dates gives a divided witness and compromises the churches' credibility and effectiveness in bringing the Gospel (good news) to the world.
At a recent consultation in Aleppo, Syria (5-10 March), organised by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, representatives of several churches and Christian world communions became convinced a solution to the problem is possible, based on modern astronomical science.
Churches in the East and West calculate the date of Easter by the same principle. This is the one given by the Council of Nicea in 325 which determined that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the March equinox.
Differences in dating occur because churches follow different calculations of the equinox and the full moon.
The recent Aleppo gathering has proposed that, from the year 2001 the date of Easter should be calculated using precise modern astronomical determinations.
In this way, the Nicea principle will be preserved and neither churches in the East or West will have to change their policy.
Astronomical observations, of course, depend upon the position on earth which is taken as a point of reference. Therefore, it is proposed that the basis for reckoning be the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's death and resurrection.
The consultation proposal will be sent to churches throughout the world together with a chart showing possible dates for Easter in the first 25 years of the 21st century if their suggestion is accepted. The chart also shows the dates if calculated by the old methods.
The consultation recognised that differences in dating Easter are not due to fundamental theological differences, but also acknowledged that past attempts to address this thorny question have led to schism.
Churches in the East will be most affected by the new dating system. However, in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where Christian churches have lived with the challenge of other religions or materialistic ideologies, loyalty to the *old calendar* has been a symbol of the churches' desire to maintain their integrity and freedom from the hostile forces of this world. The consultation therefore concluded that there will be need for great pastoral sensitivity among church members as the proposal is pursued.
It is suggested that the new method of calculation begin in 2001 when the date of Easter, using the old methods and the new, will be the same, viz 15 April, and that a common date be kept from then on. However, before that can happen, churches must consider the proposal and give their reactions. The consultation called on the WCC to organise a meeting between now and 2001 to receive reports and discuss possible implementation.
Represented at the consultation were: Anglican Communion, Armenian Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarchate, Evangelical Churches in the Middle East, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, Lutheran World Federation, Middle East Council of Churches, Old-Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, Patriarchate of Moscow, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Seventh-day Adventists.
The Syrian Orthodox Church hosted the meeting. Consultants came from the Orthodox Church in America and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
Fr Dr Thomas FitzGerald (director) and Rev Dr Dagmar Heller (executive secretary) from WCC Unit I: Unity and Renewal staffed the gathering and are available for interview. A 9-page briefing paper prepared by the consultation is available upon request.
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