Discovering Sacred Texts: Christianity

Explore the diverse ways in which five Christian denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, and Pentecostal – worship in Britain today, and the texts that inspire them.

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There are so many different denominations within Christianity across the world, in every continent and in every language. The best thing, possibly the most important is that we all believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. That is the key message of salvation, that is the key message of the Christian faith.

Archbishop Angaelos: The Coptic church was established by St Mark the Evangelist, writer of the Gospel, in about 55 AD, and it’s had an unbroken presence in life in Egypt for the past 2,000 plus years. We have an incredible wealth of knowledge within the Coptic church which comes through the ancient writings, the writings of the early Church fathers, and of course the scriptures. We consider the two sources of learning and authority within the Church being scripture, and the writing of the fathers. The three main liturgies are St Basil, St Gregory, and St Cyril.

Ilana Tahan: The manuscript contains the liturgy according to the Coptic rite that is still practiced in Egypt.

Archbishop Angaelos: I think Egypt is significant to Christianity because it is the place to which Christ, the infant Christ and his family, fled and sought refuge.

Ilana Tahan: It is in two languages, Coptic on the left, and a parallel translation in Arabic on the opposite side.

Archbishop Angaelos: The beginning of the second millennium, there is a very strong Arabisation, Islamisation, of Egypt, and everything had to be changed to Arabic. But we still maintain Coptic as a liturgical language, and those who speak it. The Coptic Orthodox liturgy is a very sensual experience, engaging all the senses: bright colours, we have icons, we have very rich curtains, we have altar coverings, the deacon’s vespers and the clergy vespers, the sounds, the chanting, everything is chanted, from the beginning to the end. The only thing that is not chanted are the actual readings.

Monsignor Matthew Dickens: The Catholic Church traces its history right back to Jesus Christ. According to Vatican statistics there are approximately 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. It’s the largest single Christian church really for historical reasons because of the expansion of the European powers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries into Latin America, and in the nineteenth century into Africa. For the Catholic church a sense of unity across the whole Church is fundamental to our sense of what the Church is, and we have a liturgical cycle, so we go through the whole of the Church’s year celebrating our feasts and ceremonies together as a community across the whole world. For most Catholics their experience of the scriptures comes through the mass, so the first part of the mass being the liturgy of the word where we hear scriptures read and the priest or the deacon preaches, explaining the meaning of the scriptures. The Book of Hours is a term used for prayer books dating mainly from the middle ages which were very common at that time, and basically the Book of Hours was a collection of prayers to enable a person to pray throughout the day, marking the hours of the day, so morning, noon, evening and night.

Eleanor Jackson: We have these serene beautiful miniatures heading each of the main texts. Also every single page has these exquisite little drawings in the margins of the pages which show all kinds of weird and wonderful scenes. So little monsters and hybrid animals.

Monsignor Matthew Dickens: They’re really works of high art and indicative of the Church being a great patron of the arts and that spiritual practice and art was very much interwoven.

Rev Lucy Winkett: England has its own Church called the Church of England, unsurprisingly, and that’s because we used to be part of the Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church.

Very Rev Andrew Nunn: There was a whole movement within Europe which was rejecting the authority, the total authority of Rome.

Rev Lucy Winkett: Essentially the King said ‘well we’re going to go our own way’, and then he became supreme governor of what he then called the Church of England. But in fact it was the same buildings with the same priests, and it took quite a long time for that movement, over about 200 years, called the Reformation, to really settle down. So it wasn’t until the late 16th century really, towards the end of the 17th century, that the Church of England got its own character.

Karen Limper-Herz: We’re looking at the 1526 edition of Tyndale’s New Testament. William Tyndale went to Germany in the 1520s to produce an English translation of the New Testament, following Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German, and three copies of this now survive, two of which are in this country, and one is in Germany.

Rev Lucy Winkett: The Tyndale New Testament was undoubtedly radical in the sense that it put into the hands of the people a fresh translation of the scriptures, and no longer did they need the mediation of the priests, and that was part of the whole thrust of the Protestant Reformation.

