Principal Christian Denominations

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This page forms part of a brief outline of some of the aspects of Christianity about which some readers of AWE may want to know more. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Principal Christian Denominations. Many users of AWE will come to this group of articles only wanting to know more about one of the denominations mentioned, or by way of links from other places. You should of course read a larger book if you are taking a serious interest in the Christian religion - our articles are the merest sketches of what is a vast array of complex ideas.

Christianity was at the centre of all social; and cultural life in Europe and beyond for the best part of two thousand years, and remains important for many people world-wide, although serious Christians are in the minority in the UK today. Many students at university in the UK in the twenty-first century have very little knowledge of the Christian religion. But they should, particularly students of Literature or History, be at a stage of their reading when they are likely to find references to Christian myths and stories. from the Old Testament as well as the New, and to the development and history of Christianity since its origins. AWE hopes to supply some of the basics.

There is much in common to all Christians, as well as many details over which they differ, sometimes to the extent of war. Christians in general believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ (Greek: 'anointed one'), i.e., the Messiah foretold by the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, although some, such as Unitarians and Quakers, do not. All, to a greater or lesser extent, accept Jesus' teaching as contained in the four Gospels of the New Testament. However, they differ among themselves in the ways in which they interpret Jesus' teaching, in their forms of worship, and in their organization as religious groups. These differences are reflected in the various Christian denominations and sects, of which today there are many hundreds, if not thousands.

In AWE's category:Outline History of Christianity, there are pages on

  • The First Centuries. This page introduces the beginnings of Christianity - the early missionaries, especially Saint Paul; gradual acceptance of the religion until it became the official religion of the Empire at the end of the fourth century; and the split between Eastern and Western Empires..
  • The Great (East-West) Schism - the first great formal split, in 1054, in Christianity, between the Western Church, under the Pope (the bishop of Rome), and the Eastern Church, under the Patriarch of Constantinople (Byzantium).
    • This period was followed by the Middle Ages. during which there many schisms, marked by conflicting elections of popes and antipopes. One in particular is also known, confusingly, as the Great Schism, or more properly the Great Western Schism. This saw two papacies in operation, one in Avignon and the other in Rome.
  • The Protestant Reformation, or Reformations. In the sixteenth century, growing dissatisfaction with the wealth and power of the Catholic church came to a head. Martin Luther, in 1517, and, after him Jean Calvin (1509-1564) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), were the main leaders of an attempt to reform what they saw as abuses of the church. This series of events is now usually known, in the singular, as the Protestant Reformation. It led to a major divide in the Western Church, between the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and a number of Protestant churches, such as the Church of England, the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, France, and Holland and more, and various Nonconformist organizations on the other.
  • Principal Christian denominations in the UK since the Reformation. This page is more appropriately parochial, and aims to give students a brief overview of the picture in the British Isles since the Reformations in England (under Henry VIII) and Scotland in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots (under the leadership of John Knox). Not all of the multitudinous sects, churches and denominations will be included, but our aim is to give brief explanations of those that have been influential in British (and sometimes non-British) cultural life.

Last but not least, this page may have given the impression that Christianity is confined to Europe and the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean - perhaps inevitably since it is an historical survey which seeks to explain the origins of, and relations between, the principal Christian denominations. It cannot be overemphasised, however, that this impression is false. Migration from Europe and missionary activity have led to the presence of all the denominations mentioned on this page in almost every part of the world. Indeed it is often said that today the Christian religion plays a larger part in everyday life in the USA than it does in most European countries, and that it is on the continent of Africa that Christianity has acquired the greatest number of converts in recent years. There are more fundamentalist Christian denominations in these two continents than is common in Britain.

This page is included in AWE's category:essentially contested concepts. This is designed to draw the reader's attention to the fact that there are some ideas that will always cause disagreement among the people who use them. For a fuller explanation, read the text at the head of the category.