From early on Christians had different views about such basic matters as what they believed and how they should worship. These differences eventually led to the Christian community splitting into different churches. The word “Church” can mean a building, or the whole Christian community or, as here, it can mean a Christian denomination (A denomination is a group with shared beliefs and usually a common organisation).
The Great Schism
The first sign of this split appeared in 451 CE, but it took until 1054CE before it became permanent. The main reasons for it were arguments about:
- Where the centre of the Christian Church should be. Western Catholics insisted it should be Rome.
- Who the head of the Christian Church should be. Western Christians said it should be the Pope.
- How Christians should worship. e.g. The Eastern Church thought it was wrong to change the words of holy texts. The Western Church however changed the words of the Nicene Creed. Christians, in the east, also objected to the western practice of using unleavened bread (bread without a raising agent, like yeast) for communion.
The split divided the Christian Church into two – the Western Church and the Eastern Church.;
The Western Church
This became known as the Roman Catholic Church. It was based in Rome and its followers came mainly from western Europe.
The Eastern Church
This became known as the Orthodox Church. It was based in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and its followers came mainly from Eastern Europe, Russia and the eastern Mediterranean. There are however now Orthodox Christians who live in the west and vice versa.
The splits did not end with the Great Schism.
The Western Church – the development of Protestantism
Western Christianity itself became further divided in the 16th century. At that time few Christians could read. Church services were in Latin, so few could understand them and the clergy had little to do with the daily lives of the ordinary people. Many felt that the clergy had also become corrupt.
Some people objected to this and started to protest. They wanted the ordinary people to have a greater understanding of their religion and to be aware of their own personal faith. To do this they felt that the clergy should become less distant and should teach, as Jesus had done in his day. They also wanted to see holy texts, like the Bible, printed in the languages that people spoke, so that they could read them.
This protest movement was the Protestant Reformation. It was not a single movement. Different protest groups formed in different places, with not all of them wanting exactly the same things. These protests ended however with the protestors, and their followers, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church to form the Protestant Church.
A man called Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Luther was a catholic monk who taught at the University of Wittenburg. He nailed a list to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral of all the things that he thought were wrong with the Catholic Church. (He argued that the words of the bible were more important than those of the clergy. He also said that whether a person would go to heaven depended upon that person’s own faith. Anyone could pray, direct to God, without the need to go through the clergy or obtain the indulgences, which the clergy had been selling. (Indulgences were “merits” which could be bought. They were said to allow a person, to escape God’s punishment for a sin.)
Luther wrote about his ideas but they also spread, by word of mouth, to places such as Denmark and Sweden as some of his students returned to their homes there.
The Protestant Reformation in France and Switzerland was lead by a French man called John Calvin. He started the College of Geneva. This prepared people to teach about the Bible throughout Europe (and later, from there to the Americas.)
In England the Reformation was different. It happened because King Henry VIII wanted the Pope to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope would not agree to this and tTo get around the problem Henry declared himself head of the Church in England. In this way he enabled himself to go ahead and marry again. When Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, became queen this church (the Anglican Church) becoming the established (official) religion of England.
This reform was not the result of and did not cause any great changes in Church belief. It did however result in an order that every church in England should have a Bible written in English (the Miles Coverdale Bible.)
The splits did not end there. The Protestant Church did not remain one body. Its history is one of constant division.
For example about 2,000 people were forced to leave the Anglican Church, following a disagreement about the official Anglican service book (the Book of Common Prayer), and they started the Nonconformist or Free Churches.
The Protestant Church is now thought to consist of about 21,500 different types of Protestant denominations.
The history of the Christian Church is not; however, only one of division. In the 1970’s two Free Churches (the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church in England) joined together to become the United Reformed Church.
Also, over the last 40 years the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church have been establishing more friendly relations.
The Eastern Church
The original Orthodox Church later divided into the Russian and the Greek Orthodox Churches.
There are three main Christian groups: