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Online Handbook of Denominations

A Guide to Churches and Denominations from a Catholic Perspective

Compiled and Written by


Since I began studying Theology (around 1999), one of the most common questions I get is "what does so-and-so group believe about x?" I find these questions fascinating, and even though I am Catholic, I'm intrigued by other churches (and religions) and their beliefs. This page is the outgrowth of an effort over at An Aid to Memory. This mini-handbook is meant to provide a profile of different Christian groups, from both a general informational and Catholic perspective (such as what each group believes about the Eucharist, morality, etc). I can't cover every denomination (including "non-denominational" denominations), but I will cover the major ones.  If there is any particular group that fascinates you or you have questions about, please leave a comment and I'll cover that group. I try to engage each group in an accurate and respectful way. Knowing what others believe is a good way to carry on a respectful conversation about our faith and theirs.


The Catholic Church

Pope Francis

The Catholic Church does not consider itself a denomination. In fact, the divisive concept of "denomination" is quite foreign to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, because I want to start this series with my own Church, I include it under the title of "different denominations."

The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ, whose authority was passed to St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles. This Apostolic lineage is preserved through the Apostolic Succession of bishops all over the world. The Catholic Church consists of many different rites and jurisdictions, all under the bishop of Rome, currently Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church has weathered a lot over the years, and is the Church of many great saints and sinners. This whole blog is written from a Catholic perspective, and I can't describe the whole of the Catholic faith in this little section. The best way is to order yourself a Catholic Catechism and read over it.

Overview: The Catholic Church
Numbers - 1,000,000,000 worldwide
Date founded: Apostolic in origin
Major Figures - St Peter, St Leo the Great, St Athanasius, St Francis, St Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II
Valid Apostolic Succession - Yes
# of Sacraments - Seven
View of Eucharist - Transubstantiation: Bread and Wine become body and blood of Christ. The substance of the bread and wine become body and blood, while the accidents (physical characteristics) of the bread and wine remain.
Ordination standards - Latin Rite: celibate men only, except in certain circumstances; Eastern Rite: celibate and married men. Episcopacy is celibate.
Views on Mary - Mary is the ever-virgin Mother of God (theotokos), free of original and actual sin on account of Christ's merits since her conception. She is Queen of Heaven, bodily assumed into heaven. She is to be given the highest level of veneration, but not worshiped.
Major Moral Stands - Actively opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, unjust wages, divorce, (generally) capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, and artificial contraception. Also, the Catholic Church assumes the dignity of every person, although this does not mean endorsement of every human behavior. The Catholic Church's Teachings are, from an American political perspective, a mix of conservative and progressive, although the Church's positions are above either label. The Church does not take a stand on all issues, and faithful Catholics disagree on some issues.
Major Parties/Divisions - The Catholic Church has a "progressive" population that disagrees with many dogmatic doctrinal and moral Teachings of the Church. Because of the nature of Catholicism, which has a Magisterium that clearly sets dogmatic standards, dissenting Catholics whose beliefs contradict Magisterial Teaching cannot be considered a legitimate "church party," since dissension is not given equal footing with dogmatic Teaching. The same scenario is true of arch-conservatives who deny Magisterial Teaching. However, different spiritualities exist side-by-side, all approved, including the spiritualities expressed by the Franciscans, the Benedictines, and so forth.
Major Prayers/Devotions - Rosary, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Jesus Prayer (through the Eastern Catholics), Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic adoration and exposition.

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The Orthodox Churches

Orthodox Patriarch

The Orthodox Churches (consisting of different churches in communion with one another, including the Greek, Russian, and Antiochian churches) are Eastern Churches springing from the Apostles, but not in communion with the Bishop of Rome. These churches are both Chalcedonian (accepting the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon) and non-Chalcedonian (rejecting the Council of Chalcedon). The Coptic Church is one such group that rejects the condemnation of monophysitism at the Council of Chalcedon. The non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches are not in communion with the Chalcedonian Churches.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have much in common with the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church considers the East one of the two "lungs" of Christendom. The Western and Eastern Churches split in 1054 in what is called the "Great Schism." Both Eastern and Western leaders excommunicated each other. However, these excommunications were lifted recently in an effort at eventual reunification, a dream of Pope John Paul II and many Orthodox bishops. Pope John Paul II is pictured on the right with Archbishop of Greece, His beatitude Christodoulos. Despite a recent openness on both sides, various issues, including the infallibility and role of the Pope and the filioque ("and the Son") addition to the Nicene Creed, constitute areas of deep disagreement.

