Would you like to know more about the Christian faith? Here’s a short guide: how it began, its beliefs and practices plus, help if you’d like to explore it further.
5 minute read
Christians are a worldwide movement of people inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st century Jewish religious teacher, whom they believe to the perfect and absolute revelation of God’s nature. He is the Christ, Messiah, or Anointed One; the Son of God, who shows us through his life, death and resurrection what God is like. The movement became known as ‘Christianity’: a distinct religion which became separate from its origins in Judaism. It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’, in the second half of the first century AD.
After Jesus’ resurrection (roughly around 33AD) the movement and its message of Good News spread rapidly through the Mediterranean area, and eventually reached all parts of the world. Christians currently number about 2.4 billion people, about 33% of the world’s total population. They are spread through every continent. They form the predominant religious movement in Europe, North America, Central & South America, and Southern Africa, but also have a significant presence in the Middle East and many other parts of Asia. In some parts of the world – particularly in the Middle and Near East, and parts of north Africa – they experience persecution for their faith.
From the beginning, Christians gathered together in prayer and worship, and built communities rooted in love and fellowship. In his letters written around the middle of the first century, St Paul refers to Christians corporately as “the Body of Christ”, sharing an identity with their founder. As time went on, the movement formed itself into a variety of organised bodies. Historically these three main bodies have been the Roman Catholic Church (in Latin and Eastern rites), the Orthodox Churches which separated from the wider Catholic Church after the Great Schism of 1054, and the Anglican and Protestant Churches which emerged from the reformations of the sixteenth century. There are now many groups and individuals who identify themselves as Christians without belonging to any of the historic established churches. Westminster Abbey is part of the Church of England, a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and therefore both catholic and reformed.
The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.
These various churches and groups have developed different ways of ordering their life and worship. Many of these differences simply reflect the different culture in which they have been formed. There are also some underlying differences of belief. This has historically led to conflict. But in the mid twentieth century there developed much widespread co-operation between churches, and an increasing recognition of how much all Christians hold in common.
Throughout its 2,000 year history the Christian movement as a whole has had huge impact on wider history, and especially the formation of western culture. It has contributed significantly to education, law, human equality, human rights, social welfare, the rise of science, as well as to art, architecture, and literature. Its greatest impact, however, is on the lives of countless communities and individuals – people of all kinds and in all cultures.
I have, by God's grace, learned as a member of the Christian community… that I start each day not as a finished saint but as a needy person still struggling to grow
As with other religious movements, Christianity also has a shameful side to its history. It has sometimes been used abusively and oppressively. But its original, truest, and most authentic spiritual DNA is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which speaks of the glory for which humanity is destined in relationship with God, and which calls us to humility and a life of service. So it is a movement which is always ready to reform; always seeking forgiveness; always trying to learn from mistakes and serve the world better. This means that Christians are not people who think they are better than others. They are people who know they are not! They are people who know they need constantly to draw on God’s help - which they find above all in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised… You move us to delight in praising you; for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you
At the core of Christian belief is an objectively real personal God uniquely revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Christians understand the nature of this God especially through stories told in the Bible (a collection of Jewish and early Christian writings). Prayerful reflection on these writings, and on wider experience of the world, continues to shape Christian beliefs.
In these biblical stories, God is portrayed as an infinitely good, eternally loving, creative power who brought the whole universe into being, sustains it, and eventually brings it to a fulfilment in eternity. Within this universe God has a unique relationship with humanity. God interacts with us all, as individuals and societies, to inspire the best in us and offer remedy for our failings. The main setting for this in these biblical stories, to begin with, is the early history of the Jewish people. But the pivotal part of the drama is then found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - where God’s nature and purposes are shown to embrace the whole world, and through the Holy Spirit animate the community of Jesus’ followers.
This picture of God includes much mystery. The way in which God creates, sustains, steers, natural and human history is largely opaque, invisible to normal scientific enquiry. The reasons why God allows great evil and suffering to persist are hard to fathom. But the overall character and purposes of God are still clear. In Christ’s life we see that God is supremely a power of love whose purposes are always compassion, justice, forgiveness, and sanctification. In Christ’s death we see the extreme lengths to which God’s love goes in order to achieve those purposes. In Christ’s resurrection we see that this love is ultimately indestructible and irresistible. And in the Spirit of Christ we can continue to experience this love, and belong to a people, throughout history and throughout the world, who are called his Body.
Not only do we not know God except through Jesus Christ, we do not know ourselves except through Jesus Christ
Through Christ and His Spirit we are also given a window onto the nature of God’s inner being, not just God’s action and purposes. We see God to be love: an eternal movement of love within God’s own being, not just in relation to the world. This is why Christians have come to describe God as Trinity: i.e. as one God in three persons uniquely bound together in love (Father, Son, and Spirit).
Faith is needed to believe and experience God in this way. Faith is not opposed to reason and experience - it constantly tests itself against reason and experience. However, it is a special way of knowing because it only arises in personal relationship with God. Christians speak of faith as a gift – but it is a gift offered to all, and a decision is needed whether or not to accept that gift. Different churches place different emphasis on various ways in which this relationship of faith is nurtured. But all Christians agree that personal prayer, worship, social action, initiation rites of baptism and communion, play some part.
