7. Keeping Up With a Changing World: 1968-96
For most of the period since 1966, I have been on the Executive Committee of WCF and for much of the time an officer, either as Hon. Secretary, Editor of the journal or Chairman. There have been many changes of personnel, but the story has been sadly repetitive and reminiscent of the British economy since the Second World War. The recurring problem has been lack of money. Some fresh initiative which has increased activity and interest has created too much work for the over-burdened secretariat. The inability to raise significant funds may reflect a lack of clarity about the purposes and identity of the Congress.
This chapter will tell the story of the organization up to 1996 – the Sixtieth Anniversary. There have been, over the past thirty years, many changes of officers and repeated attempts to redefine WCF’s role in a changing world. In subsequent chapters, we shall consider the main activities of the Congress.
In July 1965, I was one of four people approached by Lord Sorensen to consider being put forward for the post of Hon. Secretary. Rev John Rowland had resigned because he was moving to Kent, although he continued as Hon. Treasurer. Soon afterwards Fr Lev Gillet indicated his wish to resign. At the AGM early in 1966, Rev Tom Dalton, a Unitarian minister in North London and I were elected Joint Hon Secretaries. I soon became responsible for planning the annual service and annual conference whilst Tom Dalton looked after the business concerns.
I was busy as a curate in Highgate and had a young family. They and Mary came to the conferences, but I had too little time and Tom Dalton was equally busy. After a short while, in 1967, Miss Olive Dearlove, a very faithful office secretary who travelled from Hove – another Unitarian – resigned. Her place was taken by Miss Kathleen Richards, who had already taken on organizing the London lecture programme. Miss Richards became Hon. Gen Secretary. She had enormous enthusiasm and wrote long friendly handwritten letters to anyone who showed any interest in WCF. She could write equally long irate letters when she disagreed with the officers or the Executive! Several members gave her voluntary help, especially Gladys Ludbrook, who was an active Unitarian and deeply committed member of WCF, and who was at every conference welcoming members, giving them their badges and telling them the number of their room.
Gradually Tom Dalton found himself able to give less and less time to WCF. He resigned in 1968. By this time, Rev Eirion Phillips, Minister of Essex Hall Unitarian Church in Notting Hill, had become Treasurer. Rev John Rowland, in his time as Treasurer, had patiently conducted the negotiations which led to the sale of Younghusband House and also the revision of the Constitution required by the Charity Commissioners.
In 1972, Lord Sorensen died. After a while, George Appleton who was at the time Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem agreed to become chairman. Dr Edward Carpenter, who was President, deputized until George Appleton retired from Jerusalem and was back in Britain. This was not until 1974. On his return, George Appleton gave considerable attention to WCF.
George Appleton, as we have seen, had been active in WCF in the late fifties and early sixties. Indeed throughout his life he was concerned for sympathetic understanding between the faiths of the world. An unusual and varied ministry brought him into contact with people of many faiths. He served his curacy in Stepney, where forty per cent of the parishioners were Jewish. Almost in the first week, his rector said to him, ‘Tomorrow is the Day of Atonement. You had better attend the closing hour of it in the synagogue in Rectory Square. I will arrange it with my friend, the rabbi. Don’t forget to wear a hat’ (1). Two years later, in 1927, Appelton was on his way as a missionary to Burma, where he was to serve until after the Second World War. In the fifties, Appleton became a secretary of the Conference of British Missionary Societies. Then after working in the city of London, he became Archbishop of Perth in Western Australia and then Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, a position which involved extensive travelling throughout the Middle East.
George Appelton had high hopes for WCF, although lack of resources largely frustrated them. He believed that WCF had a unique role.
It could become the ecumenical centre of the various religious societies. We could make a contribution to world peace if we could only get representatives of the religions thinking together about the problems of peace and war, about the homeless and the hungry.
He hoped conferences could be held in different countries. He thought WCF should seek to co-operate with UNA, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, the Temple of Understanding and other bodies. WCF needed to establish an inter-religious information bureau along the lines of Interreligio in the Netherlands. He suggested an award along the lines of the Nobel Peace Prize for the greatest contribution to inter-faith understanding (2).
