15. Interfaith Witness in a Changing World:: 1996 – 2006
The context for interfaith work has changed very significantly since I wrote A Wider Vision ten years ago. The aims and activities of the World Congress of Faiths, however, have continued much as before and the links with other interfaith organisations in Britain and worldwide have been maintained.
As the Millennium approached, there was a widespread hope that together the world religions could offer a moral and spiritual basis for a more just and peaceful world order. There was considerable talk of a Global Ethic and, in the year two thousand, spiritual and religious leaders from around the world met at the United Nations building. Already, however, religious extremists were hi-jacking religion to support violence and terrorism. Already there was talk of a ‘clash of civilizations.’
The attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th, 2001, together with the military action of America and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, has switched the focus of interfaith activity from the creative to the preventative. ‘The West’ and ‘the world of Islam’ have moved further apart. In Britain, the London bombings reinforced this change.
Governments have looked to faith leaders to curb the violence of some of their followers, to denounce acts of terror which are ‘justified’ by appeal to holy books, and to encourage ‘social cohesion.’ In Britain, there has been growing criticism of so-called ‘multi-culturalism’, which is a vague term which implies that each faith community maintains its own way of life, often largely apart from other communities. Instead the emphasis now is on ‘Britishness’ – an equally vague term – to which all who live in the (no longer) United Kingdom are expected to subscribe.
In fact, what is needed is balance between the freedom to affirm one’s identity with confidence and the affirmation of the values which are shared by people of faith. Rabbi Jackie Tabick, who is chairperson of WCF, has written, ‘We are dedicated both to respect for the integrity of different religious traditions and to the exploration of the potential for overlap, shared values, common spirituality and mutual acceptance at the boundaries of our religious commitments.’(1) It can be difficult to hold to a mediating position at a time of polarization and when secularists, who despise all religion, have become more vocal. Nonetheless, WCF has tried to do this, seeking to show that interfaith activity is not just an attempt to limit inter-communal strife, but offers hope for a better world and spiritual growth. We believe, writes Jackie Tabick, ‘that understanding and interaction between people of different faith-communities is important for healing suspicions, forging strong bonds of community and generating a renewed spiritual vision of justice and peace in our own societies and throughout the world.’(2)
WCF has continued to arrange a varied programme of lectures and conferences. The annual Francis Younghusband Lecture is always a significant occasion. In 1996, to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Congress, it was given by Archbishop George Carey – following the precedent set by Archbishop Robert Runcie, who gave the lecture on the fiftieth anniversary. Sadly, Archbishop Rowan Williams did not have the time to follow this example during the seventieth anniversary year.
Dr Carey, recalling that Francis Younghusband would be remembered for his travelling and exploring, chose as his theme ‘How far can we travel together?’ After describing some of the people we might meet on our journey – the syncretist, the pluralist, the universalist, the isolationist and the dogmatist – he talked about ‘dialogue’ as the primary mode of transport for our journey with people of other faiths. Although the goals of our spiritual journeys may be different, we share, he said, as fellow travellers, our common humanity, our common spiritual quest and our common longing for peace, acceptance and love.
Dr Carey stressed the need to work together to foster the recognition by all of each other’s common humanity, the importance of standing up for our co-religionists when they come under fire from the media; engaging in common action, as for example in working together to relieve suffering or to protect the environment and in upholding moral values in society. The Archbishop also welcomed the fact that members of different communities had stressed the need for a spiritual dimension to the celebrations of the new Millennium. (3)
In 1997, Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, then Principal of the Reform Jewish Leo Baeck College, (1997), spoke on ‘The Task of Rabbinic Training in the New Europe.’ He recognised that this might sound rather parochial, but following Hillel, he suggested it was good to start where we are, although with our particular identity we are also part of humanity. The founding of Leo Baeck College so soon after the Holocaust was an expression of hope. Its life, Jonathan Magonet said, has been characterised by ‘dialogue’ in the broadest sense – with people of other faiths, with teachers in Pastoral Care and Community Skills courses and with fellow students who may come from any part of Europe, from North America and even Korea. Jonathan Magonet also described the development of the annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim student conference at Bendorf in Germany. (4)
Responding to the lecture, Dr Helen Fry outlined the clergy training that she felt was appropriate for the new Europe, with both the opening up of Eastern Europe and the moves towards greater integration. (5) She suggested that training should encourage a new relationship to other faiths - both as a pastoral and as a theological concern, as well as awareness of history and cultural identity.
In 1998, Bishop Bill Swing, the inspirer of the United Religions Initiative, started by quoting these words of Lee Holby, with which the service held in San Francisco to mark fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter began:
Through the long night we have come
The sun is bright, the wars are done,
We will unite. We will be one.
A new light has begun.
Bishop Swing said it was time for the religions of the world to copy the example of the nations and to be in daily dialogue.
In 1999, to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the initiation of the Sikh Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, the Younghusband lecture was given by Dr Patwant Singh, author of The Golden Temple and other books (6). Held at the Royal Commonwealth Society, it was particularly well attended, but the venue, despite generous concessions, proved too expensive to be used again. Just as Bishop Swing began with a quotation, Dr Patwant Singh, whose theme was ‘Religious Beliefs in Renegade Times’, ended with one from the Indian Muslim poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal:
Beyond the stars
Lie other vistas ahead.