Catholics have a deep appreciation for Orthodox Christians, and frequently work together at all levels. Catholic and Orthodox bishops frequently meet to discuss differences and commonalities, working for some type of unity.

Overview: The Orthodox Churches
Numbers - 225,000,000 (see
Date founded: Apostolic in origin
Major Figures - St John Chrysostom, St. John of Damascus, St Maximos the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas
Valid Apostolic Succession - Yes
# of Sacraments - Varies, usually set at seven
View of Eucharist - Bread and Wine become body and blood of Christ. The Eastern churches have been slow to define the manner in which this happens, hence the lack of a common vocabulary to describe the change.
Ordination standards - Celibate and married men. The state a candidate for the priesthood is in when he begins the ordination process is the state he will remain for the rest of his life. Episcopacy is celibate.
Views on Mary - Mary is the ever-virgin Mother of God (theotokos), the "all-holy," free of sin, dating at least to her "yes" to God's call. She was assumed into heaven after her falling asleep (Dormition). She is to be given the highest level of veneration, but not worshiped.
Major Moral Stands - Actively opposed to abortion, gay marriage, and often artificial contraception, although some Orthodox churches have adopted more liberal views. For the most part the Orthodox Churches' stands are identical to that of the Catholic Church.
Major Parties/Divisions - The Orthodox Church does not have major "parties" like Protestant denominations. Because the Orthodox Churches are autonomous national churches, they have minor varying disciplines and beliefs among themselves, although they are all united by core, essential, beliefs.
Major Prayers/Devotions - Divine Liturgy, Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, a sinner), veneration of icons, Akathist Hymn

The Anglican Communion

The Anglican church is the state church of England, and is called "the Church of England." In the United States, due to hostility to all things English after the revolutionary war, the Anglican church is known as the Episcopal church.

Anglicanism began in the 16th century when Henry VIII sought an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. The pope (for political reasons mostly) refused to grant the annulment, and so Henry, once an ardent defender of Catholicism, gave his assent to the "Act of Supremacy" making the king the head of the English church. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer had Calvinist sympathies and used his role to further many aspects of Calvinism in England. However, the Anglican Church still retained many elements of Catholic worship, practice, and doctrine.

Since then Anglicanism has gone through many different phases, a more Calvinistic one under King Edward VI, and one combining elements of Catholicism and Protestantism during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a vision of Anglicanism persisting to this day. The laity were probably largely indifferent to these changes. These changes can be seen in the various Books of Common Prayer, the Anglican worship book. Over time, different "church parties" developed, often tenuously existing side-by-side. They are described below. The Oxford Movement of the 19th century attempted to bring Anglicanism closer to the Catholic faith. This movement was initially greeted with hostility, but soon many of the "Tractarian" reforms were accepted into mainstream Anglicanism. Anglican worship today resembles that of Catholicism in many aspects. The 20th century has been rocky for Anglicanism, as many changes (including women's ordination) have increasingly pitted liberal against conservative, although due to the nature of Anglicanism, what constitutes these labels are in dispute.

As many Catholic-minded Anglicans have gone to other denominations, other Churches have integrated Anglican worship into their own traditions. The Catholic Church has set up Anglican Use parishes that use a modified Book of Common Prayer, called The Book of Divine Worship. Anglican priests may also pursue Catholic ordination under The pastoral Provision. Western Rite Orthodoxy uses a modified 1928 Book of Common Prayer liturgy.

