The Synod of Whitby and the Keys of Heaven

How a decision about the way in which the date of Easter should be calculated, made at a meeting at Whitby Abbey, was a landmark in the history of Christianity in England.

The ruins of the Benedictine abbey at Whitby

The ruins of the Benedictine abbey at Whitby

DRAMATIC RUINS

The dramatic ruins on the headland at Whitby in North Yorkshire belong to a Benedictine abbey founded after the Norman Conquest, and built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery.

The earlier monastery has left no trace above ground, but it made its mark in another way: in 664, a decision made here influenced the future direction of the Church in England.

Priests’ haircuts were different in the Roman and Celtic Christian traditions

Priests’ haircuts were different in the Roman and Celtic Christian traditions
© British Library Board

MOVEABLE FEAST

In the 7th century the monastery at Whitby, or Streaneshalch as it was then known, was a place of great prestige – the burial place of kings of Northumbria, then the mightiest of the kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England.

Northumbrians had been Christianised from the 620s onwards by two different groups of missionaries: those from Rome, who were first on the scene, and those of the Irish or Celtic tradition, from the island of Iona, who had made Lindisfarne their chief mission centre in the 630s.

The problem was that the two traditions had different Christian practices, including the way priests cut their hair, and, most important of all, the way they calculated the date of Easter – a moveable feast, as it has to be a Sunday. Its precise timing is determined by the cycle of the moon, and the two contrary methods sometimes resulted in dates up to four weeks apart.

Bede (possibly depicted here) wrote about the Synod of Whitby in the early 8th century

A scribe, thought to be Bede, who described the Synod of Whitby in the early 8th century
© British Library Board

ROYAL RUMBLE

Even the royal household was split, with King Oswiu’s court following Celtic practice and celebrating Easter early, while Queen Eanflæd and her supporters – Roman converts – were still fasting for Lent.

But since Easter is the pivotal event in the Christian calendar, celebrating the resurrection of Christ, these issues were not just inconvenient. As Bede, writing in the early 8th century, put it:

This dispute rightly began to trouble the minds and consciences of many people, who feared that they might have received the name of Christian in vain.

So in 664 Oswiu summoned eminent clerics from the rival movements to Whitby in an attempt to resolve the conflict.

Christ in Majesty, with St Peter (right) holding the Keys of Heaven

Christ in Majesty, with St Peter (right) holding the Keys of Heaven
© British Library Board

THE GATES OF HEAVEN

Each side laid its case before the king. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne led the Irish faction, while the Roman point of view was put forward by Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. The two sides claimed authority from the Apostle John and from St Peter respectively.

After a long and learned debate, Oswiu suddenly intervened with a question: ‘Who’, he asked, ‘is the gatekeeper of heaven?’ ‘St Peter’, replied the assembled clerics. Then Oswiu pronounced, apparently with a smile:

Then, I tell you … I shall not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything … otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, there may be no one to open them, because he who holds the keys has turned away.

The decision in favour of Rome sent out a clear message that the tide was turning against Celtic practices. York immediately supplanted Lindisfarne as the Episcopal centre of Northumbria, and some who did not want to adapt to Roman ways withdrew to Iona.

By standardising the practices of the Northumbrian Church according to the Roman tradition, the synod was a landmark – not just in the history of the Church in England, but also of the Church in western Europe in the Middle Ages.

    

Drawn from the English Heritage Red Guide to Whitby Abbey, by Steven Brindle

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