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Prior to the seventh century, the Celtic church of the Irish, Britons, and Scots remained relatively untainted from the influence of the Roman church. While there was a history of interaction between the two dating at least back to AD 314 and the Council of Arles, the physical distance and geographical isolation of what made up most parts of Celtic society had helped to form a natural division. Eventually, however, the Roman bishops, driven by desire for expansion of their empire and authority, along with a craving for conformity, were compelled to begin sending bishops to England. The result of the interaction was disagreement on many fronts that would produce centuries of debates and power struggles which would eventually lead to the victory of the Roman church in England. The Synod of Whitby served as a place of division marking the establishment of Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria, and the beginning of the eventual Romanisation of England. From a long-term perspective, the Synod of Whitby served to establish the first instance of submission of Britons to the authority of Rome, a position that shaped England’s foreign and domestic policy until the Reformation.
In the mid seventh century, two Christian movements were at work in Britain. The Celtic monks in Ireland and Scotland, who belonged to the Irish Church, maintained an independent religious body, separate from the Roman missionaries, commissioned by Pope Gregory I, who initially established their mission in Kent and spread their message from there. Celtic Christianity differed significantly from Roman Christianity, both in theory and in practice. According to Katherine Scherman, ‘Irish Christianity was pure, spiritual, intensely personal, dedicated only to the absolute word of God. Rome’s was materialistic, tightly organized, widely social in intent, intolerantly conformist.’ Fundamental differences between the Celtic Christians and the Roman Church made cooperation and peaceful coexistence difficult, as each held the other to be schismatics and heretics. 
The majority of the debate recorded in extant accounts of the Synod itself centres around the issue of the calculation of the dates for celebrating Easter. According to the Irish Christians, their roots went back as far as the apostle John and his churches. The Romans, however, insisted that the apostles Peter and Paul and their churches practiced Easter in the pattern which the Roman church kept.  This meant that Easter was celebrated on different days, according to the faith of adherence. The Synod, however, was not entirely consumed with this one issue. The type of tonsure worn by monks was also a debated topic. While the Celtic Christians had a tonsure of uncertain origin, the Roman model seemed to follow the pattern worn by slaves in the Roman Empire. As time had worn on, the symbolism had become more spiritualised to the Romans, who came to see this type of tonsure as a picture of the crown of thorns which Christ wore. The difference in tonsure style served as physical evidence of the differences between the two faiths, but there were also differing doctrinal interpretations that led to significantly distinct ecclesiastical practices. The Celtic Church was independent, with abbots often taking precedence over bishops. Its clergy and organisation lacked the structure of the Roman Church. Cenobitic monasticism stressed community life and separated the lifestyle of the Celtic mock from the Roman one. Customs of Celtic Christianity were integrated closely with tribal structure and derived from native customs, particularly the tendency to support women in positions of authority. By contrast, the Roman Church maintained a rigid hierarchy, with the position of the Bishop of Rome evolving into the ultimate figure of authority. Bishops worked under the direction of central authority to lead religion in diverse areas, maintaining a uniformity in belief and practice. Roman Christianity became associated with concepts of kingship and regal authority as distinct territories depended on religious support to establish and maintain governments. Unlike Celtic Christianity, women were forced into a position of complete subordination to men and prevented from holding positions of leadership within the Church.
All these issues, however, would have been allowed to stand as simple difference between the churches, had it not been for the mindset that all the churches and Christians in the civilised world should have the same structure and doctrine. Bede, in his account of the proceedings, stressed that unity in the church, under the Roman tradition, was of the utmost spiritual importance. This was especially true when concerning the celebration of Easter and other festivals. King Oswiu, ruler of Northumbria from 642-670 AD, declared this ideal to be valid when he called the synod and declared at its opening that “it was fitting that those who served one God should observe one rule of life and not differ in the celebration of the heavenly sacraments, seeing that they all hoped for one kingdom in heaven.” As historians have observed, “there seems to be no reasonable doubt but that the cleavage between Roman and Celtic Christians was very wide, and could not be bridged without one party’s giving way to the other.”   A royal dispute brought tensions to head and key religious leaders to Whitby Abbey to discuss the future of Christianity in Northumbria; King Oswiu, raised in the Celtic tradition, celebrated Easter on a different day than his queen, Eanfled, who was a devout Roman Christian. Additionally, Alchfrith, a son of Oswiu, also contributed to the religious conflict that led to the synod. In the early 660s, his expulsion of Ionian monks from a monastery and his subsequent reassignment of that monastery to Wilfrid, a Northumbian Roman Christian, increased tensions within the royal house between followers of the Roman faith and Celtic Christians; he provided further motivation for his father to call for the convocation of a synod to settle religious difference. These conflicts provided the reason and setting for the Synod of Whitby. There were grave differences in many areas of doctrine and ecclesiastical polity between the Celtic Christians and the church of Rome. The prevailing mindset of the day was that the all those who were called by the name of Christian should agree on all things. Since the differences between the two organisations were of such a gravity and nature as compromise was not a possibility, it was certain that either the Celts or the Romans would have to give way entirely to the other; so the Synod of Whitby was called to settle the matter.