To challenge your compassion
Lie other tests ahead.
Dr Patwant Singh began by contrasting the world-wide moral authority and compassion of religion which was matched by ever more tyrannies, political evil and corrupt cabals and regimes. After highlighting the work of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, he urged the faiths together ‘to make religious reality part of our political reality.’ Collective action, he insisted, was essential ‘before human lives are lost and not after the killing fields are once again strewn with the dead and dying.’ The Sikh Khalsa, (the body of initiated Sikhs) which was established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, was evidence of the power of collective action, if it is founded on the bedrock of a people’s convictions. The United Nations should be such a vehicle but, in his view, it had been manipulated by the wealthy nations which are the permanent members of the Security Council. A strategy was needed to ‘bring the collective influence of all faiths to help those in danger of being destroyed by the waywardness of wilful leaders. Religious ethics must prevail over their paranoia.’
In 2000, the lecture was given by Dr Mato Zovick, Vicar General of Sarajevo, which had been the scene of great suffering during the war, from 1992-1995, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (7). Initially after the war, he said, each side blamed the other for all the suffering. Gradually people ‘were coming to the conclusion that war criminals on all sides should be prosecuted and that we cannot reach a stable peace without inter-ethnic trust and reconciliation.’ It was difficult to start on this because Christians thought the process of reconciliation could and should start before full justice was achieved, whereas Muslims insisted that priority should be given to justice. All faith communities wanted freedom of religion in a free and democratic society. It was important Dr Zovick said that Muslims in Europe wished not only to be tolerated but to be accepted in its political, social and cultural life.’ Dr Zovick recalled the words of Pope John Paul II on his visit to Sarajevo in 1997, that ‘the future of peace, while largely entrusted to institutional formulations, which have to be effectively drawn up by means of a sincere dialogue and in respect for justice, depends no less decisively on a renewed solidarity of minds and hearts. It is this interior attitude which must be fostered… an attitude which can only be established on the foundation of forgiveness. For the edifice of peace to be solid, against the background of so much blood and hatred, it will have to be built on the courage of forgiveness. People must know how to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.’
In 2001 the lecture was given by Professor Rita Gross of the University of Wisconsin, who is a scholar of comparative studies in religion, a feminist theologian and a Buddhist critical and constructive thinker (8). Her subject was ‘Buddhism and Social Justice’ – an exercise in Buddhist ‘theodicy.’ ‘I wish’, she said, ‘to take seriously the traditional Buddhist perspectives that multiple lifetimes occur and that karma is inherited from previous lives. But I also wish to take seriously the question of whether one can also evaluate some experiences that occur in the ‘present’, in this lifetime, as unjust or oppressive, rather than merely the result of karma inherited from past lives.’ Her concern for this issue grew out of her discomfort with the traditional Buddhist idea that female rebirth is a result of ‘bad karma.’ She argued that if Buddhists are to be concerned about social justice, in addition to practising kindness and compassion, it must be possible for them to evaluate some present occurrences as unjust and therefore needing to be changed rather than just endured.’
Responses were given by Dr Peter Moore, of the University of Kent and Sister Maureen Goodman, of the Brahma Kumaris (9). Sister Maureen ended by saying, ‘The philosophy of karma can promote social justice, but the method is not to fight against something that we feel is not right, rather to focus energy on creating something new that can be an inspiration for change in our world.’
The 2002 lecture was given by the Reform Rabbi Tony Bayfield. His subject was ‘The World Will Never Be the Same Again: September 11th and the Fundamentalist Challenge to Living Religion.’(10) ‘One of the most horrifying things that should have been apparent’ in the attack on the Twin Towers, he said, ‘was the failure, the absolute failure of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.’
Rabbi Bayfield on behalf of Satan, the prosecuting counsel, made five indictments against these three religions:
- As Jews, Christians and Muslims you have failed to recognise that you are siblings. You continue to act out the worst features of sibling rivalry that even the most dysfunctional family could possibly muster.
- None of you have confronted the challenges of your own scriptures.
- You have been seduced by Greco-Roman and later notions of imperialism into thinking that you alone are the ‘way, the truth and the life’, into thinking that your story is the only story, into thinking not only that yours is the only family on earth but that you are the only child who is loved by God, the only child who really matters, the only child who is the true heir of Abraham.
- Since the 1960s we have seen the rise of the most disfiguring feature on the face of world religion and particularly amongst you three… It is called fundamentalism.
- You have indulged in the rape of the Third World.’
Responses were given by Dr Harriet Crabtree of the Inter Faith Network of the UK and Dr Ataullah Siddiqui of the Islamic Foundation at Markfield, near Leicester.
In 2003, the lecture was given by Imam Abduljalil Sajid, who, amongst many other activities is one of international secretaries of WCF. He stressed the importance of inter-religious dialogue, which should go beyond getting to know each other. The hope was ‘that through active intellectual interaction and engagement a shared universal spiritual-moral world view would emerge which will serve as the basis for a new truly just and compassionate global civilization.’ He stressed that one of the core principles of Muslim belief is shura or ‘consultation.’ Both the Qur’an and the Hadith embrace and affirm difference in belief and perspectives. Responses were given by Dr Kamran Mofid, tireless promoter of ‘Globalization for the Common Good’ and by Mr Paul Seto. (11)
In 2004 William Dalrymple, the well known travel author, spoke on his acclaimed book, From the Holy Mountain, A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. He made particular reference to the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homelands and the isolation of surviving Christian communities there. The lecture was held at the St John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue.
The 2005 lecture, entitled ‘Devil’s Triangle: Religion, Values and Politics in a Religiously Plural World’ was given by the well known American scholar Professor Harvey Cox of Harvard University (12). The lecture was held at the Brahma Kumaris Global Co-operation House. After the lecture, Dadi Janki, who had recently become a Patron of the Congress, made a few comments. The lecture was repeated, thanks to the gracious invitation of Peggy Morgan, at the University Examination Schools in Oxford.
Cox’s theme, ‘The Devil’s Triangle’ was inspired by the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. We all struggle with how to be authentic, Cox said, in the modern world where trust is breaking down. Cox urged each religion to break the habit of thinking it has the only story. He called for religious peacemaking rather than just religious dialogue, in which people often avoided controversial issues. Cox also spoke of his own efforts to engage in conversation with ‘fundamentalist’ Christians in the USA. Those who share in interfaith activities, he said, need to reach out to others who are suspicious of this work.
In 2006 the lecture was given by Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s leading Muslim intellectuals and author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. In his work, Tariq Ramadan has reread the classical texts of Islam in the light of the new Western context in which many Muslims find themselves. In contrast to those Muslims who feel that they can only protect the values of Islam by isolating themselves from Western society, Tariq Ramadan, beginning with the message of Islam and its universal principles, has ‘investigated the tools that can give an impetus, from inside, to a movement of reform and integration into the new environments.’ These universal principles teach that wherever the law respects Muslims’ integrity and their freedom of conscience and worship, they are at home and must consider the attainments of those societies as their own and must involve themselves, with their fellow citizens, in making it good and better’ (13).
The World Congress of Faiths has continued to hold regular conferences. Several of these have been held at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies of the University of London. Two residential conferences have been held at Leicester. Some events have been held jointly with the International Interfaith Centre, for example a conference in 2001 on ‘From Conflict to Trust.’ A number of smaller gatherings, retreats and social events have also been arranged. These are all advertised and reported in copies of One Family. Here there is only room to mention a few so as to give an impression of WCF’s varied programmes, which encourage fellowship and personal friendship between members of different religions, provide an opportunity to learn more about their beliefs and to experience some of their spiritual practices. It is never forgotten that interfaith understanding is not an end in itself but should be in the service of a more just and peaceful world. Several conferences have focussed on how the faiths should address contemporary problems, as for example, a day conference in London in 1997, on ‘Wealth and Poverty in the World Religions.’
Let us take the Diamond Jubilee Year in 1996 as an example. Perhaps the most remarkable event was a tour to Nepal and Tibet. It was in Lhasa in 1903 that Sir Francis Younghusband, who founded WCF in 1936, had a decisive spiritual experience (14). After consulting the Dalai Lama, a Patron of WCF, who said it was good for people to go to Tibet ‘with their eyes open’, it seemed appropriate to mark the sixtieth anniversary with a visit to that country. After two days in Nepal, the group flew to Lhasa and from there made their way back, at a high altitude, over-land to Friendship Bridge – on the Tibet-Nepal border. The group became more aware both of the hardships experienced by the people of Tibet and the deep compassion which is at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism (15)
In addition to the Younghusband Lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, which has already been mentioned, the sixtieth anniversary was also marked by a conference arranged by the Leicester Inter-Faith Group to which members of WCF were invited. This included visits to the Jain temple, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Christian church and a Hindu temple. Everywhere the visitors were warmly welcomed, given a talk and a tour as well as generous hospitality. A very enjoyable Garden Party at the Global Retreat Centre, near Oxford by kind invitation of the Brahma Kumaris, was another special Jubilee event.
The following year, a very special visit to Westminster Abbey was arranged. After a buffet lunch in St Catherine’s Gardens in the Cloisters, the group had a tour of the Abbey and were then invited to attend evensong. In the same year, a day retreat was held at the Amaravati Buddhist Centre and a ‘Vaishnava Devotional Experience’ was held for three days at Bhaktivedanta Manor. At the latter, several participants got up by 4.30 a.m. so as to share in the Vaishnava devotions. In 1997, also, I led a small group - nicknamed ‘The Top Ten’, which was the name of the tour company - on a tour to China. Besides sight-seeing, the group met with the minister responsible for religion, attended a Roman Catholic and a Protestant service, and also visited a Confucian centre, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing and a Mosque in Xian, at the end of the Silk Road.
