As Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne, looked out over the North Sea from the cliff top where Whitby Abbey stood, the familiar verses from the Apocalypse may well have leaped to mind: "And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea."

By the middle of the 7th century, England had felt the wrath of more than one beast from across the sea, and to Colman, the traditions practiced by the Church of Rome must have seemed no less threatening to his cherished Celtic way of life.

Several waves of missionaries had evangelized England during the church's early centuries. According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea himself had introduced the Gospel to British shores at present-day Glastonbury.

Christianity's early gains in the south were reversed, however, when pagan Jutes, Saxons, and Angles (from whom Angle-land eventually took its name) overran most of the island in the 5th and 6th centuries, pushing the native Britons into Wales and Cornwall.

But while the Britons fell before the pagan invaders, the pagan gods gave way to the gospel of Christ. In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent a missionary to England to promote the gospel among the heathen. His representative, Augustine, received a cordial if unenthusiastic welcome from the Saxon King Ethelbert, whose wife, fortuitously, was Christian. From the church Augustine founded at Canterbury, Roman Christianity began to spread across southern England.

Bumping heads in Northumbria

At about the same time, another missionary movement gathered momentum in the north, flowing outward from the Scottish island of Iona, where the Irish monk Columba had established a religious foundation based on the Celtic Christian traditions that still held sway in Ireland. Both the Augustinian and the Columban branches of the British Church thrived and expanded until, inevitably, the two traditions bumped heads.

The bump occurred in the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. The Northumbrian King, Oswy, embraced the gospel, but his counselors were divided over which of the two conflicting traditions deserved his allegiance. He therefore called a council of the Northumbrian clergy to decide the momentous question of whether to embrace the Celtic or the Roman styles of worship.

Colman championed the Celtic traditions as the more endemic, "British" brand of Christianity, with roots dating back to pre-Saxon days. He, along with Hilda, Abbess of Whitby Abbey, where Oswy had chosen to convene his "Synod," looked upon the Roman ways as foreign to Britain, as another beast from across the sea threatening to overrun Britain once again.

Yet the differences between the Celtic and Roman practices, at least insofar as they were debated at Whitby, were trivial. Only two main issues divided the Northumbrian clergy. One concerned what kind of haircut monks should wear—the Romans' circular hairless spot shaved on the top of the head or the Celtic semi-circular hairless arc on the forehead. The other involved the method of setting the date for Easter. On these issues, the future of Christianity in Northumbria turned.

An Anglo-Saxon monk, the Venerable Bede, writing 60 years after the event, penned one of only two known accounts of the Synod of Whitby. According to Bede:

Which is the True Easter?

"King Oswy first observed, that it behooved those who served one God to observe the same rule of life; and as they all expected the same kingdom in heaven, so they ought not to differ in the celebration of the Divine mysteries; but rather to inquire which was the truest tradition, that the same might be followed by all; he then commanded his bishop, Colman, first to declare what the custom was which he observed, and whence it derived its origin. Then Colman said, 'The Easter which I keep, I received from my elders, who sent me bishop hither; all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have kept it after the same manner.'"

Among these forefathers to whom Colman referred, he appealed most notably, if rather counterproductively, to the authority of Columba, the respected Irish monk who had established the monastery on Iona: "Is it to be believed that our most reverend Father Columba and his successors, men beloved by God, who kept Easter after the same manner, thought or acted contrary to the Divine writings?"

When Colman finished speaking, the cleric Wufrid addressed King Oswy. Wufrid had been raised in the Celtic tradition but had conformed to the Roman customs, after studying in France and Italy. "The Easter which we observe," Wufrid countered, "we saw celebrated by all at Rome, where the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried; we saw the same done in Italy and in France, when we traveled through those countries for pilgrimage and prayer. We found the same practiced in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and all the world, wherever the church of Christ is spread abroad. … And if … Columba … was a holy man and powerful in miracles, yet could he be preferred before the most blessed prince of the apostles, to whom our Lord said, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and to thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven?'"

A healthy alternative

Wufrid's appeal to St. Peter proved decisive. "When Wufrid had spoken thus," Bede wrote, the king said, "Is it true, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?" He answered, "It is true, O king." Then says [Oswy], "Can you show any such power given to your Columba?" Colman answered, "None. … " Then the king concluded, "And I also say unto you, that [Peter] is the door-keeper, whom I will not contradict, but will, as far as I know and am able, in all things obey his decrees, lest, when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my adversary who is proved to have the keys." The king having said this, all present gave their assent and resolved to abide by the Roman practice.

And that was that. Although commentators ever since have regarded it as a pivotal moment in ecclesiastical history, the Synod was, in truth, simply a local event convened to decide the mechanics of church ritual in Oswy's own small kingdom. The king's decision had no power to affect Church policy anywhere else throughout Britain—let alone the power, as many have claimed for it, to suppress Celtic Christianity. The Celtic traditions held sway in Cornwall and Devon for another 300 years, until those churches, too, voluntarily adopted the Roman practice.

Whitby's true and lasting significance, it seems, is to provide a brilliant example of Christ-like submission to authority in disputes that have little bearing on the fundamental tenets of the common faith. Colman, still firm in his conviction of the superiority of the Celtic tradition, returned to his home in Ireland, where he was free to practice it. Before he left, Oswy honored his request to appoint his student, Eata, as the new Bishop of Lindisfarne. Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, though equally strong in her preference for the Celtic custom, nonetheless abided by the King's decision.

Scholar of Christian spirituality Arthur G. Holder aptly notes: "Perhaps it is possible, after all, for controversies to be adjudicated with some degree of civility and grace, preserving respect for those with whom we disagree. The outcome of Whitby offers … a healthy alternative to burnings at the stake."