Dr Tom Best, executive secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC), referred to an initiative launched in 1997 by the Middle East Council of Churches and the WCC to enable all churches to celebrate Easter together every year.

At a meeting held in Aleppo, Syria, in March 1997, representatives of the world’s main Christian traditions agreed on what the WCC described as “an ingenious proposal to set a common date for Easter”.

The initiative has been warmly welcomed by many churches around the world, though hopes that this year might mark the end of division over the dates have proved unrealistic.

Dr Best said that the Aleppo proposal sought to avoid a “clash of calendars” by continuing to use the Nicene formula to determine the date of Easter, basing calculations on the best astronomical data available and taking the meridian of Jerusalem as the reference point.

Differences over Easter date back to early Christianity. At present Western churches calculate the date of Easter using the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 and now the standard calendar world-wide, whereas most Orthodox churches, including the Russian church, maintain the older Julian calendar to calculate the date of Easter.

According to Dr Best, about 25 churches have sent positive responses to the WCC over the Aleppo proposal, although the initial response from the (Orthodox) Church of Greece was negative. He pointed out that several international Christian bodies, including the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Conference of European Churches and the Lutheran World Federation have expressed strong interest in the plan.

Asked about prospects for the Aleppo proposal, Dr Best said that “the reaction is very positive so far. We understand that the Orthodox churches have particular difficulties with the proposal – the tradition of using the Julian calendar to determine the date of Easter is deeply rooted for the Orthodox churches and we understand that it would be difficult for them to make an abrupt change.”

However, he added, the Orthodox churches themselves had anticipated the Aleppo proposal at a meeting at Chambesy, Switzerland in 1977, and the Aleppo proposal responded to many of the Orthodox concerns.

Two leading Orthodox bodies, the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, have informed the WCC that they are studying the proposal, which has also been welcomed by other Orthodox-linked agencies in North America. In the meantime, a leading Russian Orthodox official, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s department of external relations, has called on Western churches to reform their religious calendars and calculate the date of Easter using the Julian system. Orthodox churches in Australia have made a similar suggestion to the WCC.

Asked what the prospects were now, given that agreement had not been reached this year as the Aleppo meeting had hoped, Dr Best said that there were possibilities that plans for a common Easter date would be explored by churches on a regional basis – for example in the Middle East, where the division over the celebration of Easter is especially visible. This had in fact been a suggestion of the Aleppo meeting.

He also pointed out that “we are presented – happily – with the fact that in the next few years, Easter will often fall on a common date”. In 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 the dates coincide.

“We hope people will get attached to celebrating Easter together,” Dr Best said. “We would ask the churches to focus on these years of common celebration, emphasising this as a sign of our unity. We hope there will be a growing sense that the common celebration of Easter should be the norm, not the exception.”