In a sermon that he preached at my church in Frindsbury, Kent, he outlined why he felt the encounter of religions was so urgent. There was greater contact between people of different faiths; the non-Christian faiths had undergone a great revival, people everywhere were concerned about the condition of the world with its widespread war, want and hunger; the world-wide missionary activity of the Church had stimulated thinking on the most profound questions whilst the scientific outlook had led to a questioning of all religion. Archbishop Appleton then sketched a world history of the development of religions, leading to the encounter and dialogue of the present century. He suggested that Christians should look for signs of God’s activity in all religions and believe that Jesus Christ is relevant to all, whilst expecting to learn more of God from others. The aim he said was
not to amalgamate all religions in one syncretistic man-made religion, but to provoke one another towards the ultimate truth, emulate one another in love and service and work together for a new order in the affairs of men, when the vision of God’s good world shall come closer to fulfilment and men shall live together in peace, enjoying the wonderful world that God and men together can make possible. (3).
In another sermon, preached in Canterbury Cathedral during the Fortieth Anniversary Conference of WCF, Appleton suggested that ‘each religion has a mission, a gospel, a central affirmation… good news not only for its own people but for all humanity’. He gave, hesitantly, some examples:
The Muslim emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the duty of submission to the will of Allah; the Jewish loyalty to the Torah, the Law of the Lord for both individual and national life, insights and obligations for man in society; the Hindu faith that the spirit of man and the Spirit of the Universe are akin, Tat Tvam Asi; the Zoroastrian insight that personal life and human history are a never-ending struggle between the good and the evil, truth and the lie; the Buddha’s diagnosis of the desire and greed, lust and attachment that is at the root of man’s frustration and suffering, and that the way of freedom lies through following the Noble Eight-fold Path; the Christian belief that God manifested himself, his nature and his will in Jesus of Nazareth, whose acceptance of the Cross revealed the unlimited love of God.’ ‘Each of us’, he concluded, ‘needs to enlarge on the gospel which he has received, without wanting to demolish the gospel of others (4).
In an attempt to raise the public profile of WCF, George Appleton suggested that HH the Dalai Lama and Mr Yehudi Menuhin (later Lord Menuhin) should be invited to succeed Dr Radhakrishnan as Patrons of WCF. Both accepted the invitation.
Another suggestion Appleton made was that WCF should arrange a large meeting with major speakers. He agreed himself to fly back from Jerusalem to participate. An approach was made to Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to enquire whether he would agree to speak. His letter declining the invitation reveals the suspicions of WCF that were widespread in the Anglican Church at that time.
‘I cannot’, Ramsey wrote, ‘honestly see myself happily taking part in a function of this kind, especially when the World Congress of Faiths is the sponsoring body’. His first objection was that, although Christians should show reverence towards other faiths, he did not believe that “religion” was a banner under which all should unite as if it contained the essence of what is good versus “irreligion” as its opposite. ‘Not all “religion” is good, and some of the religion under the Hindu banner seems to be very bad indeed’. He was willing to join in a human rights platform, but not a “religions” platform. His other objection was that he felt the ‘World Congress of Faiths’ ideology is being used by non-Christian religions in order to propagate their own belief in a “diffused” view of deity and revelation at the expense of the distinctive Christian belief in particularity’.
Dr Edward Carpenter, as President, wrote a detailed and careful reply. He rejected the view, held by some of WCF’s critics that it was trying to create a new eclectic religion. ‘Respect for mutual integrity is recognised as the condition of a worthwhile dialogue… For myself I am more fully seized of this very particularity since I have come to know more about other faiths’. Dr Carpenter asserted that WCF’s aim was to encourage dialogue between ‘main-stream’ groups.
Carpenter then said the purpose of the proposed meeting was ‘that 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’. He continued that it had never occurred to him that there was any suggestion that humanists and Marxists were not also concerned about human rights.
Edward Carpenter ended on a more personal note, saying that he had hoped that those who tried to implement WCF’s stated policy had the Archbishop’s support.
The Archbishop in his reply on November 17th, 1969, admitted that ‘I think it was unfair of me to use the phrase “the Congress of Faiths ideology” and I was using words vaguely and inaccurately. I should perhaps have said “some of the things said from within the World Congress of Faiths”‘. Dr Ramsey then reiterated his main objection about presenting a platform of “religion” as the way forward for humanity, ‘as I am not really sure that it is’ (5).
