Synod of Whitby

River Esk Whitby

River Esk Whitby

Synod of Whitby

The Synod of Whitby was a seventh century Northumbrian synod where King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practiced by Iona and its satellite institutions.

The synod at Whitby Abbey was summoned in 664 at Saint Hilda’s double monastery of Whitby Abbey. Christianity in Britain during the seventh century existed in two forms distinguished by differing liturgical traditions, labeled the “Ionan” and “Roman” traditions. The “Ionan” practice was that of the Irish monks who resided in a monastery on the isle of Iona, whereas the “Roman” tradition kept observances according to the customs of Rome.

In the kingdom of Northumbria, these two traditions coexisted, and each had been encouraged by different royal houses. Edwin of Northumbria had converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and thus had established Roman practice in his realm. However, following his death and a year of political instability, Oswald of Northumbria gained the throne. He had learned Christian practice from the monks of Iona during his stay there (while a political exile in his youth), and had encouraged Ionan missionaries to further the Christianization of Northumbria, especially the famous Bishop Aidan.

The Synod of Whitby established Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria, and thus “brought the Northumbrian church into the mainstream of Roman culture.”

The episcopal seat of Northumbria was transferred from Lindisfarne to York. Wilfrid, chief advocate for the Roman position, would eventually become Bishop of Northumbria, while Colmán and the Ionan supporters who did not change their practices withdrew to Iona. Colmán was allowed to take some relics of Aidan, who had been central in establishing Christianity of the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, with him back to Iona.