Very Rev Andrew Nunn: It was really dangerous. And it was dangerous for the people who dared to begin that piece of work.

Karen Limper-Herz: Having the word of God in English was not what the authorities wanted. The authorities wanted to continue to read the Bible in Latin and thus allow the priests to interpret the Bible for the congregation. So book burnings took place. All copies that people could get hold of were burned, were destroyed. So Tyndale obviously paid for the translation of the New Testament into English with his life.

Very Rev Andrew Nunn: Understanding that, understanding the passion that people had, like Tyndale, of doing this piece of work and realising how incredibly important it was to the development of Christianity, remembering what we call the martyrs of that phase is critical for how we now understand what it is when the Bible is now placed in our hands.

Rev Jennifer Smith: John and Charles Wesley were both priests in the Church of England, and while they were at Oxford, they had decided to become more methodical in their devotional life, in how they were using scripture every day, and how they were praying, and they were called Methodists as a sort of a rude word for them, to make fun of them, and they picked it up and said no we’ll take that. The purpose of the Church is to participate in God’s work in the world, and that was always really important to Methodists, especially John and Charles Wesley. Methodists are found all over the place. There are over 75 million people in the Methodist tradition in one way or another all over the world in every corner. Methodism as a tradition, it tended to sing its teaching, rather than sitting down in a classroom, and going bullet point, bullet point, bullet point. And you get the theology, that is the talk about who God is, through the singing.

Marion Wallace: This item is a Wesleyan Methodist hymn book from South Africa. It was published in 1898, so it’s over a hundred years old. So this is a hymn book in a language called IsiXhosa, which is one of the major languages of South Africa still spoken today, and the hymn that we have open on this page is still sung today. It’s a Xhosa version of the hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.

Rev Jennifer Smith: Love Divine, it’s got to be one of the top hymns and it was written by Charles Wesley. It’s an old hymn, it’s not trendy, it’s eighteenth-century language: Love Divine, all love’s excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. I think it’s so popular, we sing it at funerals, we sing it at weddings, because it talks about God reaching out for us, so there’s a sense that whatever part of life you find yourself, there’s someone who’s around you who is working for your good, and Love Divine is all about that, it’s all about God’s love.

Dr Daniel Akhazemea: The first time that we read about modern Pentecostalism, because it had always been there from the scriptures anyway, from the Bible, was about 1900. They defined that salvation is through Christ, and we believe that when you are saved, you can enjoy the provisions that is given to us by the Holy Spirit that baptises us. The word baptism means, it overwhelms it fills you up, and when you are baptised, then you can speak in other tongues. So when you believe in Jesus you experience what we call conversion experience, or salvation, or sometimes we call it born again.

Philip Abraham: This item is called the Four-Fold Gospel and was written by a Canadian born but mainly US-based pastor called A B Simpson, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Dr Daniel Akhazemea: The Four Square Gospel is evident in every strand of Pentecostalism. People know it because we talk about it almost every time we meet.

Philip Abraham: It was first of all published at a time when Pentecostalism was really pulling away and becoming a very distinct presence within the Protestant family. It has a four chapter structure, speaking to each of the four folds that Simpson conceived of as being the most important aspects of Christ.

Dr Daniel Akhazemea: We preach Jesus is our saviour, Jesus is our healer, Jesus is the baptiser with the holy spirit, and Jesus is coming back again. A Pentecostal service will usually have a lot of singing, a lot of praying, and sometimes somebody will feel led by the holy spirit to give a word; we call it prophesying, to prophesy, to say this is what the Lord is telling me about. So there will be a period where you pray for one another, or you are praying for somebody who is not feeling well, is sick. So there are times where we pray, where people are encouraged to bring their needs before God. Everyone that believes in Jesus Christ our Saviour, irrespective of your denomination, we belong to one Church. We call it the Church of God. We don’t all have to do things the same way, but let’s understand how we have one spirit and one saviour: Jesus.