Guide to the denominations

Syrian Christian women
A post-card by the Capucin Mission, of two Syrian Christian women from the rural region of Mardin in south-east Turkey, 1905.
The ancient city of Mardin was the home of the Syrian Patriarch, at Deir al-Zaafran, and the highest concentration of Syrian Christians [Miaphysite] were to be found to the east of Mardin in the Tur-Abdeen [the mountain of the worshippers] region since the 5-7th centuries. The Syrian Christians, many of whom fled to Syria during WW1 and the remaining emigrated in mass to Europe, Canada and the USA. The area is dotted with many monasteries and churches dating back to the 5-8th centuries and later.

This page offers a basic introduction to Christian denominations. The word denomination means a named group. So, the word can be applied to any Christian group although some do not like the word. There is more to the differences between the Christian Churches than the names by which they are known.

For example, some Catholics and Orthodox are unhappy with the word 'denomination' and prefer to talk of 'traditions' or, especially in Europe, of 'confessions'. Living traditions can be thought of as the hands through which the faith passes before it was handed on to us.

An alternative view was expressed by Toyohiko Kagawa when he came to England after the second world war and said "I speak English very badly" (which was not true) "and when I say 'denomination', people think I'm saying 'damnation'; I don't really care because I don't think there's much difference!"

The New Churches talk of different 'streams' (e.g. Pioneer, Vineyard, New Frontiers) and are desperate to avoid becoming denominations… although perhaps they will anyway.

In any analysis of the origins of religious denominations, there is a natural tendency to place one denomination at the centre of all the others. Consequently, this page uses an independent source, to describe how things are. As these links are to external websites, the Methodist Church cannot guarantee their accuracy. They serve as a basic introduction to the topic and those who are seeking in-depth information should follow up references or seek help from specialists.

The historical development of denominations
Most religions split into denominations as a result of accidents of history, geography or culture. Some of these differences arise naturally through the separation of communities over time. Others form as a result of sudden, even violent, upheavals. Here is a basic introduction to religious denominations on a geographical basis.

The World Council of Churches offers a valuable guide to Christian denominations, which provides a full introduction to most denominations around the world.

Members of the National Instruments
Brazilian Catholic PriestsThese two sites list member churches of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and the Free Churches Group with links to their denominational websites (if any). Together these cover most of the major churches active in Britain and Ireland at present. However, there are many more local churches, too small to join CTBI or the Free Churches Group, which might be recognised locally by the larger denominations. 

Independent Churches and Ecumenism

New Churches in Britain

Many churches remain outside the formal ecumenical movement in Britain. These are usually smaller evangelical or charismatic churches. They may be Fresh Expressions of mainstream churches that remain outwith their parent denominations, they may be churches inspired by Pentecostal or evangelical movements of Christians, see the Global Christian Forum, or they may be communities of migrant Christians in Britain who choose to worship according to their own practices. All these churches are challenged, with the mainstream churches, to discover what unity means for them.

New Churches and Ecumenism

The notes under this heading and the next are adapted from a lecture by Doug Gay, delivered at the Shapes of Future Church conference, Cliff College, January 2004.

Free Church Ecclesiology is self-certified and uneasy about unity and catholicity. The growth of small independent churches seems to support this model and perhaps they see themselves as exuberant butterflies, and the old churches as sidelined.

But there are examples of emerging churches going wrong, eg the 9 o'clock service in Sheffield. So, it is important to be wary of the complete independence of churches. Potentially there might be a heavy price to pay for ecclesiology that cannot find a place in the existing churches. Old churches have historical wisdom; they know how to negotiate issues of power and conflict.

Temptations for Churches (New and Old)

There are 3 temptations for small independent churches (and of course for larger mainstream churches too):
1. Inertia - churches should not act as if they are the last Christians. There are still new things in the life of the church.
2. Amnesia - they should not act as if they are the first Christians.  God speaks out of the rich storehouse of catholic tradition.
3. Xenophobia - neither are they the only Christians. There needs to be recognition of the richness and diversity of human culture; both in terms of Christian traditions and the tendency for some small churches to focus on an age group, ethnic group or some common interest.

Being inclusive demonstrates openness to God through openness to all churches. Unity is essential to being a church; it demonstrates that you are a church. There is a strong principle of connection between churches which needs to be developed through ecumenism, however that connection is manifested.

More information

If you wish to find our more about how the Christian denominations recognise one another try Major Ecumenical Statements or Major Methodist Ecumenical Statements.

For information about use of Model Trust premises by other faiths, go to the Inter faith page

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