Christianity is the single largest religion in the world today with an estimated two billion followers. It was founded in the 1st Century AD by Jesus of Nazareth, a wandering Jewish teacher, whose birth, life, teachings and death form the basis for the beliefs and practices of his followers.
Christianity is not an homogeneous entity. There are over 200 major Christian groups or denominations in the world, each with its own particular beliefs and practices. However, approximately half of all Christians are members of the Roman Catholic church.
This article attempts to provide an introduction to this important topic and as a result it contains many generalisations. Those wanting more detailed and specific information should look elsewhere.
Christianity's roots lie in the much older religion of Judaism, and Christians see themselves as rightful heirs and successors of Abraham and Moses, the founding fathers of Judaism. Within Judaism there developed a belief that, at some time in the future, God would send His chosen one, known as the Messiah. The Jewish scriptures contain prophetic references to the Messiah including details concerning his birthplace, his vicarious suffering and his death. The followers of Jesus of Nazareth came to identify him as the Messiah, the Son of God, especially following his execution. From small beginnings, with an estimated 120 followers, Christianity spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world and by the 5th Century had become firmly established across the Roman Empire. From the outset Christianity was subject to other, non-Jewish, influences; for example, Judaism itself had been Hellenised in the preceding century. As Christianity evolved it absorbed a wide range of beliefs and practices that had little or nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, or even his immediate group of followers.
Jesus of Nazareth
One needs to tread with care when speaking about Jesus of Nazareth. To Christians he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. To Muslims he is a revered prophet, one of a line of prophets that culminated in Muhammad (pbuh), but they reject any suggestion that he was divine. To Jews he is of interest, but they do not accept that he was the Christ and they still patiently await the arrival of the Messiah. There is little doubt that a real person is behind the traditions of Jesus of Nazareth, although there is little mention of him in the first few centuries outside of Christian writings.
Almost nothing is known about Jesus's early life, save two interesting points. Firstly, his conception and birth. According to the Christian scriptures, which are found in the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus's mother Mary was chosen by God to bear his son. Mary was approached by God's messenger Gabriel, and asked if she would consent to this arrangement. Mary consented and God's Holy Spirit conceived Jesus within her womb. The process, according to Christians, was miraculous and asexual, hence Mary's title; the Virgin Mary. At the time of Jesus's conception Mary was betrothed to a man by the name of Joseph. Upon hearing of her pregnancy, Joseph was initially inclined to break off their betrothal; however, following a dream in which he was reassured that Mary was telling the truth, Joseph agreed to marry Mary.
The story of Jesus's birth, or nativity, is well known. In accordance with an Old Testament prophecy Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem, his mother having accompanied Joseph to his ancestral home where he had gone to register. According to the Bible, Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger or feeding-trough. His birth was attended by the appearance of an angelic host that instructed a group of shepherds to visit the baby. At the same time a group of magi, also known as the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings, followed a star that led them to Jesus. They presented him with three symbolic gifts; gold for a king, frankincense for a god and myrrh for one who is to die.
The second incident occurred when Jesus was twelve. Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, to present him at the temple. They were on their way back to Nazareth when they discovered that Jesus was missing. When they finally found him he was in the Temple, sat amongst the religious elders discussing theological issues.
Most of what we know about Jesus occurred during the last three years of his life. At the age of 30 he entered the Judean wilderness and spent 40 days and nights in prayer and fasting. To the modern reader this may sound bizarre, but in Jesus's day it was not unusual. When he returned from the wilderness he began a career as a wandering teacher or rabbi.
For the next three years Jesus travelled around Judea and Samaria. According to the Bible, Jesus drew crowds of thousands, many of whom travelled considerable distances in order to hear him speak. He also provoked a strong reaction amongst the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were the dominant, yet competing, influences within Judaism at that time. During his travels Jesus attracted a group of 120 followers, who went with him everywhere. This group included Jesus's twelve disciples, one of whom, Judas, would eventually hand Jesus over to the Jewish and Roman authorities. In addition to preaching, Jesus is said to have performed many miraculous deeds. Several miracles are recorded in the New Testament. Jesus's miracles can be divided into miracles of healing and miracles of nature. Jesus is accredited with making the lame walk, the blind see, the leperous whole and the dead rise to life. He is also said to have turned water into wine, to have calmed a violent storm and to have walked on water.