Two further conferences have been held in Leicester in conjunction with the Leicester Council of Faiths. Leicester, one Britain’s most multi-faith cities, has gained a good reputation for its management of relations between the very diverse communities in the city. This was underlined by the support for the conferences given by the city’s civic authorities and religious leaders. In 2003, the Mayor of Oadby welcomed participants who were also invited to a civic reception by the Deputy Lord Mayor of Leicester.
The conference in August 2001 addressed the issue of ‘The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain’ – a title borrowed from The Parekh Report. On the first evening, Robin Richardson, the editor of the Parekh Report, gave a passionate but carefully argued summary of it. He began with a quotation from Ben Okri, ‘Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and you change the individual and the nations.’ Robin Richardson divided his talk into two parts. In the first he discussed stories about Britain, concentrating on Prime Minister John Major’s confidence that in fifty years time Britain would still be ‘the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs … old maids cycling to holy communion through the early mist.’ Robin Richardson commented that the picture excluded the vast majority of Britain: women, those who lived in urban areas, and people of all faiths except a minority of Anglicans. In the second part of his talk, Robin Richardson urged members of all faith communities together to challenge religious and racial discrimination, especially in employment and public life. Other speakers included Judge Mota Singh of Southwark Crown Court and Ishatiaq Ahmed of the Bradford Council of Mosques, Sarah Tinker, a Unitarian who led a session on ‘Forgiveness’, Rev David Hart who spoke about the plans for a Multi-faith Centre at the University of Derby and Om Parkash Sharma, President of the National Council of Hindu Temples. Participants also visited several places of worship (16).
In July 2003 the theme was ‘The Future of Multi Faith Britain.’ Speakers included the Bishop of Leicester and Dr Jabal Buaben, Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian/Muslim Relations at Selly Oak, Birmingham. The significant participation by young people was a special feature of the conference. The keynote address by Ataullah Siddiqui, from the Islamic Foundation at Markfield near Leicester, ranged widely over many aspects of interfaith dialogue. He challenged faith communities to open themselves to the impact of other communities, saying that this is bound to alter each faith community’s perception of the whole picture. The differences are real, which is why it is vital to remain in dialogue. Charanjit Ajit Singh, an educationalist, who now is chair of the Trustees of the International Interfaith Centre, and Rabbi Jackie Tabick, who both belong to faith communities that are minorities both in Britain and in the world, spoke movingly about the fears and suspicions of dialogue in their communities. Fr Lally, a Catholic priest in Leicester and Ravi Gupta, a member of ISCON, led a session on ‘Why Dialogue?’ Receptions were held at the Town Hall and in the garden of the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens. (17)
In 2004, attention focused on the Parliament of World Religions, which was held in Barcelona. Prior to the Parliament, WCF arranged a preparatory meeting at the Global Retreat Centre by kind invitation of the Brahma Kumaris. I gave some background history of previous Parliaments of Religion. Celia and David Storey and Sister Maureen recalled impressions of the 1993 Parliament and Mary Braybrooke spoke about the 1999 Cape Town Parliament. Dr Josef Boehle talked about his research on institutional efforts, especially of UNESCO, to encourage dialogue. Attention was paid to how the Parliament event could be made relevant to interfaith work in the UK.
Following the Parliament, a weekend conference was arranged at Fintry House, near Godalming, at which some of those who attended shared their reactions and reflections. Special attention was given to four tasks identified at the Parliament: ‘Countering Religious Violence’, ‘Debt Relief’, ‘Refugees’ and ‘the Provision of Clean Water for All.’ The gathering at Fintry was greatly enriched by the presence of the distinguished scholar Professor Huston Smith and his wife Kendra.
At the Parliament itself several members of WCF gave presentations and WCF arranged a session on ‘Can We Pray Together?’
In 2007, the Seventieth Anniversary Year, a day Conference on ‘Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Sir Francis Younghusband,’ was held at Golders Green Unitarian Church. Professor Hal French of the University of South Carolina, a long standing member of WCF, and I gave talks. In October, an International Conference, arranged jointly with Birmingham University, was held at Birmingham, on ‘Seeking Transformation in a Fractured World.’ Earlier in the year Revd Dr Richard Boeke arranged the third in a series of conferences on ‘Fideology – Faith as Trust,’ at Croydon Unitarian Church.
WCF has tried not to forget the ‘World’ in its title. Besides its links with other international interfaith organisations, mentioned below, WCF has arranged a number of tours and overseas conferences. Conferences, in conjunction with the International Association of Religious Freedom have been held in Florida and tours to India have been arranged, especially in connection with the University of the Punjab in Pattiala in 2002 and again in 2007, in conjunction with the International Interfaith Centre. The 2002 conference was followed by a pilgrimage to Sikh holy places including an unforgettable visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar.
In addition to the national and international events, there has been a lively London programme and WCF members are active in many local interfaith councils and groups.
Several occasions have been arranged at which people of different faiths can come together in prayer and mediation. A series of well attended ‘Interfaith Celebrations of Animals’ have been held at Golders Green Unitarian Church. These have emphasised the concerns for animal welfare and for the natural world, which are to be found in all religions.