Overview: The Anglican Communion
Numbers - 80,000,000 worldwide (see
Date founded: AD 1534, although see Apostolic Succession below
Major Figures - Thomas Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, J.H. Newman (later became Catholic), William Temple, Michael Ramsey.
Valid Apostolic Succession - Yes and No. Anglicans claim to have a chain of uninterrupted succession of bishops from before the English Reformation. However, Catholics and Orthodox bishops have generally failed to recognize the validity of Anglican orders. Some Anglicans have been ordained using Old Catholic or Orthodox orders, thus complicating the issue of the validity of individual Anglican bishops and priests. Taken as a whole, Anglican orders are considered invalid from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives.
# of Sacraments - Varies; the 39 Articles (the articles of Anglican belief) clearly affirm 2; some believe in 7, others more or less
View of Eucharist - Varies; the 39 Articles reject transubstantiation and advocate a more spiritual presence, akin to Calvinism. Beliefs range from a symbolic view (Evangelical) to transubstantiation (Anglo-Catholic) and every possible position in between. Anglicans tend to use the term "Real Presence" which encompasses the differing views.
Ordination standards - married and celibate men and women. All of Anglicanism does not ordain women, and technically women bishops are not yet approved, although they exist.
Views on Mary - varies; Some Anglicans adhere to the full Catholic understanding of Mary, most adhere to the understanding of Mary in the creeds, while some bishops and priests even publicly deny Jesus' virgin birth.
Major Moral Stands - The Anglican church was the first Christian group to allow its members to use birth control. In general, the Anglican communion has no overarching moral positions because each province acts independently. In most regions, a traditional understanding of morality is upheld, while in Western Anglicanism the stands are becoming increasingly liberal, including the endorsement of gay marriage and abortion on demand. However, worldwide Anglicanism has spoken out against these practices.
Major Parties/Divisions - The Anglican church consists of at least three parties. First, evangelicals (or "low church") that are opposed to elaborate ritual and uniquely Catholic doctrines and practices. Second, broad churchmen, who generally prefer to be united by common prayer and not a creed or doctrine. Third, anglo-catholics, who are practically Roman Catholics outside of communion with Rome. Today, many are a mix and match of all three. Evangelicalism is the predominate form of worldwide Anglicanism.
Major Prayers/Devotions - Book of Common Prayer, Daily Office, Rosary (traditional and Anglican rosary). Anglicanism shares many devotions with Catholics and Orthodox.

The Lutheran Church

Martin Luther

Martin Luther is credited with almost single-handedly inaugurating the Protestant Reformation, although Renaissance humanists also had a role. Luther raised many valid objections to the Catholicism of his time, and many of his concerns were addressed at the Council of Trent, and later at Vatican II.

Luther started out as a Catholic Augustinian canon, until he began to have doubts about certain Catholic Teachings, including the Catholic doctrine of justification. Luther was a strong advocate of justification by faith alone. He argued that God imputes righteousness, and that Christians are both sinners and saints at the same time. He also took issue with other Church teachings, including indulgences, and posted his 95 Theses, or 95 points for debate, to the door of the church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on June 15, 1520, as his views became more and more opposed to official Church Teaching. Luther had no intention of starting his own church, but gradually this happened. While Luther began the Reformation, he believed other reformers, including Calvin and Zwingli, went too far. As such, Luther believed in Christ's Presence in the bread and wine, baptismal regeneration, auricular confession, and held the Virgin Mary in high regard. The Lutheran liturgy retained many Catholic elements. Despite being opposed to Catholic Teaching, Luther saved much of his passion for fellow Protestants, especially Ulrich Zwingli, whose denial of the Real Presence got Luther in an uproar.

Today Lutheranism is divided into different groups, or synods. In the United States, there are 3 major Lutheran synods: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), and The Lutheran Church, Wisconsin Synod, although there are other minor ones. The ELCA tends to be the most progressive, and is involved in ecumenical dialogue, even signing an agreement with the Catholic Church stating that Catholics and Lutherans essentially agree on justification. In addition, they ordain women, have a communion-sharing agreement with the Episcopal church, and are discussing the possibility of openly gay clergy. The LCMS and LCWS remain staunchly conservative, and some people in these synods even refuse to pray together with other Lutherans.

Overview: The Lutheran Church
Numbers - 64,000,000 worldwide (see
Date founded: AD 1517
Major Figures - Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Philipp Jakob Spener, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Valid Apostolic Succession - No. Lutherans tend to view Apostolic Succession as teaching what the Apostles taught, as opposed to a visible line of succession. However, Swedish Lutherans have retained a line of succession. Some Lutheran bishops may have valid Apostolic Succession, because of consecration by Anglican bishops, some of whom from a Catholic standpoint have valid lines.
# of Sacraments - 2; Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Although Luther found Confession valuable and did not discontinue the practice, he did not view it as a sacrament.
View of Eucharist - Luther taught what has traditionally been called consubstantiation or impanation. Whereas the Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in substance (and the physical characteristics of bread and wine remain), Luther taught that the bread and wine and body and blood of Christ are mingled, so that the substance of each remains. This is why Lutherans do not adore the Eucharistic host because they would be adoring bread with the body of Christ.
Ordination standards - married and celibate men and women in many Lutheran bodies. Celibate and married men traditionally, and in many synods.
Views on Mary - often varies; Some Lutherans come close to the full Catholic understanding of Mary, although the majority probably do not. Luther himself believed that Mary was the Mother of God, ever-virgin, and had deep respect for Mary. However, Luther had issues with Marian devotion taken too far as to exclude Christ.
Major Moral Stands - Different Lutheran synods have differing understandings of morality. The ELCA tends to mirror the positions of other mainline Protestant denominations, taking more progressive positions, while the LCMS and the Wisconsin Synods uphold more traditional morality.
Major Parties/Divisions - The Lutheran Church consists of various synods, each holding differing views. The ELCA is the most progressive liturgically, theologically, and morally. The LCMS and Wisconsin Synods are more conservative in these areas and follow the original teachings of Luther and his followers more strictly.
Major Prayers/Devotions - Lutherans theoretically share some devotions with Catholics and Anglicans, including the Liturgy of the Hours, although this is not a common practice. Reading the Bible is emphasized to a large degree.


