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Overview of Christianity in Britain

Of the religions practised in modern Britain, Christianity is the most long-established and widely observed. It was first brought to Britain during the days of the Roman empire. There are, in fact, forty churches still in regular use, parts of which date from that period. With the departure of the legions and the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth century Christianity was reduced to pockets of support in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This situation changed with the arrival of missionaries sent by the Pope led by Augustine in 597. The next few centuries saw Christianity established throughout Britain. Augustine, meanwhile, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the holder of which position remains the most important figure in the Church of England.

Bishops were also established in a number of other centers, and by the end of the eleventh century a system of dioceses and parishes had been established across much of England. This system, with the creation of additional parishes and dioceses in the nineteenth century to cope with population growth and urban development, remains the basis of the structure of the Church of England. The Reformation of the sixteenth century did not disturb this structure. It did, however, fracture the Christian community in the British Isles. Links with Rome were broken and an established church owing its allegiance to the English crown replaced the medieval Church in England, Wales and Ireland. In Scotland it was replaced by the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Roman Catholicism survived in strength only in Ireland.

The Reformation was followed by further divisions. Conflicts over theology, church order and freedom of conscience led to a series of secessions from the Church of England in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These Free Churches, as they are now called, were joined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Methodist products of the Evangelical Revival. This and the resurgence of Roman Catholicism throughout Britain in the course of the nineteenth century, largely as a result of immigration, particularly from Ireland, produced an increasingly diverse religious scene. Further immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has added to this diversity. There are now over 200 different Christian denominations in Britain.


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