Despite this disappointment the meeting went ahead at the Central Hall, Westminster on December 11th, 1970. A good sized audience attended. The speakers were eminent, but perhaps not quite famous enough for the meeting to make the impact that had been hoped for. The speakers were Dr Baldoon Dhingra, a Hindu scholar on the staff of UNESCO, Ven Chao Khun Sobhane Dhammasudhi, head of the Buddhist Vipassana Centre in the UK, Dr Barnett Joseph, Director for Jewish-Christian Relations in the Chief Rabbi’s office, Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, President of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Mr Indarjit Singh, Editor of the Sikh Courier and Archbishop Appleton, Venerable Edward Carpenter and Lord Sorensen.
In an effort to make the organization of WCF more effective, Bishop Appleton introduced Rev Jack Austin, a Buddhist, as Development Officer. Jack Austin was seconded by the National Westminster Bank for two years. Kathleen Richards soon left. This meant that in effect Jack Austin took on the duties of secretary and had too little time for development work. For a time, Jack Austin had the help of Rita Wing as office secretary. Once again lack of finance hampered the hoped for expansion and no decisive action was taken on a report by Mrs Montgomery Campbell, a management consultant. Jack Austin worked hard to build up WCF as a centre of information. This required time to collect and collate information, as well as time to respond to enquiries – work now handled, far more effectively and with greater resources, by the Inter Faith Network for the UK. At the time, the WCF office did not have a computer.
At the end of his second year, Rev Jack Austin wrote an extensive report about his work, detailing the many chores he had to undertake. He emphasised that it was ‘the quality and number of staff available which determines what is actually done’. It was only when Rita Wing joined the staff that he had time to do anything about development. He weeded out lapsed members, insisted that the subscription should be raised to £5 and started to enrol new members. Looking ahead, Jack Austin suggested the need for close co-operation between the various interfaith groups, with the journal World Faiths acting as a link. He felt the Congress should concentrate on its Annual Conference and Younghusband lecture and try to build up more local groups. Jack Austin drew attention to the lack of money. Although WCF balanced its books, the small income made real development impossible. WCF was not, he said, a world body and should call itself ‘The Inter-Faith Fellowship’, ‘which is what it really is’ (6).
When Jack Austin resigned, he was succeeded by Sister Teresa of the Anglican Community of St Andrew’s. The arrangement was that she should work half-time for the Congress which would pay an honorarium to her community. An American, Sister Teresa was energetic and knowledgeable. Dressed in a habit, she rode a powerful motorbike. Increasingly her many other interests, especially her concern for the position of the diaconate in the church, left her with too little time. It was a serious loss for WCF when she resigned as Secretary in 1981.
For part of her time, I worked with her as Chairman. When Bishop Appleton resigned in 1978, he suggested that I should succeed him. I was at the time Rector of Swainswick and Langridge, near Bath. At thirty nine, I was the youngest person to have become chairman of WCF. I had a detailed knowledge of the working of the Congress, but lacked the public profile of previous chairmen. The feeling was that WCF needed someone who could give quite a lot of time to the Congress rather than a well known figure, with little time and no previous knowledge of WCF.
The Vice-chairman was Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of the West London Synagogue. Hugo Gryn, who was born in Czechoslovakia, spent his teenage years in a concentration camp. He has worked tirelessly through many organizations to combat racism and to promote interfaith understanding. He has been chairman of the Standing Conference on Inter Faith Dialogue in Education and, with Bishop Jim Thompson, was a first co-chair of the Inter Faith Network. I also worked closely with Brian Reep, who was the treasurer. Deeply committed to Sir Francis’ vision, Brian Reep gave a lot of time to WCF and served on the executive for many years. He has also worked hard for interfaith co-operation in Surrey, where he lives. He had carefully thought out plans to put WCF’s finances on a sound footing, but sadly his hopes were not fully realised.
During Sister Teresa’s time as secretary, the office was moved to a ‘ground floor’ or basement office below the hall of All Saints Church, Notting Hill. At first the office was quite convenient. Sister Teresa’s community was nearby. The Rector of All Saints, Rev Randolph Wise, who became Dean of Peterborough, was sympathetic to WCF and his wife Hazel worked part time as WCF’s office secretary. The hall was available for WCF meetings. Many members, however, found the location difficult and in later years there was less rapport with the church authorities. Various time-consuming efforts to find another office all came to nothing, until the decision was made to move the office to Oxford in 1993.