The Methodist Church

John Wesley

John and Charles Wesley essentially founded the Methodist Church, although they both died not as Methodists, but as members of the Church of England. The Wesley brothers both had profound conversion experiences while priests in the Church of England, and began to share their zeal with other Christians. John had his "heart strangely warmed" after reading Luther's Preface to Romans at the meeting of a religious society on Aldersgate Street, London. Wesley and his followers were called "Methodist" pejoratively for their methodical approach to Scriptures and holy living. Charles was known as an excellent hymn writer, and wrote such classics as "For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

Many Anglicans of the time were suspicious of the zeal of the Wesleys, since they often drew huge crowds when preaching in the open air. John also supported England in the American Revolution, which made him unpopular among many in the United States. In 1784 John made a provision for the continuance of the Methodists as a corporate body. Initially Wesley expected preachers to be ordained within the Church of England. However, this soon changed as the Methodist Church developed into its own denomination. John ordained Thomas Coke and instructed him to ordain Francis Asbury in America, a move which angered Charles greatly.

After this, various splits occurred. However, in 1907, In Great Britain, the Methodist New Connexion, The Bible Christians, and the United Methodist Free Churches (all separate denominations springing from the Methodist movement) united to form the United Methodist Church. This body later combined with the original Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Primitive Methodist Church to form "The Methodist Church" in Great Britain. In the United States the story is slightly different. The "United Methodist Church" was formed in 1968 as a union between the Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church. It continues to this day under this name. With 10 million members, it is the largest Methodist body in the world.

Methodists are now active all over the world, and many of the more conservative Methodists and Methodist break-offs are known for their strong emphasis on holiness and literal biblical interpretation. Many moderate to liberal Methodists are known for their ecumenical work and emphasis on social justice. Methodists are in ecumenical talks with the Catholic Church, and cooperation on the local level occurs often. Many Methodists defy labels, but all claim adherence, more or less, to the vision of John Wesley.

Overview: The Methodist Church
Numbers - 70,000,000 worldwide (see
Date founded: AD 1784
Major Figures - John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, George Whitefield
Valid Apostolic Succession - No. Methodists do not have the same understanding Apostolic Succession or its importance as Catholics.
# of Sacraments - 2; Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
View of Eucharist - Methodism has no real official teaching on what happens at communion, and the opinion of Methodists vary significantly, from a mere symbolic meal, to something resembling high-church Anglican theology. John and Charles Wesley had a fairly high-church Anglican view of the Eucharist. The United Methodist Church, an American body, recently affirmed a belief in some kind of real presence in the Eucharist.
Ordination standards - married men and women. Some Methodist conferences have ordained practicing homosexual persons.
Views on Mary - varies. John Wesley and Charles Wesley had fairly high views of Mary. John believed in Mary's perpetual virginity. However, most Methodists are likely unaware of the beliefs of their founder about Mary. Today many Methodist leaders deny the virginal conception of Christ.
Major Moral Stands - This depends on the particular church involved. Many Methodist bodies (including the United Methodist Church) are officially pro-choice with regards to abortion, generally strongly so. Gay marriage is often supported, but not officially. The Methodist Church opposes capital punishment, and favors embryonic stem cell research. Many conservative denominations that are based on the teachings of Wesley are strongly morally traditional.
Major Parties/Divisions - The major Methodist bodies have a mix of progressive and conservative parties. Recent national gatherings of the United Methodist Church in America show conservatives gaining power, despite many in the Methodist leadership being strongly progressive. Some related denominations, such as the Free Methodist Church, The Nazarene Church, the Wesleyan Church, and the Churches of Christ in Christian Union are strongly conservative, culturally and theologically.
Major Prayers/Devotions - In the spirit of John Wesley, many Methodist churches and break-offs emphasize personal holiness. Also, Charles Wesley's hymns are fondly appreciated by many Methodists, and are often used in worship.

Page last updated 04-05-2013


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