Blending of traditions

Daily Reading for November 18 • Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680

In 664 a meeting was held at Whitby to discuss the date upon which Easter should be celebrated. Why discuss this old debate now? Partly out of love of the northern kingdom where it happened and of the writer who tells about it; but more than that, because the debate about Easter at Whitby in 664 shows how easily a secular appeal to uniformity can be confused with a theological concern for unity. . . . There were at least two issues discussed at Whitby, not just one. There was the situation of two differing dates for the celebration of Easter. This was not a frequent or an obvious clash, and it does not seem to have been a cause for conflict previously. . . . The other problem was two styles of hair-cut, something immediately seen, and therefore a more noticeable difference than Easter. External signs matter in non-writing societies, and whether the saving was of the whole head, the circle at the back only, or the front only, was something visible and obvious. . . .

The meeting was held in the royal foundation of the Irish monk Aidan and Hilda at Whitby, on the borders between Deira and Bernicia; it became the burial place of Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria. The meeting was called by Bede “synodus,” that is a meeting for consultation, but it was not necessarily a “church council.” It seems more profitable to regard it as a meeting of the king and his thanes and the local bishop to decide about many things, rather than to see it in terms of later church councils such as Hatfield. It was called by the king, he presided and the language of most people present was English; Cedd was employed as a translator from both Irish and Latin. . . .

When we look at who said what and why, it was all more mixed than at first appears. It was, after all, not a matter of the arrogant men from Rome baring their teeth at the simple Irish. At the council of Whitby, who supported which side? There was no clear cut division among the participants in terms of nationalism. An epitome of the mingling of traditions is seen in Hilda, the hostess oon this occasion. Hilda was an Anglo-Saxon princess (614-680), younger daughter of Hereic, nephew of Edwin of Northumbria and of Breguswith. . . . Hilda was baptized with Edwin and his court on April 12th 627, aged thirteen, in the new church dedicated to St Peter in York by Paulinus. She was almost certainly part of the group of nobles who fled south with the queen when Edwin was killed by Aethelred in 633. Thus, by birth one of the Anglo-Saxons, her first experience of Christianity was of that brought by the Roman missionaries, a tradition emphasized by her later life in Gaul and Kent. In 647, twenty years later, when she was thirty-three, Hilda decided to be a nun and went to her nephew in East Anglia for a year, planning to join her sister in the Gaulish convent at Celles. But she came to know and revere the Irish missionary from Iona, Aidan, and he persuaded her to stay in England: first as part of a new group at Hartlepool, then, when the abbess Heiu left for a life of greater seclusion, Hilda became abbess of Whitby. Hilda was hostess to the council of Whitby where, though by birth and baptism and life in exile one would have expected her to be a Romanist, because of the influence of Aidan and Colman she in fact inclined towards the Irish side. In her life there is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Roman, and Irish elements which blended together imperceptibly.

From A True Easter: The Synod of Whitby 664 AD by Benedicta Ward (Oxford: SLG Press, 2007).

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