Jesus not only drew the crowds, but also the attention of the religious and secular authorities. Jesus's growing popularity threatened the status quo. Judea was an occupied country, having been subsumed into the Roman Empire in 63BC. The Romans were suspicious of their Jewish subjects, especially of their peculiar monotheistic faith. However, avoiding the mistakes of previous occupiers, the Romans did not attempt to suppress the Jewish religion. Jesus's activities threatened to destabilise the delicate balance that existed and so the Jewish leadership took steps to have him indicted for treason. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, sensitive to the mood of the masses and, like the priests, not wanting to take the blame for Jesus's death, attempted to sidestep the issue. In the end, though, he gave way and ordered Jesus to be executed.
Jesus's end was horrific by modern standards, but 2,000 years ago crucifixion was an everyday occurrence; even petty criminals were executed in this way. Jesus was flogged and then forced to carry his cross to his place of execution. Some victims of crucifixion lasted for a day or two but Jesus, already seriously weakened by his ordeal, died in about six hours. His body was taken down and handed over to his family for burial.
According to Christians, the story of Jesus of Nazareth did not end with his crucifixion. The gospel writers describe how Jesus appeared to his followers on the Sunday after his death. They also record how Jesus engaged in various activities such as eating and drinking, the implication being that Jesus's resurrection was physical and not just spiritual. After a period of 40 days Jesus bade farewell to his disciples and ascended into Heaven. Before his departure, Jesus instructed his disciples to go out and make believers of all nations. It is this final command that marks Christianity's departure from Judaism, which was not a proselytising faith, and launched the religion on its enduring mission to convert as many people as possible.
The Bible contains the sacred scriptures of the Christian religion. As with so much else, different Christian denominations disagree about the primacy, content and interpretation of the Bible.
The Bible is often mistakenly thought to be a single text written either by one person or by a committee. The truth is far more complex. The Bible is in fact a collection of books and letters, ranging in age from 3,450 years to 1,900 years old. The various books were written by 50 or so different authors at different times and in different locations. As a result they reflect differing social and political contexts. However, the one thing that all of the books of the Bible have in common is that they are held in the highest regard by Christians.
The Old Testament is almost identical to the Jewish scriptures known as the Tanakh; an abbreviation for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. The Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, comprises the five books traditionally ascribed to Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Neviim is made up of the prophetic writings of people such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Ketuvim, or 'writings', includes historical works such as the books of Judges and Kings and poetic works like the book of Psalms. The books of the Old Testament are included in the Christian Bible because Christians believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of an historical process that began with God's creation of the World. The books of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew.
The New Testament books and letters were written by Christian writers. They tell of Jesus's life and the actions of his disciples. The first four books of the Bible are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In simple terms, the gospels are biographies of Jesus. The fifth book is the Book of Acts, also known as The Acts of the Apostles, which describes the deeds of Jesus's disciples after his ascension. The disciples, minus Judas Iscariot who committed suicide after betraying Jesus, began to proselytise (seek converts) and so changed from being pupils (disciples) to being apostles. After the Book of Acts comes a collection of letters, mostly written by St Paul. St Paul was originally a violent opponent of Christianity but underwent a dramatic conversion whilst on his way to Damascus in Syria. St Paul did more than most of the apostles to convert gentiles, or non-Jews, to Christianity. The last book of the Bible is The Book of Revelation, also known as The Revelation of St John the Apostle, or the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelation describes a series of apocalyptic visions received by St John. To some it foretells the end of the world and the ultimate victory of good over evil, to others it is an encoded message of encouragement sent to Christians suffering persecution at the hands of the Romans. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek.
Some Christian denominations, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, include several additional books within the Old Testament. These books are known collectively as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches regard the Apocryphal books as being of equal status with the other books of the Bible. Protestants have traditionally rejected them.