Sister Teresa’s and Hazel Wise’s departure created considerable difficulties. Miss Margot Morse was appointed Secretary. A very capable person who had held an important administrative job, she found the lack of office facilities frustrating and also suffered from quite a lot of illness. By this time, I had taken up a position as Director of Training in the Diocese of Bath and Wells and was living in Wells. With the acquiescence of John Bickersteth, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, my part-time secretary Veronica Whitehead, in order to ensure that WCF’s esential work continued, typed quite a lot of letters on WCF notepaper as well as on Diocesan notepaper!
After a time, Miss Morse felt unable to continue and, in 1983, Miss Patricia Morrison, a New Zealander, who had just retired as International Secretary of YWCA (The Young Women’s Christian Association) became Secretary. She brought to WCF wide international experience and a deep interest in WCF’s objectives. She represented WCF at a range of related activities, but it was difficult to combine this outreach with the administrative demands. Despite a variety of voluntary help, there was not the money to provide her with the proper secretarial assistance that she deserved. As a result, she had to do much of the routine office work which meant that she became very over-burdened. Once again financial constraints frustrated WCF’s efforts to expand its work.
In 1983, soon after Patricia Morrison had taken over as Secretary, I felt it was time to hand on the Chairmanship. I had found ensuring that the office kept going wearying, especially as living in Wells in Somerset meant I was not as readily available to visit the office and to attend meetings in London as I would have wished. There was also a possibility that I might have taken up work in Israel, at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur. In fact in 1984, I was invited to become Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, so it would have been inappropriate to have remained chairman of WCF.
A further difficulty had been suggestions from both the Unification Church to work with them in their interfaith work and from Michael Woodard to co-operate with the World Order for Cultural Exchange that he hoped to create. The discussions took up a lot of time, caused division within WCF because of suspicions about the credibility of both the Unification Church and of the World Order for Cultural Exchange, and were fruitless. Whilst the WCF has never agreed to joint sponsorship of events with the Unification Church, individual members have made their own decisions on whether or not to attend interfaith events sponsored by that Church. Although many of Michael Woodard’s ideas were imaginative, The World Order for Cultural Exchange proved to be a ‘one-man show’ and did not survive Michael Woodard’s death.
Lord Combermere, who was in charge of the religious studies programme of London University Extra-Mural Department agreed to become chairman. He brought to WCF his wide experience in adult education and ensured that WCF’s programme of conferences and lectures was of a high academic standard. The link with the Extra-Mural Department of London University continued for some time after his retirement. His wife Jill was very supportive. Her father was R.G.Coulson, who, as we have seen, tried in the fifties to introduce interfaith contemplative prayer meetings into the life of WCF.
When Patricia Morrison felt it was time to retire and to return to New Zealand, Tom Gulliver, a member of the Friends who had worked for several years for TocH and who had long been active in WCF, agreed to take on the running of WCF, assisted for a time by Pauline Astor. This involved his travelling up from near Bournemouth, although he often stayed a night in London. He gave great attention to the future organization of WCF. The Trustees Association was wound up. The constitution was revised and preparations made for ‘a change of gear’.
Professor Keith Ward, a very distinguished Anglican theologian, who was then professor at King’s College, London and subsequently Regius Professor in the University of Oxford, had become chairman. It was agreed to appoint, in place of Tom Gulliver and at his suggestion, a part-time paid Director, Lesley Matthias and also in the office a part-time paid secretary, Helen Garton. This was to some extent a gamble as the payments would come out of reserves whilst fresh money was raised. It was felt that it was essential to increase the activities of WCF and to raise its profile if it was to attract money. Lesley Matthias, therefore, was asked to develop a forward looking programme. There were difficulties, however. One was the growing recession in Britain, which meant that donations to charities were being cut-back. It was a particularly difficult time to raise new money. Secondly, Lesley Matthias was living in Peterborough, where she worked part-time at the College of Higher Education. This made it difficult to co-ordinate her work with that of the office. Thirdly, it took time to plan a new approach and programme and not all existing members of WCF were enthusiastic about the changes. Sadly, new money did not become available in the amounts required. It was unrealistic to have hoped that Lesley Matthias might both develop a new programme and have time to do serious fund-raising. An experienced fund-raiser gave good advice, but there was no one to do the work.
Lesley Matthias, whose own previous experience of interfaith activity was mainly in a local interfaith group at Peterborough, was clear that WCF needed a new focus.
