The Christian Church began almost 2,000 years ago. The word ‘church’ means the people who are followers of Jesus Christ, as well as the buildings in which they meet. The first Christians were followers of Jesus who had heard him teach about God and saw him bring forgiveness and healing to people in need.
In about 33CE Jesus was executed in Jerusalem. But he rose from the dead and returned to heaven having instructed his followers to tell the world about the message of the Christian faith and the new life he had made possible.
‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’
Jesus Christ (Gospel of Matthew 28: 19-20)
Shortly afterwards, the Church was born. It was a spectacular moment. Fearing persecution, Jesus’ closest followers had gathered in a locked room. The Bible book, Acts, describes how they had a supernatural encounter with God – it was as if tongues of fire touched each of them, helping them to speak about God fearlessly.
Emboldened by this, they began teaching in public and healed people as Jesus had done. Thousands became followers, forming communities to care for each other, share what they had and tell others about Jesus. One prominent follower, Peter, had a vision from God that non-Jewish people must also be told about Jesus.
The Church spreads
As the Church in Jerusalem grew, the authorities launched a crackdown. Many Christians were imprisoned, some were killed. Others fled the persecution. Their escape helped to spread the message of Christianity to new lands.
Soon groups of Christian believers were established in what’s now Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, North Macedonia and Italy. Church leaders including Peter, John and Paul wrote letters to these groups. Their advice and teaching included the message that everyone - men, women, and children, slaves and free people – were to be welcomed to the Church. These letters form much of the New Testament part of the Bible.
Followers of Jesus took Christianity to Africa, Asia and Europe, including Britain. By the early fourth century CE, the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as its official religion. However, its spread was disrupted by the fall of the western Empire, including Britain which saw an influx of pagan Anglo-Saxons.
In 597 CE, Pope Gregory sent a monk called Augustine to re-establish the Church in the south of England. At the same time Celtic Christians from Scotland and Ireland were active in north and western England spreading news about Jesus. The result was a Church in England that owed much to many different cultures.
“In the year of our Lord 565... a priest and abbot named Columba, distinguished by his monastic habit and life, came from Ireland to Britain to preach the Word of God in the provinces of the northern Picts...”