Christians are people who have dedicated themselves to following the life and work of Jesus, also known as Christ (the ‘Anointed One’). Christianity is the religion which has developed over the last 2,000 years from the personal example and divine teachings of Jesus Christ. Christianity is one of the Abrahamic faiths, along with Judaism (which comes before it historically) and Islam (which comes after). Church originally meant a community of Christian people but the word is also commonly used to signify a building where such a community worships. The cross is a universally recognised symbol of Christian faith. It is a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, his victory over death and his resurrection. If the body of Jesus is represented on the cross, then this is called a crucifix.
Jesus was born a Jew in the Middle Eastern town of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. Accounts of his birth and early years offer evidence that he was singled out to fulfil prophecy and do God’s will. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, where he is believed to have become a carpenter. When he was around 30, he entered on his public mission, challenging the political oppressors and religious and social standards of his time, as well as healing the sick and performing miracles. After three years of this ministry, Jesus was arrested, tried and put to death by crucifixion. After three days God raised Jesus from the dead, and shortly thereafter his closest disciples were inspired to set out and teach in his name. These events are taken by many as marking the beginning of the Christian religion.
The Trinity is central to almost all Christian belief: God’s nature is one and indivisible, though within that oneness exist Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is variation in belief about the historical person of Jesus, though most Christians see him as the Incarnation of God – at one and the same time fully human and fully divine, free from original sin. All Christians respect Mary, the mother of Jesus, although the Catholic and Orthodox churches do so to a much greater degree. There are differing beliefs among Christians about saints, angels and the problem of evil. Christians typically believe in life after death, although the condition attained by the individual soul is dependent on God’s grace – salvation is a gift, and cannot be earned by anything human beings do in their earthly lives.
The Bible as read by Christians is in two parts. The Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) is virtually identical to the central written scripture of Judaism. The New Testament presents Jesus’ life and teaching (in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as well as the story of the community of Jesus’ followers after his death and resurrection. The Apocrypha (certain books which are accepted by some, rejected by others) form part of the Catholic Bible, and are widely read by many other Christians too. Christians believe that the Bible addresses the most significant issues of existence in a way that is both timeless and contemporary. It is a source of inspiration and comfort, and is used for personal and communal worship and study by all sorts of Christians all over the world.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Christians worship in diverse ways, as individuals and communities: use of the Bible; music and singing; following a sermon; devotion to saints; expressing the inspirations of one’s heart; silent inner contemplation; confession and forgiveness of sins; prayer for others, living and dead; the taking of sacraments. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes the sacraments as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace’, ceremonies or rituals from Christianity’s earliest days, using material elements (e.g. bread, wine, water, oil) to convey spiritual blessings. The sacraments are indispensable to Orthodox and Catholic Christians, less so in other churches. Virtually all churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper in some way, commemorating Christ’s final meal with his disciples.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit pervades all of life and creation, so it is possible to see spiritual content in everything. Even the worst excesses of human behaviour or the most inscrutable occurrences in the natural environment can offer important spiritual lessons. Because Christianity has influenced so much of human life and history for so long, it affects what can be seen as ‘spiritual’ in daily life, as well as in those moments that heighten awareness of what it means to be human: music, the visual arts, sculpture, dance, architecture, philosophy, gardening, matters related to birth and death – all can be felt to express something above and beyond everyday experience, even for those who do not think of themselves as being particularly ‘religious’.
As far as they are able in their personal and community lives, Christians try to follow the example of Christ. This means doing what they think Jesus would do in everyday situations, particularly when they are faced with a moral dilemma. There is no scriptural or universally accepted prohibition on alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating meat or smoking, although some churches have worked out their own positions on these and other issues based on Biblical principles, as have many individual Christians. Paul (the most influential figure in the historical development of Christianity after Jesus himself) described the essential Christian virtues as ‘faith, hope and love’. Paul’s words summarise how a Christian should try to live, especially when he describes love as the greatest of these.
The Christian community as a whole has four main groupings: Orthodox churches, their roots in the eastern part of the Roman Empire; Catholicism, dating from the western part of the Roman Empire, guided by the Pope; Protestant churches, developing from the 16th century Reformation onwards, including Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians (such as the Church of Scotland); Pentecostalism, which grew within Protestantism and includes many black-led churches. Anglicanism has characteristics of the traditions and practices of both Catholicism and Protestantism. Words attributed to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel show the significance of community to all Christians, no matter their particular church: ‘Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I, in the midst of them.’
The Christian calendar plays out the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection across the year, though the dates on which these occasions are observed can vary considerably between different churches. The best known Christian festivals are Christmas (25 December in the Western Churches, 7 January in the Eastern Orthodox) which celebrates the birth of Jesus, and Easter (which falls at some point between late March and late April each year in the Western Churches, early April to early May in the Eastern Orthodox, following the cycle of the moon). Many non-religious cultural elements have become part of these long-standing holidays, and these occasions are now commonly celebrated by many people of other faiths or of none, as well as by Christians.
Over two millennia, Christianity has spread throughout the world, influencing life to some extent in virtually every part of the globe. The number of Christians worldwide is believed to be 2.1 billion, making it the world’s largest religion, with 33% of the global population. Just over half this number are members of the Roman Catholic Church; there are 300 million members in Eastern Orthodox Churches, 77 million members of the Anglican Communion and upwards of 78 million Pentecostalists. On the world scene, several nonconformist groups (e.g. Baptists, Methodists, Salvation Army and Quakers) have a notable presence. Other groups (such as Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Unitarians) have distinctive stances on the life and teachings of Jesus that set them apart from mainstream Christianity.
Christians in Britain
Christianity is far and away the largest, longest established and most influential religion in Britain. It has had a presence here for over 1,500 years and has been arguably the biggest single influence on shaping the legal structures, public institutions and social and intellectual traditions of the country. Some Christians today are anxious that their faith is becoming submerged in the diversity of religions and cultures; others are confident that it will prove adaptable and flexible enough not just to survive but to thrive. At the time of the 2001 Census, there were just over 41 million Christians in Britain, making up almost 72% of the population. Only 8% of these people said they regularly attended church; 40% had never attended church, but still considered themselves Christian.
Christians in Leicester
While Christians may have been present in Leicester in Roman times, the oldest surviving church building dates from c880 CE (St Nicholas Church). The Dominican order has maintained a continuous presence in Leicester since the 13th century; Leicester’s Catholic parishes arose from Dominican foundations. Non-conformists became strongly established in Leicester from the mid-18th century onwards; Leicester still enjoys a reputation as a vibrant area of Free Church activity. St Martin’s Church was hallowed as Leicester Cathedral in 1927, reviving an ancient Anglo-Saxon diocese. Today Leicester has the second-lowest percentage of Christians of any town or city in England and Wales (almost 45%) but Christians are still the largest faith community here – 125,187 are recorded in the 2001 Census.