Abbey standing where the Synod of Whitby took place

The Synod of Whitby

The Synod of Whitby changed Christian religion in Britain. Our famous abbess, St Hilda, graciously hosted the meeting. But what was the Synod, and what did it do?

The Synod of Whitby

The King of Northumberland arranged the Synod of Whitby. At this time, his kingdom covered both modern day Northumberland and lots of Yorkshire.

Northumbrians had been slowly converting to the Christian faith throughout the 620s. Missionaries from Rome and from the Celtic tradition were shaping religious beliefs throughout the kingdom. However, the two had very different practices. These differences caused conflict and confusion.

The biggest difference between the two practices was the way they calculated the date of Easter. The date has always moved, as it has to occur on a Sunday. The two different methods of calculation meant that Easter between the two different practices could be up to four weeks apart.

In 664, King Oswiu called the Synod of Whitby to resolve the problem.

The Gatekeeper of Heaven

The King listened to both sides of the debate from representatives of the Celtic and Roman Christian faith. Wilfrid, the abbot of Ripon presented the case for the Romans and Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne presented for the Celts.

A debate rang long between the assembled clerics. The two sides were driven by two main arguments: the first argued for celebrating Easter on the 14th day of the first lunar month of the Jewish year, which, according to John 19:14, this was the day of the crucifixion.

The opposition disagreed, instead arguing that English Christians shouldn’t rely on the Jewish calendar as was decreed in Rome in the year 325, at the First Council of Nicaea.

To settle the matter, King Oswui asked: “who is the gatekeeper of heaven?” This, the clerics could agree on – St Peter. Bishop Wilfred claimed authority from St Peter and supported the Roman date calculation. So, it was to Wilfred the King deferred. Bishop Colman, who claimed authority from Apostle John, was overruled.

Turning the tides

This ruling in decision of the Roman Christian faith turned the tides in British religion. York replaced Lindisfarne as the episcopal centre of the Northumbrian kingdom and those who did not accept the Roman ways withdrew.

The synod of Whitby was an important step in the Romanisation of British religion, and it took place right here in Whitby.

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