A view backstage at Beverley Minster

And now for something completely different

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford provides a pot-pourri of pointlessness.
I was in one of those tranches of tedium which intersperse moments of intense excitement in my life: not, I should point out, while at work because I’m constantly ‘doing’ there, but at home. My wife must have been away.
Anyway, in this rare period of peace I started casually flapping back through my columns (not that I’m in any way precious about them, you understand). As I carefully lifted the plate glass protective sheets out of their safe-deposit box and scanned them for printing imperfections I suddenly realised it has been a few months now since I bored you with an account of my typical day.
As my current typical day is subtly different from typical days in 2010 I thought you’d be fascinated to know more, but then things went wrong: I blame it on the fact that it’s a slightly untypical year at the moment.
You see, although we are now nearly at the end of March we still haven’t celebrated Easter, and that’s confused me. On March 1st the Minster followed our normal practice and extended our opening hours to 5pm. We virgers mentally take this to be the official end of our quiet winter/spring seasons and gear up for our summer visitor influx which starts on the Easter weekend. But this hasn’t happened yet. Until it does daily visitor numbers are counted in the dozens rather than the hundreds. All month the Minster has been open to prospective visitors for an extra 60 minutes each day yet remained as empty as Gordon Brown’s diary.
It’s the problem of having a floating date for Easter, that’s what it is.
“Well,” any non-Christians might say, “sort it out – it’s your holiday.” And I have to agree – something needs to be done.
In fact, the date of Easter is and always has been a problem among Christians and involves major doctrinal issues (apparently). It is the most important festival in our calendar and there are (supposedly) huge, complicated and awkward calculations involved. Oh yes, it’s not just a case of seeing what dates are already busy next year for things (you know, daughter’s wedding, Uncle Jack’s 60th, that sort of thing) and nominating the nearest free Friday.  Neither is it a random date selected by a blindfolded darts player.
It’s actually… actually, I must admit I can never remember what the process involves, beyond something to do with cycles of the moon,(see below) but I do know that Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe celebrate it several weeks after we do. In fact this disagreement was one of the main reasons for the split between ‘them and us’ back in the 11th century.
Conversely, in England, it led to unity. King Oswiu of Northumbria called a summit or ‘synod’ at Whitby in 664AD to decide whether he was going to follow the Easter dating traditions of the Roman or Iona-based Celtic church. He opted for Rome, much to the annoyance of subsequent generations who like heavily-patterned crosses. It also annoyed the Celtic monks who had to relocate the ‘tonsured’ or shaved part of their head from the front to the top. (Our current vicar, a true ‘broad-church’ Anglican, sports both styles simultaneously, although I don’t think it’s intentional). 
I’m sure that an expert could tell me why the dates have to be floating, unlike at Christmas, but I’ve never asked, so I can’t tell you. All I know is that it’s a pain – and not just for the Minster virgers.
This year school terms, and so many other areas of life, have been distorted by the lateness of Easter and it’s ridiculous. This year my elder son’s 13 week Spring semester is made up as follows: 10 weeks on, then three weeks Easter break, then return for JUST THREE WEEKS to complete the year.  Can you imagine what sort of distortions have been made to cram the necessary revision periods, exams and normal teaching into those 15 days?
Madness, I tell you. MADNESS!
Now I know some church-goers are (justifiably) upset when a judge says that English law no longer gives Christianity a special status so I expect I’ll get yelled at for what I am about to say, but to heck with it …. (swallows hard, pauses, then nervously speaks): I think that schools and universities should ignore Easter when it comes to planning their year. Give equal length terms with a half term slap bang in the middle and stop distorting timetables.
We can still keep Easter special by retaining the two bank holidays for when Good Friday and Easter Monday happen to fall. I’d argue that making them separate from the longer holidays would actually make these two days MORE important and prominent than now, lost as they are within a much longer holiday period.
Oh dear, this outburst has come as a bit of a surprise to me. When I started today I was fairly confident I would be offering you an interesting update about Russ Conway and several other little bits’n’pieces. Instead I seem to have struck a blow at the traditions conjoining and defining the relationship between the British State and Christianity. Hmmmm.
Perhaps it’s best if I stop now before I dig myself an even deeper hole.
FYI –  Easter always falls between March 22 and April 25. March 21 is the date of the vernal equinox, the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Easter Sunday is always the Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (unless the full moon is on a Sunday, in which case it is the SECOND Sunday afterwards) There you are – simples!
First published April 2011


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