In 2002 the journal, World Faiths Encounter marked its tenth anniversary (18). The next year, the Journal underwent a metamorphosis. World Faiths Encounter became Interreligious Insight, but this was not just a change of name but a transformation. The appearance and lay out has been changed and has become more artistic. There are more poems and pictures.
The Editors explained the name in these words:
The subtitle a journal of dialogue and engagement indicates its purpose. The name has been chosen with great care in order to mirror an emerging task. Given that they have traditionally acted as overarching worldviews, the religions have long been accustomed to thinking of themselves as self-sufficient, supplying their own separate vision of sacred truth. That era has now passed. It is the space between convictions that commands more and more of our attention. We are for Dialogue and Engagement.
Take Dialogue first. There is the assumption that no one religion possesses the fullness of religious truth. Our convictions are precisely that, our convictions, fallible intimations of a transcendent reservoir of being and value. Dialogue implies that we have as much to receive as to give to one another.
What now of Engagement? The journal will reflect on practical projects, examples where faith-communities are working together in order to make a difference. What ethical values are being harnessed, or even generated, when people enter relationships of truth? Its (the journal’s) pages will provide opportunities for hearing varying voices – voices crossing spiritualities and embracing practitioners from many different contexts around the world.’ (19)
Rev Dr Alan Race and Professor Seshagiri Rao have continued as editors and have been joined by Jim Kenney, a former international director of the Parliament of Religions and now heading the Interreligious Engagement Project. The journal – now more international, although mainly an Anglo-American initiative – is sponsored by the World Congress of Faiths, Common Ground and the Interreligious Engagement Project. The journal is beautifully produced and full of well written and relevant articles written by interfaith activists and scholars. The difficulty persists. However attractive the journal, how does one attract new readers?
The newsletter One Family, started for the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation in 1993, proved so popular that it has continued as way to link members together and to make a wide variety of interfaith events known to a wider public. Jean Potter edited One Family from 1993 to 2002, when she was succeeded by Dr Joy Barrow. One Family is now available electronically or as a printed newsletter.
Jean Potter’s interest in interfaith activity dates back to her time in the sixties in Nyasaland, now called Malawi. Jean was asked to lead a Guide company of Asian girls who met on a Friday afternoon in the grounds of the local mosque. When she and her husband David, who was teaching in Nyasaland, returned to Britain in the late nineteen-sixties, she became Community Relations Adviser to the Girl Guide Association. In this capacity, she approached WCF for suggestions of suitable speakers about the various religions. In due course she became a member of the Executive and with David, who for several years was Hon. Secretary and the effective organiser of the Congress, they have given devoted service to the Congress and were regular contributors to the various events arranged by the Congress. They have also been active in developing interfaith activity in Exeter and the surrounding area.
Dr Joy Barrow, the present editor of One Family and a member of the WCF Executive, is now the Director of the International Interfaith Centre. A former teacher, she has long experience of interfaith activity. She has particularly close links with the Sikh community and her doctorate was on aspects of Sikhism.
WCF has also published two books during this period: one on Interfaith Worship and the other on ‘the Global Ethic.’
The World Congress of Faiths has been a pioneer of interfaith worship, which after much initial opposition, is now becoming more common (20). To assist those in what is sometimes also called ‘multi-faith prayer’, Jean Potter and I edited a resource book entitled All in Good Faith, which was published by WCF in 1997 (21). The book has sold well and been quite influential.
All in Good Faith is dedicated to the memory of Sir Alan Richmond, who was a generous supporter of WCF. It is in three parts. The first section includes a chapter which tells of the historical development of interfaith services and the discussion which has taken place about them. It also includes articles by a member of each world religion on the attitude of his or her faith to the subject. The second part is an anthology of brief quotations from different faith traditions on topics such as ‘Freedom and Justice’, ‘Human Dignity’, or ‘Together in Times of Trouble.’ The third part reproduces a variety of interfaith celebrations and observances.
Testing the Global Ethic was also published by WCF, together with the International Interfaith Centre and CoNexus Press (22). Edited by Peggy Morgan and myself, it was designed to stimulate discussion, especially among young people, of the Global Ethic which was endorsed by many of the Assembly members at the 1993 Parliament of World Religions (23). ‘The Declaration Towards a Global Ethic’ invites people to make four commitments:
- to a culture of non-violence and respect for life,
- to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order,
3. to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness,
4. to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
Members of several faith traditions were asked to indicate how far these four commitments are rooted in their faith tradition and what their application would involve for them. A further section invited comments on how spiritual practice could assist the ‘transformation of life.’ The book includes quotations from the scriptures of the world and a selection of photographs. Letters of commendation were received from Kofi Anan, Secretary General of the United Nations, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The book sold quite well, but it was a little too early for the teaching of ‘citizenship’ which is now taking place in some schools and for which it would have been a useful resource. Copies were given to members of the Assembly at the Cape Town Parliament of World Religions.
In 1997 Hugh Adamson, succeeded me as Chairperson. Hugh was born in Britain but had lived for several years in Canada before moving back in 1987 to Britain to take up the post of Secretary General of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is of the UK. This position had increasingly involved him in interfaith work and he had served for some years on the WCF executive. He was also a founder member of the Institute for the Healing of Racism and a member of the Refugee Council.
