The Easter Act 1928 remains, as academic Dr Andrew Defty puts it, “perhaps the most long-standing and famous example” of an unenforced act of parliament.[1] In a blog about the 1928 act, Dr Defty explained that “in general a bill comes into force on the day it receives royal assent” but:

[…] in some cases bills include a commencement clause which sets out the timing or the circumstances in which the provisions of an act will come into effect. In general this either specifies that an act, or part of an act, will come into force at a specified time or that it will be brought into effect when the government brings forward a commencement order. A commencement order is a statutory instrument which gives effect to the provisions of an act of parliament, because the act to which they relate [has] already been passed by Parliament, [therefore] commencement orders are not generally subject to parliamentary debate.

In 1999, the House considered a private member’s bill that sought the 1928 act’s commencement through primary legislation. This remains the last time the House held a substantive debate on the issue.

The Earl of Dartmouth (Conservative) opened by explaining that Easter was determined by “astronomical tables relating to the movement of the moon”.[2] He argued that were the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April to be set it would actually “be as near as possible to the real date of the original Easter virtually 2000 years ago”. He conceded a consequence of the bill’s commencement might be to “decouple the church’s day from the Easter holiday” but thought that “Ascension Day, which is scarcely less important from a religious point of view, is hardly recognised in the lay world”. He admitted he had not solicited the Archbishop of Canterbury’s view on the matter but noted in 1928 the then archbishop saw “no dogmatic reason” to oppose a fixed date. Concluding, Lord Dartmouth said:

[…] businesses, retailers and all manufacturers would all like to know the date of Easter well in advance. It would enable them to plan ahead and would do something real and helpful for enterprise and prosperity […] Such a fixed date would also make life easier for parents, teachers and all would-be tourists and travellers.[3]

In response, the Bishop of Oxford informed the House that Christian churches worldwide were “taking new steps” to agree a common, but not fixed, Easter date.[4] Consequently, he said, “British churches would be helped in playing their part in this delicate task if the Easter Act 1928 were not reactivated at the present time”. He explained that one “major stumbling block” remained the difference between how Eastern and Western churches calculated the date of Easter. Nevertheless, he was concerned that:

[…] a fixed date for Easter would obscure and weaken the vital biblical link between the events of Holy Week and Easter, on the one hand, and the Jewish Passover festival, which is still calculated with reference to the vernal equinox, on the other.

In response to Lord Dartmouth’s point abut decoupling, the bishop argued that “large numbers of Christians would continue to observe the festival on the traditional day and would strongly oppose transference of the name ‘Easter’ to a secular holiday”. Likewise concerning certainty around Easter dates, he said these were known in advance already. He felt there was “no difficulty at the moment about commercial organisations planning their business as many years ahead as they want”.[5]

Lord Hacking (Labour) raised concerns about bank holidays generally and how “concertinaed” they were in springtime.[6] Lord Manton (Conservative) said he disagreed with the Bishop of Oxford about commercial interests. He felt “to market anything it must be done in the same week of the year all the time”.[7] Viscount Bridgeman (Conservative) admitted he was “speaking on both sides of the fence”. He thought “in rationality there can be no other solution” than a fixed Easter but argued any initiative to change the date should come from Christian churches worldwide.[8] He therefore welcomed the idea the churches could agree a “common date” but also voiced concerns about “one or two practical implications” of a fixed date in law that could be different from the date of Easter celebrations in other countries.[9]

The then government whip, Lord Hoyle, responding for the government, admitted “Easter can often come as something of a surprise” but said he did “not find the arguments” made about “the convenience of a fixed Easter wholly persuasive”.[10] He said “the date of Easter is well known in advance” with dates available up to 2040 in various publications. He added that in 1928 “it was recognised that regard should be had to any opinions officially expressed by the churches, or other Christian bodies, before an order was made to fix the date for Easter”. He said a “stumbling block” to that remained the differences in how Eastern and Western churches calculated that date but conversations continued. To that end, he said “the British churches would not be helped […] by bringing into force the Easter Act 1928”. In response to the debate, Lord Dartmouth withdrew the motion for second reading.

The 1999 debate cited an earlier debate from 15 years before. In April 1984, Lord Airedale moved a motion that “this House would welcome the coming into operation of the Easter Act 1928 to provide that Easter Day shall be the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April”.[11] The last written question on the issue was tabled by Lord Lisvane (Crossbench) in 2016. The government responded:

If the Christian churches were to agree on moving to a fixed date for Easter then the government would consider, depending on what date is agreed, whether to bring into force the Easter Act 1928 or to make such other legislative provision as may be needed.[12]

Read more

Cover image by C Davies on Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped.