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the divide after Whitby

May 26, 2013

I had set out for a weeks walking, but by the time I arrived at the end of St Cuthberts Way on the Island of Lindisfarne I had questions. I particularly wanted to discover what caused the bitter resentment and rift between the Irish (Celtic) and the Roman church, and why Cuthbert was called upon to keep the peace and impose Roman rule at Lindisfarne. Bede cites three differences:

The date of Easter has always been difficult. Drawn from the Jewish passover which was celebrated according to a lunar (moon) calendar and imposed on a pagan spring festival celebrated according to a solar calendar it was never going to be easy.

The principle is that Easter day (always a sunday) is celebrated on the first sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox. So far so simple – but a year is not exactly 365 days so there were variations between the different calendars. Days were also counted differently, from sunrise, or from sunset – the differences could mean that some Christians had celebrated Easter as others were just beginning Lent. It was a mess, and it needed sorting out – but as it was all built on the same principles it was not an issue that would divide a church community.

The tonsure was a way of showing everyone that you were a monk, similar to vicars who wear a dog collar. Both the Irish monks  and the Roman monks shaved their heads in a tonsure, but there was a difference in style. the Romans just left a ring of hair around the head, this was supposedly to symbolise the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. The Irish monks simply shaved the top of the head, leaving hair at the back growing down to the neck. They had adapted the roman custom that they had inherited as a way of accommodating the local customs of Ireland. This was a straight forward matter that allowed them to adapt as necessary and win hearts and minds. It could have been a point of deep division as it would have brought up the issues of how converts are made, by force by a Roman ruler imposing his will, or by consent as Celtic monks explained the message. However it didn’t seem important enough to divide over – particularly as most of the time the head was covered by a hood anyway.

in tomorrows blog I look at the third possibility of the rift between Celtic and Roman Christianity.

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