The true nature and importance of the scriptures is an area of contention between Christians. Christians, irrespective of which denomination they belong to, can be divided into three broad groups according to their approach to the Bible. Most would probably fall into the Conservative group. Conservative Christians believe that the various authors of the Bible were inspired by God and that their words reflect His will. Conservative Christians would accept most of the Bible as historically true though they might recognise that some parts should not be taken literally. Fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible is God's. To a fundamentalist the authors of the Bible were writing under God's direction. Every part is historically true and should be taken at face value. If it says God created the world in six days, then, for a fundamentalist, God created the world in six days. At the other end of the spectrum are Liberal Christians who view the Bible as a valuable collection of works, written by inspirational individuals who had valuable insights into the human condition. Liberals believe that every part should be viewed within its historical and socio-cultural context.
The early Church faced two serious challenges. It was subject to violent persecution from without and to equally violent differences from within. These divisions stemmed from the intense theological debates that raged as different factions, with different interpretations of the faith, sought dominance. In an attempt to resolve the various internal conflicts, the leaders of Church met in a series of councils. The councils set out the orthodox beliefs of the church. Those who did not agree with the councils' views were denounced as heretics and often faced persecution from their own co-religionists. The dominant or orthodox views were elevated to the level of doctrines or official teachings. The most essential beliefs were summarised in the form of credal statements.
The most basic statement of beliefs that nearly all Christians can subscribe to is the Apostles' Creed. The Apostles' Creed is so named because it is said to be based on the teachings of the Apostles. The English word 'creed' comes from the Latin 'credo' (meaning 'I believe') from the opening words of the creed.
The Apostles' Creed
I believe in God the Father almighty,
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended to hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into Heaven
And is seated on the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
The creed opens with an affirmation that God the Father created Heaven and Earth, which can be taken to mean everything. The creed then goes on to outline the key beliefs surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. Firstly, Jesus is the son of God and fathered through the miraculous actions of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, Jesus died on the orders of Pontius Pilate, then rose again before returning to his father. It is interesting to note that the creed makes it plain that Jesus rose on the third day. Under Jewish law a person had not legally departed this life until they had been dead for three days. The creed leaves one in no doubt that Jesus was truly dead and buried. The creed then carries on by stating the belief that Jesus will return at some time in the future when he, and not God the Father as many assume, will judge both the living and the dead. This is known as the Second Coming. The dead will be physically resurrected in order to face judgement.
The last part of the creed pulls together a variety of other beliefs. Firstly, Christians affirm their belief in God the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. Next they assent to the holy catholic, that is to say universal, church. One should not confuse catholic with a small 'c', with Catholic with a large 'C', which is often used as shorthand for the Roman Catholic church. Thirdly, the creed refers to the communion of saints. The communion of saints is not the same as Holy Communion. The communion of saints is the union of all believers, both in this world and the next. Then comes the forgiveness of sins. It is a central tenet of Christianity that if an individual is genuinely repentant and confesses their sins they will receive God's forgiveness. The creed closes with an affirmation of the Christian belief in life after death following the physical resurrection of the body.
The Nature of God
It should be noted that Christians do not view God as some sort of superhuman being akin to the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The god of Christianity is a purely spiritual being. Non-Christians are sometimes confused by the way that Christians speak of God as 'Father' or 'He'. The use of anthropomorphic language reflects the belief that humans were created in God's image. This is understood to mean that, in some small way, humans share some of God's characteristics, for example we share his capacity to love. God is not a physical being in the same way that we are physical beings. Ultimately, God is said to be a mystery beyond human comprehension and that, whilst we can gain a partial insight into God's nature, we can never truly understand him.