The 1997 AGM also saw other changes. Rev Dr Edward Carpenter became a Patron, joining His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Lord Menuhin. Subsequently Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Diana Eck and Dadi Janki, Additional Adminstrative Head of the Brahma Kumaris, also agreed to become Patrons. Shahin Bekradnia, a Zoroastrian, was elected Hon. Secretary.
Sadly for the Congress, after only a year Hugh Adamson decided to return to North America, and therefore also resigned as chairperson. I was asked temporarily to act as chairperson until the following year, when Rev Dr Richard Boeke, a Unitarian, was elected. Richard grew up in the USA and graduated at Yale Divinity School and the Pacific School of Religion. A short time serving as a chaplain in the US Air Force made him so aware of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons that he resolved to dedicate himself to a ministry of peacemaking. He served as a minister in Berkeley, California, for twenty one years and then came to England in 1994 as minister of the Unitarian church in Sevenoaks. He is now minister of the Unitarian church in Horsham, Sussex, where his wife Jopje had previously been the minister. Richard has played an active part in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and was founding president of the US chapter.
At the same time (1999) as Richard was elected to the chair, Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick was elected as vice-chairperson. In 1975 she was ordained as Britain’s first woman rabbi and worked for over twenty five years with Rabbi Hugo Gryn at the West London Synagogue. She then became the rabbi at the North West Surrey Synagogue in Weybridge. Jackie plays an active role in the life of the Reform Synagogues of the UK and in a number of interfaith organisations. In 2002, she succeeded Richard as chairperson. Writing in One Family (24), she said, ‘As we watch the news with horror, it is evident that the task we have set ourselves has become more urgent than ever. We need to bring the message to the widest possible audience that one can be a committed and active member of your own faith while not just learning about, but also learning from other faiths, fully respecting each other’s rights to be different, rejoicing in the differences. For there is just one creation, one world and we are all inter-related.’
In I999, I was invited to become Joint President with the distinguished theologian Professor Keith Ward. He subsequently resigned because of other commitments, but, especially through his writings, he has continued to argue for dialogue and co-operation between the great religions. In his recent book The Case for Religion, about which he spoke at a WCF meeting in 2005, he suggests that in the fourth stage of humanity’s religious history, which we are now entering, religion is seen ‘as a process of spiritual exploration …which gives human life an ultimate meaning, as people … live in conscious relation to a supreme spiritual value.’ He adds ‘that people will be able to accept other spiritual paths as different ways of seeking such realisation, not just as rivals but as valuable and complementary forms of life.’ (25)
The Congress also has a distinguished panel of Vice Presidents. In 1988 Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who is one of them, was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
The continuing work of the Congress has been largely made possible by the unpaid voluntary efforts of all the officers and members of the Executive Committee. Recent copies of One Family have had profiles of several members of the Executive Committee. The Congress has also been blessed by the dedicated work of the part time organizers. Diana Hanmer had been secretary to Bishop George Appleton when he was editing the Oxford Book of Prayer and had already met many WCF members when she accompanied him to gatherings at Ammerdown, before she took up her work for WCF. Tony Reese also had wide interfaith experience, especially in Bristol, before he started his work for the Congress. He is also very at home with modern technology, which, he is confident, can be an instrument to develop inter-cultural and interfaith contacts.
‘In Happy Remembrance’
Sadly, the last decade has seen the death of several leading members of the Congress.
Lord Menuhin, who had been a Patron of WCF for many years, died in 1999. A Jew by birth, Yehudi Menuhin, a world renowned musician, found inspiration in all the great faiths. The Thanksgiving Service for his life, held at Westminster Abbey, ended with these words written by Yehudi Menuhin himself. ‘Grant me the inspiration you have provided humanity and encourage me to revere and follow those living examples who enshrine your spirit – the spirit within and beyond each of us - the spirit of the One and Many – the illumination of Christ, of Buddha, of Lao-tzu and of the prophets, sages, philosophers, poets, writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, all creators and artists, and all selfless people, the saints and the mothers, the known and the unknown, the exalted and the humble – men, women and children of all times and all places – whose spirit and example remains with us and in us for ever.’ (26)
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, widely known and very popular, especially for his great repertoire of stories, died in 1996. He was a member of WCF for nearly thirty years and vice-chair for several years. In 1967, a memorable All Faiths Service, at which HH the Dalai Lama spoke, was held in the West London Synagogue, where he was the rabbi. He was involved from the earliest days in the plans to set up the Inter Faith Network of the UK and served with Bishop Jim Thompson as co-chair. He also was co-chair with Edward Carpenter of the Rainbow Group, which played an important part in the seventies in developing dialogue. Having himself experienced the evils of Nazi prejudice, Hugo believed passionately that people of faith are called together to help create a just, peaceful and caring society.
