The Congress of Whitby

In the last quarter of the 6th Century, St. Columba, based at the monastery he had founded at Iona, extended his mission into Northumbria; and in 597 St. Augustine landed in Kent on a mission from Pope Gregory The Great. The two traditions were different in many ways:  Celtic monasticism, based to some extent on Druidism, was earthy as opposed to continental monasticism which saw itself as an escape from the world; it was missionary rather than reclusive; and, above all, it was the basic unit of Church organisation whereas Europe looked to Bishops, ecclesiastical throw-backs of Roman administration. The presenting issue which divided the traditions, however, was the dating of Easter which the Celts had adjusted to coincide with Druidic traditions such that, to put it graphically: "When the Northumbrian King Oswy and his household were keeping Easter, his Queen, who had been brought up in the South under the Roman system was still fasting."

An opportunity arose to discuss this at the Congress of Whitby in 664. King Oswy and his Bishops Colman and Chad represented the Celtic tradition; Alchfrid, son of Oswy, and Bishops Wilfrid and Agilbert that of Rome. A full account is given by Bede and a shorter one by Eddius. Colman appealed to John the Apostle; Wilfrid to Peter and Oswy opted for the latter.

The Syrians complied. Various lengths of lunar cycles were tried but there was no consistency.

The Celtic church kept Easter on a Sunday but there is disagreement about which tradition it followed. At Whitby it fell in line with the Roman system which was not itself finally settled.

It can be argued that the issue was one of discipline rather than science and that its significance was the tipping of the balance from declining Celtic to advancing Roman Christianity.


The Venerable Bede: The ecclesiastical History of the English People, OUP, 1994 ISBN 0 19 2829a2 2