14. In the Great Unity, We are Members One of Another: Conclusion

A Wider Vision: A History of the World Congress of Faiths, 1936 - 1996
by Marcus Braybrooke

14. In the Great Unity, We are Members One of Another: Conclusion

The World Congress of Faiths has not become the world organization that Sir Francis dreamed of: yet there is now a worldwide movement for inter-religious understanding. The World Congress of Faiths has also not gained large popular support: yet there has been a significant shift in attitudes about the relation of religions to each other.

A Changing World

It is never easy to assess the achievements of an organization concerned with public education. A full study would require more detailed analysis both of the changing social and political scene and of theological developments.

Younghusband, as we have seen, has been described by his biographer as the ‘last great imperial adventurer’. By the time the Congress met in 1936, albeit unbeknown to the participants, the days of the British Empire were numbered. Many who enthusiastically supported the Congress, however, had been schooled in imperial service and were deeply interested in the various religious beliefs and practices of those who belonged to the Empire.

In the years after the Second World War, the number of people in Britain who retained this world concern declined. Interest in world religions was a minority pursuit.

It was not until the mid seventies that religious and political leaders in Britain began to become aware of the growing Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in some of Britain’s larger cities.

Even then, with the decline of church going, there was a widespread feeling that religion was a matter for the individual in his or her private life. The social importance of the fact that Britain was becoming multi-religious as well as multi-racial and multi-cultural was largely ignored.

It was not until the late eighties that the relevance of religions to social and political life began to be recognized, even by those who were not personally committed members of a faith community. This was for two reasons. One was negative, as people suddenly woke up to divisive power of religious extremism and inter-religious hostility not only in the Lebanon or Sri Lanka, but after the Salman Rushdie affair, in Britain itself. Recent tragic events in former Yugoslavia and the evidence of increasing anti-Semitism and xenophobia in many parts of Europe have confirmed how serious a threat religious extremism is to social stability. Whereas at one time religious news in the papers mostly consisted of stories about clergy caught up in a sexual scandal, now most serious newspapers give careful coverage to developments in the life of the different faith communities. Religion is seen, for good or ill, to have an impact on the life of the whole community.

The positive reason for renewed attention to religion is the growing recognition that the major issues that face humanity, such as how to provide for the millions who are starving in poverty or how to protect the environment or questions of genetic engineering, have a profound spiritual and moral dimension. With the collapse of communism, the United Nations, in its many programmes, can now acknowledge the relevance of spiritual and ethical concerns. Further, the recognition that so many problems are global ones has encouraged more people to think in world terms and to recognize that the involvement of religious people in public debate has to be multi-religious.

This new situation, both in world and national terms, means that there is a wider recognition today by those who shape public opinion, even if they are themselves not religious, of the importance of the sort of work that the World Congress of Faiths has been trying to do for sixty years.

Much of the work is in fact being done by other bodies. Members of WCF could be excused for feeling a little jealous of new comers to the scene who have grown more rapidly. Yet the purpose of WCF has never been to create a large organization but to change the attitude of members of the great religions to each other.

The fact that many members of one religion now look on members of other religions as friends rather than as enemies is a sign of a considerable alteration in religious relationships to which WCF, along with other groups, has made a valuable contribution. At the leadership level of many faith communities, there has been a dramatic change of attitude over the last sixty years, but this has been matched, in other quarters, by a dangerous increase of religious extremism and hostility. The work of bodies like WCF now has the endorsement of many religious leaders at a time when the evils of religious extremism are all too apparent. It is by no means clear either in Britain or on the world scene whether the future lies with inter-religious understanding and co-operation or with religious rivalry and hatred. What is clear is the enormous consequences of the path that is chosen – consequences summed up in the slogan ‘dialogue or die’.

