The Christian church is divided into many different groups, called denominations. Over the centuries different denominations have not had a good record of respecting each others’ differences. However, in the 21st century most denominations acknowledge each others’ right to exist and seek to understand and enjoy their different ways.
New churches emerged during the 16th century in the nationalistic tumult of Europe. Some people protested that the Roman Catholic Church had practices which held back the freedom that Jesus’ teaching offered. That’s how they got the name ‘Protestant churches’. Their founders were determined that nothing that churches did should put an obstacle in the way of men and women having a relationship with Jesus. Four main groups of new churches emerged.
Anglican churches look to the Church of England as their founding church. (They are sometimes known as Episcopal churches.) Today most Anglicans are African, which comes as a surprise to those who picture congregations in a beautiful old parish church in England. The leaders of the churches in the nations of the world have a close relationship with each other (‘the Anglican communion’) but they make their own decisions. They look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the most significant bishop among many equals.
Reading and learning from the Bible is at the heart of Anglican services, and so is eating bread and drinking wine (communion). There is a prayer book that unites Anglican Christians, but services can be solemn and traditional, or joyous and informal. The denomination holds together people with widely divergent views and styles. So going to an Anglican service can vary in neighbouring towns, let alone neighbouring countries.
The denomination holds together people with widely divergent views and styles. However, they all share the importance of teaching from the Bible, and eating bread and wine (Communion). Influencing society for good is extremely important. That means being represented on councils and committees (for instance, school governors and the House of Lords), and quietly doing good in neighbourhoods.
Lutheran churches emerged in Germany and Scandinavia at the same time as Anglican churches. There is a quiet dignity to their hymns and prayers. There is a strong emphasis on the way the Bible shapes day to day life, and the way God’s grace has made it possible for humans to be one with him.
Reformed churches are plentiful in the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the UK their various names include the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. In Australia, they include the Uniting Church. They too were founded in the 16th century with a rejection of Roman Catholic practices such as bishops, decorated churches and even music. Today reformed worship is profound, simple and committed to encouraging integrity in working life. Communion takes place infrequently, and therefore with great seriousness and preparation.
Baptist churches also have a four hundred year history. The founders felt that nearly everyone was baptised (christened) as a baby but it did not always turn into a mature decision to follow Jesus. Instead of christening children as babies, Baptists make baptism an adult event marking a thoughtful decision to be a Christian (‘believers’ baptism’). Instead of sprinkling, they fully immerse believers in water during a joyful service.
Decisions in Baptist churches are shared by the whole congregation. This means they are very varied, but all love the Bible and worship with few rituals. They emphasise the importance of responding by serving the world’s neediest people and telling others about Jesus. They are strong in the south of the USA (where they are very conservative) and in countries where Baptist missionaries first went, such as India.
Methodist churches take their name from a methodical approach to life and faith. They date from the 18th century, when John Wesley inspired a huge number of people to follow Jesus for the first time. There are no Methodist bishops in the UK, and it was never intended that Methodism should become a separate denomination. However, Anglican churches did not welcome the gale of enthusiasm that Methodists represented, so they broke away.
Methodist services have always featured simple prayers and a love of hymn singing. (John Wesley’s brother Charles was a great musician and wrote many hymns that are still sung regularly). Every year at a covenant service, Methodists have an opportunity to dedicate themselves to God’s plan for the world: ‘I am no longer my own but yours … Let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’
The Salvation Army, with its distinctive uniforms, dates from the Victorian era. It is well known for its action on behalf of those who are homeless, refugees, and other vulnerable people. It has a fine tradition of music-making, and a commitment to make Jesus known in places where other churches cannot reach.
Brethren churches have no vicars, no instruments and no symbols. It is a love of the Bible and shared participation in communion that make services memorable in their simplicity. Dominated by men (and sometimes exclusive) Brethren are immensely supportive of each other.
Quakers are more properly known as the Religious Society of Friends. Since the 17th century silence has been the most important part of their meetings. Anyone is allowed to break the silence and share thoughts which they believe God has placed in them. They have an ongoing search for God rather than a set list of beliefs. Inspired by Jesus, Quakers have a record of peace-making and pursuit of justice across the world – most are pacifists.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Where to find it:
About these words:
In a part of the Bible that was extremely significant to the first Protestants, Paul (one of the first leaders of the Christian church) explains that being at one with God (‘saved’) is God’s gift to us, not something we can or need to earn.
And they said…
Archbishop Justin Welby, leader of the world’s Anglican churches:
If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. It starts with a new spirit of prayer, using all the traditions, ancient and modern. When it comes, it will be linked to what has gone before, but it will look different – because it is a new renewal for new times. It comes from Christians seeking Christ.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, 1703-1791:
I felt my heart strangely warmed. I feel I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins – even mine – and saved me from the bore of sin and death.
Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, 1485-1546:
Faith alone justifies us and fulfils the law: and this because faith brings us the Spirit gained by the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, gives us the happiness and freedom at which the law aims, and this shows us that good works really proceed from faith.