Synod of Whitby

From Academic Kids

The Synod of Whitby was an important synod which eventually led to the unification of the church in Britain. Summoned by King Oswiu of Northumbria in 663 AD, the synod was held in 664 at Whitby Abbey, which was Saint Hilda's double monastery of Streonshalh, at Whitby.


The Problem

Christianity in Britain existed in two forms, Celtic Christianity which had dominated in Scotland, Wales and parts of the North of England, and originated from the work of the great Celtic missionaries Columba and Saint Brendan. Roman Christianity, had been established in the South of England, under the first international mission of Saint Augustine to Canterbury. Essentially both forms of Christianity were the same with slight variations in practice.

The actual matters in dispute were fairly minor, the main controversies being over how to calculate the date of Easter, and what style of tonsure clerics should wear. However, whichever side was acknowledged as having authority to rule on these matters would also decide whether the Celtic or the Roman church would have ascendency over the whole North of England. The matter came to a head one spring when the king, who followed the Celtic practice, was feasting at Easter, while the queen, who followed Roman practice, was still fasting for Lent.

The Decision of the Council

The Venerable Bede in his History of the Church, described the proceedings in detail, but he did not write his account until seventy years after the events he describes. A shorter account was given by Eddius. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, makes no mention at all of the synod.

King Oswiu with Bishops Colman and Chad represented the Celtic tradition; Alchfrid, son of Oswiu, and Saint Wilfrid(634-710), and Bishop Agilbert that of Rome.

Both Bede and Eddius agree as to the facts that Colman appealed to the practice of St. John and the authority of St.Columba, Wilfrid to St. Peter and to the council of Nicaea, and that the matter was finally settled by Oswy's determination not to offend St. Peter. "I dare not longer", he said, "contradict the decrees of him who keeps the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, lest he should refuse me admission". This decision involved more than a mere matter of discipline.

The Consequences

The synod of Whitby constituted a milestone in the history of the church in Britain, since delegates from the North and the South came together to debate the future of the church in Northumbria. Final judgement went to the Roman Church, whose practices were then adopted by the Northumbrians. Supporters of the Celtic traditions withdrew to Scotland.

Full unification, and integration with the Church of Rome and the authority of the Pope was finally achieved at the councils of Hertford in 673 and Hatfield 680 under the diplomatic guidance of St Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek monk who had been consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian, came to England in 669. In these synods much was done to promote unity, to define the limits of jurisdiction, and to restrain the wanderings and mutual interference of the clergy.

See also


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