A Pioneering Body

WCF has been a pioneering body. Its influence is partly to be seen in the establishment of organizations specializing in concerns to which WCF was amongst the first to draw attention. WCF, as we have seen, from its early days voiced the need for the study of world religions in universities and schools. The change in the shape of RE in the last fifty years has been remarkable. WCF was probably the first organization to arrange occasions at which people of different religions could pray together. Fifty years after the first Congress, the Pope invited leaders of the world’s religions to the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi. Interfaith prayer has now become quite a widespread, if still controversial, practice. WCF started a few local interfaith groups. Now there are such groups in most parts of Britain. In the eighties, WCF brought together international interfaith organizations. Now plans are well developed to establish an International Interfaith Centre. More examples of WCF’s pioneering role can be seen by looking back at previous chapters. This is not to claim all the credit for WCF. Many others, including theologians and scholars in the study of religions, have helped create a changed awareness about the relationship of religions to each other. It is, however, to acknowledge WCF’s influence, even if in organizational terms WCF remains very fragile. Some years ago the BBC’s Religious Affairs correspondent Douglas Brown, rightly in my opinion, spoke of the World Congress of Faiths as a ‘comparatively small but very significant’ body (1).

Today, WCF continues its pioneering role. It is, for example, stimulating reflection between members of different religions about the nature of multi-faith prayer. It is also encouraging discussion of the sensitive issues surrounding mixed faith marriages. Both of these are controversial but important subjects. WCF has also recognized that interfaith concerns now have an impact on many aspects of life and are not just of interest to religious professionals. For example, WCF has arranged conferences to look at how people of different faiths in the caring professions should minister to the elderly and to the dying. WCF has also given attention to questions about the possibility of recognizing moral values which are shared by members of the world religions.

The value of WCF’s work will depend on the quality of its contribution to the discussion of important issues. This suggests that instead of the large conferences of the seventies, WCF’s meetings may be smaller and more focussed on particular topics. The discussion should also be followed up by working parties and the preparation of publications. Already, WCF has a great asset in its journal.

It has always been difficult to attract significant funding for such pioneering work, although sometimes it can be found for specific projects. This is why WCF has throughout its history been so dependent on voluntary effort. It may also be that WCF’s membership has remained quite small, not only because WCF has been poor at publicity and self-promotion, but also because its outlook has been ahead of its time. Many of its members have been highly gifted and original people, who had a wider vision.

A Wider Vision

It is this wider vision which perhaps is still a distinctive characteristic of WCF. There are many good reasons to recognize the importance of understanding and co-operation between members of different faith communities, such as the evident suffering caused by religious prejudice, the need to live together harmoniously in a multi-faith society, a desire to understand our neighbour’s beliefs and practices, the search for shared values and the hope that people of different religions can together address the urgent challenges that face our world. Such concerns have inspired different members of WCF. They all, however, at their deepest spring from a sense of a common humanity and of a spiritual unity that transcends religious particularity. In the presence of the Ultimate Mystery all are at one.

This is why WCF has had to be a fellowship of like-minded individuals, albeit of different religions, rather than a body consisting of representatives of particular faith communities. For the discovery of the wider vision is intensely personal and has been called a second conversion – the first conversion being to a living faith. Kathleen de Beaumont wrote:

The basic fact of our spiritual attainment is and must be an individual one. The awakening to the spiritual life becomes a reality when man of his own free will opens wide his soul, when he becomes attuned to those divine vibrations within and around him of which for so long he has remained unconscious – when the flood of Being possesses him and he becomes aware of union with his Source’. (That union also inspires a sense of unity with others, whatever their religious label). We believe that, in the Great Unity, we are members one of another (2).

Many of those who have played a significant part in the life and work of WCF have had some such personal spiritual experience, which Archbishop Runcie described in words borrowed from Paul Tillich:

In the depth of every religion there is a point at which religion itself loses its importance and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence (3).

This is not the only motive for seeking inter-religious dialogue, but it gives a distinctive feel to the contribution WCF has made and continues to make to the very varied interfaith movement. This is why the growth of other interfaith organizations, many more powerful and better organized, has not replaced the need for the World Congress of Faiths to provide a fellowship for all, of whatever religion, who have sensed with Dean Inge that ‘God does not mind whether he is called Dieu or Allah or Brahma or even Bog.’

The emphasis in the early days of the World Congress of Faiths was on the transcendent unity. Today the richness of diversity is equally appreciated. Yet still WCF, as a fellowship of people of faith working together for peace, justice, the relief of need and the preservation of the planet, is nourished by spiritual experience of communion with the Ultimate – an experience in which human barriers are dissolved. It is this experience which WCF has sought to embody in its fellowship and in its varied activities. The Congress continues, as Younghusband hoped, ‘to awaken a wider consciousness and to offer people a vision of a happier world-order in which the roots of fellowship strike down deep to the Central Source of all spiritual loveliness’ (4).