Christians hope for others to have this faith and belief too. But they do not believe God is only concerned with people who have Christian faith. They believe that Christ lived and died as an act of divine love and forgiveness with power to reach all humanity and transform us all - whether or not we are confessing Christians.
What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
What Christians do is intrinsic to who they are and what they believe. That means, above all, that they should always be inspired by divine love.
Worship is the first instinctive response to this divine love; an acknowledgement of its supreme value, and a sharing in its energy and life. Worship shapes the Christian life, and without worship it is hard to see how Christians can be fed. Another instinctive response is humility; an acknowledgement that we cannot fully join in the movement of divine love without divine help. That is why Christians in worship ask for the Spirit of Christ to inspire and inhabit them. This kind of worship and prayer is an intensely personal activity, but it is not solitary. Christians pray a good deal on their own, but they also find that God’s presence and help (God’s ‘grace’) is most assured when they worship together. So they also meet together regularly for prayer, bible reading, and communion. ‘Communion’ or the Eucharist is the highest act of Christian worship, celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection not merely as past events, but as saving and sanctifying acts made present here and now. The Eucharist recalls the last meal Jesus had with his followers before he died in which he gave his friends bread and wine which would become unique vehicles of his life and presence whenever they gathered to celebrate. Christians believe that Jesus becomes really and truly present in the Eucharist, and that in receiving communion they become grafted into the life of Christ. They are fed in order that they might be sent out for mission and service in the world.
The love of God which inspires Christians to worship should also inspire and guide their whole life and all they do. It is not primarily a sentimental love, but an active and practical love. The love seen in Christ is compassionate and forgiving, and Christians are called to be compassionate, forgiving people. It is also a burning concern for justice, not least for the disadvantaged or marginalised people of our world. In some cultures Christians have been slow to see injustice or discrimination and slow to act. But at best Christians have been historically at the forefront of movements for justice: for example, to abolish slavery, alleviate poverty, advance education. They continue to press for this at local, national, and global levels. They also express love and care for God’s wider world by supporting environmental movements, and by celebrating the beauty and dignity of creation.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind…and love your neighbour as yourself.
Christians also set much store on study and critical reflection. They study the wider world as well as the particular events of Jesus Christ. One reason for this is the sheer wonder and mystery of God’s world. Another reason is the recognition that God speaks through the whole of the natural and human world, so all honest study is a form of prayer (i.e. a way of listening). Trying to understand the ways of God in the world within the limits of our finite minds (‘theology’) is a continuous task. It is part of ‘loving God with all our mind’, as well as with heart and soul.
Last but not least Christians find themselves impelled to share their faith with others. The generous nature of God, the experience of divine love, and the explicit command of Jesus Christ to ‘tell the good news’, make this a priority. Christians have not always shared their faith well or wisely. But it remains a vital part of the Church’s overall mission to proclaim the Good News of God’s love uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ.
That overall mission is above all a mission of service to the world, not a mission to rule over it. Worship, prayer, social action, study, and sharing faith are all part of this mission of service. They are all a response to divine love - the heart of Christian faith.
A Christian funeral is firstly an act of worship, in which family, friends, and other worshippers commend the person who has died to the loving mercy and keeping of God. At the heart of a funeral service is the belief that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, each Christian believer has a share in Christ’s risen life. The Christian journey begins in baptism (christening), and it comes to an earthly culmination at death. Christ’s victory over death is often signified by the presence of the Paschal (or Easter) Candle, next to or near the coffin.
A funeral is also a time for mourning, consciously registering the depth of the loss we feel. It will often be the case that as we reflect on someone’s life – their gifts, qualities, talents, and capacity for love and service – we will encounter the raw pain of grief. However, as St Paul encourages the early Christians in Thessalonica, we should not grieve ‘as those who have no hope’ (1 Thess 4: 13), but rather live in the hope of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of a Christian funeral is a strong sense of genuine thanksgiving for a life, as we give thanks to God for the diverse gifts which make each human person precious and unique.
As well as prayers of thanksgiving, Christian funerals will often pray for forgiveness; forgiveness for the person who has died, and sometimes also forgiveness for those still living. Because we are human, we all stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation, of the renewal which comes through faith in Christ.
Towards the end of a funeral service, we commend the person who has died to God’s mercy and pray for the gift of eternal rest and peace. Through death, Christians believe that life is changed, not ended, in the belief that the person who has died will rest safely in Christ, will know the loving mercy of his judgement, and the fullness of redemption, united with God. For Christians, a funeral is also an opportunity to renew our own faith and trust that death is not the end, praying that we may live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life in Christ’s new creation.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing, but life everlasting.
Alister McGrath: The Landscape of Faith: An explorer's guide to the Christian creeds
Rowan Williams: Being a Christian
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief
CS Lewis: Mere Christianity
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At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.