The Synod of Whitby
They Synod of Whitby (664) has long been held to be a watershed moment in the life of the Celtic church. Long the object of Roman evangelistic effort, Ireland finally fell sway to the call of the gospel through St. Patrick, a Briton enslaved amongst the Irish for years. Before the Synod of Whitby, two traditions existed side-by-side within Ireland. Though the same gospel and doctrine was preached, the rituals and monastic practices varied between those in the Roman tradition and the Celtic traditions of worship.
The spark that led to the Synod of Whitby does not seem to be a matter of grave importance to the modern Christian, especially if he is a Protestant. However, it was of chief concern to a country who was at odds with the rest of the world in matters of Christian practice. As such, there was a great deal of national pride and identity interwoven with doctrine, as the Celtic Fathers had a tradition at variance with that of Rome. To renounce the Celtic ways was, seemingly, a judgment upon the piety of their saints.
The two cornerstone issues debated at the Synod of Whitby were that of tonsures and the date of the celebration of Easter. The Celtic tonsure consisted of a straight line shaved between the ears, with all of the hair forward of the line shaved and the hair grown free to the back. The Roman tonsure was that of the traditional “monk” haircut, a pattern imitating a crown of thorns, thought to be derived from the traditional practice of Peter. As for easter, the Celtic church originally celebrated the day on the fourteenth of Nissan. This practice changed to being celebrated on the Sunday between the thirteenth and the twentieth of the same month. The Romans celebrated it on the Sunday that fell between the fourteenth and the twenty-first. This was a matter of importance to the church because the thirteenth was before the feast of the passover, and therefore seen as being outside of the boundaries of when the church ought to celebrate the resurrection.
The Synod of Whitby was called by King Oswy to settle the affair. Oswy’s wife Eanfled held to the tradition of the Romans, while the king himself followed the Celtic traditions. This was a cause of embarrassment to the royal family, for the household would find the Queen feasting while the King was still fasting for the sake of their overlapping calendars.
Leading the case for the Celtic Christians was Colman, the well-respected Irish bishop of Lindisfarne. Opposite him stood Agilbert, a Frankish bishop of some renown. The presiding King Oswy offered Colman the opportunity to speak first. Colman appealed to the tradition of the Irish fathers, which descended from John to Polycarp and later inscribed in a work known as the Liber Anatolii. How could, Colman argued, the apostle who was loved of Jesus and lay on his breast during the Passover have been mistaken in celebrating Easter on the fourteenth?
The floor was given to Agilbert, who shrewdly requested to have his protege Wilford present the case. Wilford, unlike Agilbert, spoke the language of the court and was not only a brilliant and ambitious theologian but a man with a flair for statesmanship. Like Colman, Wilford also appealed to the patterns and traditions set down by the Apostles, including John. In Wilford’s mind his opponents, though sincere, misunderstood the teaching of John.
Continuing to speak, Wilford delivered a devastating line of questioning accusing the Celtic church to be opposing the doctrine of the Apostolic See, upbraiding them for believing that the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch and Alexandria and Rome all erred in their celebration of Easter while the truth was maintained by a small ethnic group tucked away in the furthest reaches of the Empire. Though Columba, a revered saint amongst the Celtic church, taught a different Easter than the Roman church, it was not Columba who was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When Peter and a local hero differ, it is Peter who ought to be given primacy.
King Oswy understood this line of reasoning clearly. Those who refused to submit themselves to the teachings of Peter might find themselves cast out of the kingdom of God for their intransigence. While Columba and the other revered Celtic fathers had observed Easter on the improper date, theirs was a sin of ignorance. For the listeners at Whitby, that ignorance had been lifted and could not be overlooked. Oswy issued his ruling with the words, “[Peter] is the door-keeper, who I will not contradict, and will as far as I know and am able, in all things to obey his decree, lest when I come to the gates of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my adversary who is proved to have the keys.”
Oswy’s decision did not all at once shift the entirety of Ireland over to the Roman cause, though it broke the power of the autonomous Celtic tradition. Underlying the issue of tonsures and the date of Easter was the far greater clash of power between the Roman monolith and an independent Christian tradition. Even at this early date, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession was wielded with heavy hands, with the threat of being found opposing Peter being a terrifying proposition for King Oswy.
It was nothing new for the church to find itself in a discussion about the proper date of Easter. Polycarp found himself at odds with the bishop of Rome, with neither of them able to convince each other of the rightness of his own tradition. Though there was disagreement, the date of Easter was understood to be a tertiary issue of minor importance to the Christian faith. Polycarp and the bishop maintained a friendly relationship full of fellowship despite their differences. This example was not followed at the Synod of Whitby by Wilfred, who used intimidation and threat of Apostolic disfavor to convince those in authority of the rightness of his cause.
The wisdom of Oswy’s decision at the Synod of Whitby has been much debated by historians. Some see it as a necessary and good decision, unifying a fractured people under a common tradition. Others see it as a disastrous capitulation to the power of Rome, erasing any hope for an independent tradition outside the orbit of Roman authority. What cannot be argued is the damage done to the state of Celtic Christianity in its aftermath.
Colman understood his King’s decision guaranteed the ultimate death of an independent Celtic tradition. While many of his compatriots began to celebrate in the Roman manner, Colman assembled his monks and moved to the far western coast of Ireland. There he lived in simple seclusion, building a pair of monasteries for his English and Irish followers. The exodus of these spiritual leaders coupled with the onset of a plague which killed the majority of the remaining monks and bishops decapitated the spiritual leadership of the Celtic church and led to the decline of the Irish missionary movement.
Wilfred, though victorious, lost the affection of the public. He was ordained an Irish bishop, but returned to his native France for five years. Upon sailing back to Ireland to take up his post, he discovered another man had been ordained in his absence. Wilfred became an irritant to Oswy’s successors, and spent the majority of his time in exile or prison under the lead of King Egfried.