Extant accounts of the Synod of Whitby focus mostly on the debate over the dating of Easter, with some mention giving to settling the issue of tonsure style. According Bede’s narrative, Bishop Colmán argued the Ionan calculation of Easter on the grounds that it was the practice of Columba, founder of their monastic network and a saint of unquestionable holiness, who himself had followed the tradition of St. John the apostle and evangelist. Wilfrid argued the Roman position on the grounds that it was the practice in Rome, where the apostles Peter and Paul had taught; it was the universal practice of the Church throughout the continent; the customs of the apostle John were particular to the needs of his community; Columba had done the best he could considering his knowledge, but the Ionan monks at present did not have the excuse of ignorance. Ultimately, the argument that Peter holds the keys to heaven and is the rock upon which the Christian Church is built led King Oswiu to rule in favour of the Roman Church. 
With the declarations of the Synod handed down by the king, a process of Romanisation began, which would take centuries to finally complete but which was immediate in its impact. As an immediate result of this decision, Bishop Colman and the Celtic Christians left and returned to Lindisfarne, then withdrew to Ireland, where the followers of the Celtic Church could practice freely. The English episcopate of Lindisfarne, which had been held by the Irish for thirty years, was transferred to the Romans as after the Synod. The episcopal seat of Northumbria was transferred from Lindisfarne to York; Lindisfarne, which had been identified with Irish-Celtic spirituality had become outmoded overnight with the rejection of Bishop Colman, and the much more easily Roman affected York became the hub of theological and ecclesiological thought and activity. Wilfrid, chief advocate for the Roman position, later became Bishop of Northumbria. Throughout Northumbria, and eventually the rest of Britain, Roman Christianity became the mainstream religion; the conformist discipline of the Roman organisation was at last supreme. Despite the domination of the Church of Rome over theological practice in Northumbria, contact between Roman and Celtic Christians following the Synod of Whitby was mostly peaceful, as a religious hierarchy had been formally established. One significant impact that must not be overlooked is simply the resolution of many conflicts between Celtic and Roman Christians. Despite an ameliorated relationship, however, the Celtic Christians continued to oppose Rome until the eleventh century when they were finally assimilated into the Roman religion.
The outcome of the Whitby synod was symptomatic of the growing influence of the European Church in Britain. More than simply a Northumbrian affair, the decision of Oswiu at Whitby Synod was symbolic of the subjugation of the British Church to Rome. Even from a medieval perspective, the adoption of Roman practice was considered to be a climax, or turning-point in the history of the English and Irish churches, as suggested by Bede’s strategic placement of the Synod of Whitby in the Ecclesiastical History. Furthermore, Bede wanted to stress the harmony that existed between the “divine law” and the “human law” as a result of this synod, a concept that shaped the legislations of medieval and early modern Europe. This harmony could not exist without the adoption of a universal religion, and the Synod of Whitby allowed the Church of Rome, which already dominated religious thought on the Continent, to align itself with the leaders of Northumbria and unite distinct peoples through the practice of a singular faith. Though the Roman victory was far from complete in 664 AD at the conclusion of the Synod of Whitby, King Oswiu’s decision had indeed signalled the beginning of the end for autonomous Celtic Christian spirituality and the coming to power of the Roman church in Celtic lands. Indeed, the Synod of Whitby confirmed the influence of the Roman Church on Britain and laid the foundation for the complete Romanisation of British Christianity throughout the Middle Ages.

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