Synod of Whitby

Synod of Whitby
   One of the most important church councils of early English history, the synod held at Streanaeschalch, or Bay of the Beacon (identified with Whitby since the eleventh century), determined the shape of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The council, held by Oswy, king of Northumbria (r. 655-670), met in 664 (although some prefer the year 663) to resolve the debate over the calculation of Easter initiated by the contact between missionaries from the Celtic church of Ireland and those from the Roman church of southern England.
   After the restoration of Roman Catholic Christianity to England by St. Augustine of Canterbury, conflict occurred between the advocates of the Roman faith and those of the Celtic Christian faith. Missionaries of both churches were especially active in the kingdom of Northumbria, whose king, Oswy, accepted the Celtic tradition, whereas his wife, Eanfled, a princess from Kent, was raised in the Roman tradition. Among the various differences between the practices of the two churches was a difference in the method of calculating the date of Easter, with the Celtic church celebrating the feast a week earlier than the Roman church. As a result, Eanfled would continue fasting while her husband was feasting and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The divergence in practice in the royal household, which paralleled the divergence in the kingdom, inspired Oswy to hold a council at Streanaeschalch, the monastery of his cousin Abbess Hilda, to resolve the debate.
   The council's main focus was to determine the proper means to calculate the date of Easter, but it also was to decide issues concerning liturgy, organization, the tonsure, and other matters of church discipline. Oswy opened the council by observing that all believers in one God should follow one rule and should celebrate the sacraments of heaven in the same way. The spokesman for the Celtic church, St. Colman (c. 605-676), began the debate by arguing that the saintly and pious fathers of his church, including the widely respected St. Columba (c. 521-597), had long determined the date of Easter in the Celtic way, and that these same fathers had learned their method of calculation from John the Apostle. Although the visiting bishop of the West Saxons, Agilbert, had been appointed to defend the Roman cause, he yielded to Wilfrid (634-709), the abbot of Ripon, who spoke the Anglo-Saxon language better. Wilfrid argued that his church's custom came from Rome, the city of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. He said also that these customs are followed in Italy, Gaul, Africa, Asia, and Greece-everywhere but Ireland and Scotland. Colman responded by defending the many Irish saints who had followed the Celtic practice, but Wilfrid argued that no matter how saintly the Celtic fathers were they could not take precedence over St. Peter, who had been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Hearing this Oswy asked Colman if this were true and if he could make an equal boast about Columba. Learning that Colman could not, Oswy declared, "Then, I tell you, Peter is guardian of the gates of heaven, and I shall not contradict him" (Bede 1981, 192). The king thus accepted the Roman tradition and ensured the ultimate triumph of Roman Catholic Christianity in England.
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
 ♦ Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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