Christians believe that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal and personal. Omnipotent means all-powerful. Christians believe that there are no limits to God's power or authority. Omnipresent means that God is present everywhere at once. Omniscient means that God is all-knowing and all-seeing. There is nothing that God does not know. Eternal means unaffected by time, as opposed to immortal that means undying. God, as the creator of time, is beyond, or outside of time. Therefore, questions such as 'When did God begin?' or 'When will God end?' are as meaningless as 'What flavour are Thursdays?'. God, according to Christians, has always existed and will always exist. Christians believe that God is a personal god and not a distant, impersonal deity. At first glance each of these divine characteristics seems simple and straightforward. However, each one raises a series of complex, and for some insurmountable, theological and philosophical problems which deserve a far more detailed examination than can be attempted here.
In addition to the beliefs about God outlined above, beliefs that are not too dissimilar to those of Judaism and Islam, Christians believe that God is a trinity - ie, three united as one.
The Doctrine of the Trinity was developed to clarify the exact nature of God. Many of the arguments that divided the early Church revolved around the exact nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Father. Was Jesus purely human or was he purely divine? Furthermore, it was necessary to clarify the status of the Holy Spirit. To put it simply, very simply, Christians believe in one god who is three unique yet indivisible 'persons'. Therefore, the Father is God , but is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit. The Son is God, but is not the Father, nor the Holy Spirit who, in turn is God, but is not the Father, nor the Son. The concept of the Trinity is a complex one and often Christians use symbols, such as a triangle, in an attempt to try and reach an understanding of this doctrine.
At the very heart of the Christian religion is the person of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus was not merely an outstanding human being; to them he is the Son of God, sent by the Father to rescue mankind from sin and eternal damnation. Through his example and sacrificial death Jesus opened the way to redemption and eternal life.
According to Christian teaching we are all born tainted by Original Sin. No one is truly innocent; we are all subject to the effects of our forebears' sins. Ever since Adam and Eve rejected God's commandment, and fell into sin, mankind has been condemned to eternal damnation. Hence the practice of baptising newborn infants in order to free them from the effects of Original Sin. In addition, Christians believe we all fall short of God's standards. In fact the word sin means to fall short of the mark. Christians believe that through his sacrificial suffering on the cross Jesus opened the way for his followers to enter eternal life, freed from the burden of sin.
Judgement Day and Life after Death
Christians believe that, at some as yet undisclosed time in the future, God will bring the world to an end. The dead will be brought back to life and will join the living to be judged by God the Son, ie, Jesus. Those who meet the required standard will be admitted to Heaven. Everyone else will be condemned to eternal damnation in Hell. Many churches teach that in order to enter Heaven one must have repented of one's sins and been baptised.
Conservative Christians maintain that only Christians will be allowed into Heaven. On the other hand there are those who believe that God will not reject those who have lived a virtuous life, even if they have not been a Christian. Yet others believe that God will allow everyone into Heaven, whatever they have done in this life.
Throughout the year Christians celebrate several important festivals, the most important being Easter and Christmas. Many festivals in the Christian calendar commemorate events in Jesus's life, but others celebrate events such as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, the Trinity, and the lives of the Saints.
It is interesting to note that many Christians festivals were superimposed on older, pre-Christian festivals and adopted many of their practices and customs.
Contrary to popular belief the most important festival in the Christian calendar is not Christmas. It is, in fact, Easter. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. It is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Northern Hemisphere Spring Equinox. (The exact timing of Easter is a subject of disagreement between Eastern and Western Christians.) Easter also marks the culmination of a week-long series of festivals, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Good Friday. This week is known as Holy Week. Holy Week commemorates the last week of Jesus's life finishing with the remembrance of his death on the cross. Good Friday is 'good' because, according to Christians, Jesus death was a sacrificial act performed to enable mankind to obtain forgiveness for their sins and life eternal. Many of the traditional customs associated with the celebration of Easter, for example the eating of eggs, were adopted from pre-Christian spring festivals. In fact the English 'Easter' is derived from the name of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Oestra.
The festival of Christmas, or 'Christ mass', celebrates Jesus's birth. The exact date of Jesus's birth is unknown; we are not even sure which year he was born in. Studies suggest that Jesus was born in either May or June in 6 or 4BC. The date of 25 December was originally the date of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In the absence of an exact date for the birth of Jesus, 25 December was chosen, partly to suppress the Saturnalia. The majority of Christmas customs were inherited from pre-Christian, midwinter celebrations. For example, the custom of decorating the home with evergreen foliage owes more to the idea of the returning sun and less to the birth of the Christ Child.