The Very Reverend Edward Carpenter KCVO, who was President of WCF from 1966 to 1997, when he was elected a Patron, died in 1998. Edward, who was born in 1910 became a Canon of Westminster Abbey in 1951 and was Dean from 1974 to 1985. He was introduced to the Congress in the nineteen fifties by Lady Ravensdale, the then President. For a time he also acted as chairperson for Bishop George Appleton, until George returned to Britain from Jerusalem. Edward and Lilian regularly attended WCF meetings and conferences. He chaired the group that produced the WCF report Inter-Faith Worship and it was he who welcomed the annual Commonwealth Day Multi-faith Observance to Westminster Abbey. Edward was active in many other interfaith organisations and author of several books, including a biography of Archbishop Fisher. As long ago as 1969 he wrote, ‘at a time of division and fratricidal strife, the great faiths of the world, within their continuing witness in depth, ought to be able to contribute something to the healing of the world’s ills.’
Viscount Michael Combermere, who died in 2001, served on the Executive for many years and was chairman from 1983 to 1988,. As head of Extra Mural Studies at London University, he developed a wide-ranging programme of religious studies. He also arranged a number of conferences in conjunction with WCF. He and Lady Combermere organised a very enjoyable fund-raising concert at the Fishmongers Hall.
Many other people have made a very valuable contribution to the life of the Congress. There is room only to mention a few, who served on the Executive.
Margot Tennyson, a member of the Society of Friends, served on the Executive for many years and played an active part in the Hampstead Interfaith Group. She died in 1999. Margot came to England at the age of 18 in 1939, as a refugee from Nazi germany. After the war, she ah dhe rhusband Hallam Tennyson, went to India and stayed at an ashram where she met Gandhi who called her ‘My little Jewish sister.’ In he rlast year, she initiated an event in preparation for the Millennium on ‘Universal Love’ which was held at friend’s House the day before she died.
Peter Talbot Wilcox, who served on the Executive Committee, from 1992 died in September 2000. He regularly attended conferences and lectures and hosted a Garden Party in his beautiful garden at Shamley Green, Surrey. A shipbroker by profession, in 1989 he took on the work of Alison Barnard’s Centre for Spiritual and Psychological Studies from which grew the Religious Education and Environment programme (REEP).
Rosita Conway, a member of the West London Synagogue, who died in 2002, served for many years on the Executive. She was an enthusiastic and generous supporter.
Another long serving member of the Executive who died in 2002 was Amar Singh Chhatwal, who from 1962 was managing editor of The Sikh Courier International. His enthusiastic and friendly presence at many lectures and conferences has been much missed.
Nadi Dinshaw, who died in December 2002, was a long standing and generous supporter of WCF, as of so many charities. Nadir grew up as a Zoroastrian, but in his mid thirties he became a Christian. He always felt both religions were part of him. He was introduced to WCF by Edward Carpenter.
Ivy Gutridge, MBE, who was a Vice President of WCF died in 2004 – ‘a lovely person’, as so many people said in their tributes to her. It was largely her initiative and ready gift for friendship that led to the founding and steady growth of the Wolverhampton Inter-Faith Group, which has been a role model for similar developments elsewhere. Ivy was a founding member of the Inter Faith Network and served for a time as its Vice-chair. She was also an active member of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. As a Muslim friend said at the Service of Thanksgiving for her life, ‘I would recommend her for sainthood.’
Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who was born in Germany and who witnessed the destruction of Kristlnacht, devoted his life after the War to building bridges between faiths, especially between Jews and Christians. A sensitive and compassionate person, Albert was much loved. He was a prolific author and Dean of Leo Beck College. Albert, who died in 2004, was a Vice President of the WCF and Chair for several years of the Committee for the Week of Prayer for World Peace.
In 2005, another Vice President, Professor Geoffrey Parrinder died. Geoffrey, after training at Richmond College, went to the French colony on Dahomey in Africa to serve as a missionary in the Methodist Church there. From 1949- 1958 he lectured at the University College of Ibadan in Nigeria. His first book, West African Religion, was published in 1949. It was followed by numerous other works, which between them covered almost all religions. He was the editor of the encyclopaedia Man and his Gods. In 1958, Geoffrey returned to Britain to teach at King’s College, London. Many of his students have made a significant contribution to the study of religions and interfaith work. He was a President of the London Society of Jews and Christians, a founding member of the SHAP Working Party on World Religions in Education. Geoffrey made a significant contribution to the WCF booklet, Interfaith Worship. (27)
David Patterson, CBE, also a Vice President of WCF, died in December 2005. His greatest achievement was the establishment of what is now the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Yarnton Manor, near Oxford. He was deeply concerned to rebuild Jewish scholarship after the devastation of the Holocaust. Hist studies led him to recognise the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Early in 2006, Zaki Badawi, an outstanding Muslim leader passed away. He was born in Cairo in 1922 and earned his doctorate at Al-Azhar University. After a few years in London in the fifties and then in Nigeria, in 1978, he was appointed the first chief imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque and director of the Islamic Cultural centre. There he encouraged meetings and dialogue with the neighbouring West London Synagogue and St John’s Wood parish church. Zaki was horrified that hardly any of the other imams in Britain could speak English, so, in 1986, he founded the Muslim College to train imams who would be at home in British society. In 1997, with Sir Sigmund Sternberg and myself, he helped to establish the Three Faiths Forum. His wide experience made him a trusted adviser of the government and of royalty. As Rabbi Jackie Tabick has said, ‘He bridged so many gaps, between faiths, between cultures, between generations, between traditional and modern Islamic learning; he will be sorely missed.’ (28)
Vera Harley, M.B.E, who was endowed with a wonderful gift for friendship, was a popular, active and long standing member of WCF. She died in 2006.It was her work as International Secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) that first brought Vera into touch with WCF. Vera quickly became an active and enthusiastic member – regularly coming to conferences and joining in a WCF tour to India. Vera was conscientious member of the Executive and always deeply interested in the business in hand. Vera represented WCF on the Week of Prayer for World Peace Committee, and also at a conference of the Temple of Understanding. Vera was elected a Vice President of WCF and also awarded a M.B.E. In 1999, Vera wrote Faiths in Friendship: Twenty-five Years with the World Congress of Faiths – a lively account of the Congress. Vera chaired the Expansion Committee and – a WCF highlight - arranged a fund raising recital by Rosalind Runcie at Lambeth Palace. Vera was the life and soul of WCF tours to India – interested in everything and making friends with everyone. On one occasion, Vera was dressed in a purple suit. Bishop George Appleton greeted her, saying, ‘I see you’re wearing the purple, Vera.’ ‘Not in my life time I fear,’ she replied – but what a bishop she would have been!