After Easter and Christmas the next most important festival is Pentecost, or Whitsun. This celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and their first steps as Apostles. It is also the official birthday of the Christian Church.
Rites of Passage
Most religions mark the significant points along the journey of life. Known as Rites of Passage, these celebrations occur around birth, coming of age, marriage and death.
Many Christian groups practise Infant Baptism. This ceremony involves the newborn child being welcomed into the family of the church and having the effects of original sin symbolically washed away with water. In some denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, a small amount of water is poured gently over the infant's head three times as the priest announces that the child is being baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In other denominations, such as the Orthodox Churches, they literally baptise the child by plunging it into the water. (The word 'baptise' actually means 'to immerse.')
Some groups, most notably the Baptists, do not baptise infants, believing that Jesus intended only believers to be baptised. Baptists and other groups that practise Believers' or Adult Baptism often have a ceremony of Infant Dedication in which the child is welcomed into the Church and prayers are said asking for God's blessing and support.
Coming of Age
Denominations that practise Infant Baptism normally have a ceremony called Confirmation in which young adults are welcomed into full membership of the church. In many churches confirmation is conducted by a senior priest or bishop and is followed by the newly confirmed Christian taking Holy Communion for the first time. Other churches do not make confirmation a prerequisite of receiving Holy Communion and in the Roman Catholic Church 'First Communion' is a distinct rite of passage celebrated some years before confirmation.
Amongst Baptists and the like, baptism is the way into the church. Unlike Infant Baptism, Believers' Baptism involves the total immersion of the new Christian. This can be quite dramatic and may be conducted in a special pool, or baptistery, set into the floor of the church, or in any suitable body of water.
Marriage is central to Christian teachings on the family, parenting and sex. The Bible is quite clear that fornication and adultery are sins and that marriage is the proper context for sex and the raising of children. Wedding ceremonies vary greatly and generally reflect local customs and practice as there is no biblically prescribed form of words for the joining of a man and woman in wedlock.
Belief in eternal life is central to Christian teachings and, therefore, funeral services focus on praying for the repose of the departed's soul and their eventual entrance into Heaven. Traditionally Christians have practised burial, believing, as they do, in the physical resurrection of the body on Judgement Day. However, in some parts of the world cremation is increasingly acceptable.
All rites of passage offer an opportunity for family members to gather and celebrate important events in an individual's life. Because of this, they may be the only occasions when many people engage with Christianity in a formal way.
Most Christians worship in purpose-built churches. The design and layout of churches varies from place to place and from denomination to denomination. The form of a church often reflects the beliefs and practices of the particular church. For example, the focal point of Roman Catholic churches is the altar, reflecting the Catholic church's emphasis on the eucharist. In many Protestant churches the pulpit is the dominant feature reflecting their emphasis on preaching and teaching.
Christian worship is as varied as the buildings in which it takes place. It can be very formal and highly structured with a great deal of ritual and ceremony as in Roman Catholic and Orthodox services. On the other hand it can be very informal, as in the worship of many of the Pentecostal churches.
An important act of worship for nearly all Christians is the celebration of the Eucharist, which is also known as Holy Communion, the Mass, or the Lord's Supper. During the Last Supper (Jesus's final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion) Jesus took some bread and said 'Take, eat; this is my body'. He then took some wine and said 'Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood...' Since earliest times Christians have shared bread and wine, sometimes as a sacramental act believed to carry the benefit of God's grace, sometimes as a simple act of commemoration. Some Christians believe that during their consecration the elements, ie, the bread and wine, change to become Jesus's body and blood. Although their outward appearance remains unchanged, Catholic, Orthodox and some other Christians believe that, in reality, the elements have changed. This belief is called 'transubstantiation'. Protestant Christians reject transubstantiation and view the bread and wine as symbols of Jesus body and blood and nothing more. Some denominations celebrate the eucharist daily, whilst others celebrate it monthly or even annually.
Another key element of Christian worship is the reading of the Bible. Part of the Bible will often form the basis to the 'sermon' or 'homily'. The sermon is a talk given by a respected member of the church, normally the priest or minister, concerning some aspect of Christian teaching.
In many churches music is an important part of worship and many church buildings contain large organs and other musical instruments. It is also quite common to find a choir leading the singing of hymns. However, there are those who emphasise the importance of silent reflection eg, the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers.
Prayer is another common ingredient of Christian worship. Prayer, or communicating with God, may be formal and led by the priest or minister, or it may be informal and led by members of the congregation. Prayer may be a form of praise, or it may be penitential. Prayer can be petitionary ie, asking for something for oneself, or it may be intercessory ie, asking for something for someone else.
The first Christians maintained the Jewish practice of observing the Sabbath, ie, keeping Saturday as a day for religious observance. However, Sunday held a particular significance as the day of Christ's resurrection. As the Church moved away from its Jewish roots and came to be dominated by non-Jewish converts, Sunday came to replace Saturday as the day on which Christians join for acts of collective worship. In a strict sense this means that Christians are failing to obey the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, and some minor denominations keep Saturday as their day of rest.
In addition to joining in acts of corporate worship many Christians will also engage in a daily act of private worship. Typically this will involve reading the Bible or devotional literature, prayer and quiet meditation.
Main Branches or Denominations
As mentioned before there are around 200 major Christian denominations in the world today. There are a further 2000 smaller groups, but the true number is unknown. Within Christianity there are three main branches, namely Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
The dominant Christian denomination in the world is the Roman Catholic Church, which has over one billion members. Based in the Vatican City in Rome, Italy, the Roman Catholic Church is hierarchical, patriarchal and lead by the Pope. The Roman Catholic Church traces its roots back to St Peter, who Jesus appointed as his successor and who, according to Catholic tradition, was the first Pope. Roman Catholic worship is very formal and focuses on the celebration of the Mass. Roman Catholicism emphasises the importance of adhering to the teachings of the church and of participation in the sacraments; baptism, penance, confirmation, the Mass, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing the sick.
In the 16th Century, in northern Europe, many Christians became dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church and began to protest about certain aspects of the church's teachings and practices. These so called Protestants eventually ceded from the Catholic Church and formed their own churches. Protestants reject any beliefs that cannot be directly supported by the Bible and place a great deal of emphasis on the individual's relationship with God. Another common feature is the rejection of the need for a specialist priesthood. Instead Protestants believe in the 'priesthood of all believers' and as a result their leaders are known as ministers rather than priests. Protestant worship generally focuses less on Holy Communion and more on the reading and teaching of the Bible.
The Orthodox churches are amongst the oldest in the world and, like the Roman Catholic Church, can trace their origins back to the Apostles. Originally 'in communion' with the Church of Rome the Orthodox Churches finally split with Rome in 1054 after centuries of wrangling over issues of belief and leadership. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches are very traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. However, rather than having one supreme head of the church, the various Orthodox churches, eg, the Greek Orthodox Church, have their own Patriarch or leader. The Patriarchs share responsibility for the maintenance of Orthodox tradition. Orthodox worship is very formal and focuses on the celebration of Holy Communion. Another similarity with Catholicism is the emphasis placed on participating in and receiving the sacraments, though there are variations in the nature of the sacraments themselves.
Christianity is a fascinating subject which exhibits a vast range of beliefs and practices. Its history has often been violent and bloody, but throughout its 2,000 years, normal men and women have found that it has provided them with comfort and meaning for their lives.
Christianity continues to face internal disputes and external threats. Internally, the place of women and homosexuals has become an issue of heated debate. Externally, the expansion of Islam into areas previously dominated by Christianity, such as eastern Africa, has led to conflict. In the West the traditional churches face an ongoing decline in membership and vocations to the ministry as society becomes more materialistic. In short, Christianity's centre of gravity is likely to shift away from Christendom (Western Europe) towards the Southern hemisphere.