Many others deserve a mention. Amongst them are Louis de Pinna, who served on the Executive Committee for several years and was, for a time, chairperson of the London Group and Edward Bradby, a former Principal of Royal College, Colombo and of St Paul’s College, Cheltenham, who attended many conferences. Bill and Joan Steiner, mentioned above, were long standing members of the Congress. Bill served on the Executive and he also tirelessly recorded lectures and talks given at conferences. This treasure store of material deserves careful research. Joan chaired the Wellingborough branch of WCF for many years.
Annette Franco, was another enthusiastic and active member of the Congress, died in 2002. In particular, she organised and energetically recruited participants in a WCF London programme, which included visits to temples, mosques, synagogues and churches. She also gave help with finances in the office.
Several overseas friends of the Congress have died in the last ten years. Joel Beversluis is particularly missed. He was editor and owner of Co-Nexus Press, which specialised in interfaith literature. Joel published A Source Book for the Earth’s Community of Religions and co-published with WCF Testing the Global Ethic.
Father Luis Dolan, was a long standing member of the Temple of Understanding. He had extensive contacts at the United Nations and he shared over several years with members of WCF others in the planning for Sarva Dharma Sammelana in 1993 in Bangalore.
Juliette (Judith) Hollister, founder and President of the Temple of Understanding, and Chief Priest Yamamoto, a President of the International Association for Religious Freedom, were good friends to the Congress. More recently the death of Brother Wayne Teasdale, a visionary interfaith pioneer and author, has been a sadness to his many friends. (29)
I had not expected this section to be so large, but essentially WCF is a fellowship, which means it is a story of people. The mention of some names – and there are many more – is a reminder of the wide ranging influence of the World Congress of Faiths, which is exercised through its members and their various activities just as much as through WCF’s programmes and publications. It is right too that we remember those who ‘were intelligent advisers and uttered prophetic sayings and who directed people by their advice, by their understanding of the popular mind and by the wise words of their teaching.’ (30)
In 2002, WCF adopted a logo, which is a four hexagon symbol. The four parts symbolise the vision of a meeting of faith traditions, from North, East, West and South. Each tradition relates to the whole, but it preserves its own identity. The hexagon becomes a honeycomb, which is a reminder of the sweetness of life. The hive is a reminder of our spiritual home, where we are renewed in trust, hope and compassion. ‘Like bees we co-operate with the flowers in enriching life.’
WCF also adopted the motto ‘Faith meeting faith: a rich resource for life.’
Despite the increased concern for good relations between faith communities, there has been little increase in WCF’s membership. Partly, this is because of the rapid and welcome growth of local interfaith councils and groups, of which there are now over two hundred, and because faith communities increasingly invite members of other faiths as guests and speakers at their events. This means that there are, in many parts of the country, plenty of opportunities to meet with members of other faiths, although this is still only a minority activity and even fewer people invite members of other religions into their homes.
There is, however, still an important place for the World Congress of Faiths. The Congress is a membership organisation for individuals who seek fellowship with those of other religious traditions – it not a body of representatives. This gives it a certain freedom to explore. Further, beside the vital efforts to encourage social cohesion and practical interfaith work for peace and justice, relief of suffering and the protection of the environment, WCF has always recognised that interfaith friendship can assist a person’s spiritual growth. Learning what others believe may encourage one to reflect more deeply upon one’s own convictions. Experiencing other people’s spiritual practices, may enrich one’s own spiritual exploration.
There are many reasons why people of different religions are meeting and working together. If, however, interfaith activity becomes just a branch of ‘religious community relations’ – important as this is - and is not deeply rooted in the Spirit, the moderates in all religions may not be strong enough to withstand the extremists and, God forbid, further terrorist attacks. The only secure basis for the affirmation of the sacredness of all human life is the belief that every person is a child of the One God.