The dynamic of inter-religious relations is changing daily. There is need for urgent action to prevent the deterioration of inter-religious relations to a point where “communalism” becomes an evident dynamic of British society. WCF needs to take up this challenge and engage in those areas of inter-religious relations – even conflict, where the need is most urgent and where the impact of the organisation can be most felt. WCF should be prepared to change its historical emphases in an attempt to meet these new demands. The emphases of the past have been to promote a spirit of fellowship and to engage in the field very approximately described as “comparative religion”. There has been an emphasis on that which religions tend to hold in common and perhaps an emphasis on the spiritual and personal dimensions of religious experience. For WCF to meet the needs of the religiously plural society of the nineties, there have to be new emphases and directions’.
The inter-faith movement has generally acquired the image of a “hobby horse” of the “liberals” and “enlightened” members of major religious traditions and those of none. It has become wrongly seen by many as an activity undertaken by those at the fringes of their own religious traditions rather than as a commitment undertaken as part of a mainstream tradition. This is largely a wrong perception. At the same time there is adeterioration in inter-religious relations in Britain, and especially the scapegoating of Muslims.
WCF should, she suggested, focus on the ‘immediate issues which arise out of the practical outworkings of a maturing plural society’. Some of these issues she identified as the relationship between religion and politics, the pastoral and spiritual care of religious minority groups, for example in prisons, the responsibility of the media, difficulties of the individual believer in relation to a mixed marriage and the feasibility of common worship.
As Director, Lesley Matthias tried to move the WCF programme to address some of these matters. This has continued. A WCF working group prepared a resource book on Multi-Faith worship, a conference was held on mixed faith families and the religious identity of the children. The 1994 Younghusband lecture grappled with some of the passionate reactions to the suffering in former Yugoslavia. The practical relevance of an understanding of the world’s religions to many aspects of current British life is being increasingly recognised and it is right for WCF to address this concern. A question not dealt with in Lesley Matthias’ paper ‘A Strategy for the Future’ is how WCF’s work relates to that of other bodies concerned for good inter-faith relations and tackling similar issues (7).
Financial problems denied Lesley Matthias the opportunity to implement her proposals. By 1992, it was clear that WCF was not in a position to guarantee the salary of a part-time director and a part-time secretary. Keith Ward by this time had moved to Oxford and wished to give up as Chairman, because of the even greater demands upon his time in his new position. He accepted an invitation to become Joint President with Dr Edward Carpenter. In 1992, I agreed to become chairperson for a second time. I had recently resigned as non-stipendiary vicar of Christ Church, Bath, so had a little more time. I was also much involved in the international plans for the 1993 Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation and wished to see an accompanying programme in Britain. David Potter, who had been Honorary Treasurer since 1987, agreed to combine with this the task of administrator and his wife Jean took on increasing responsibility for the programme, as well as for One Family. Both gave a great deal of time and devoted service to WCF. Mae Marven, Brenda Fischel, and Annette Marco and others gave an enormous amount of voluntary help in the office.
At the end of 1993, as part of the plans to establish an International Interfaith Centre in Oxford, the office was moved to Market Street Oxford, in a building shared with the International Association for Religious Freedom and the International Interfaith Centre. Mrs Diana Hanmer, who had been a part-time secretary to Bishop George Appleton, became part-time office secretary. Financial and administrative control remained with David Potter. With Jean Potter, I took on responsibility for much fo the programme.
With these changes has gone a change in WCF’s self-understanding. The inability to sustain the expansion programme of the late eighties has meant that WCF now is largely dependent on voluntary labour. David Potter has overseen a slimming down of administration. WCF is also clearly a fellowship of individual members. This distinguishes it from The Inter Faith Network for the UK which is for organizations. Some of the work that WCF attempted to do in the seventies and early eighties is now much better done by the Network.
Is WCF still necessary? In my view, ‘yes.’ It is a fellowship of individuals committed to interfaith friendship. It has a freedom that a more official body like the Network does not have. This means that WCF can and should take a pioneering role and is able to articulate a point of view that might not be shared by the designated leadership of faith communities. For example, the WCF working group on Multi-Faith Worship is dealing with a controversial subject and one with which some faith communities are uneasy. The conference on the spiritual and pastoral care of the dying in a multi-faith society opened up a new area. WCF also offers those individuals who are engaged in interfaith work a chance to meet co-workers, to reflect together on their concerns and to be renewed in their endeavours. Probably in any local group there are three or four people who are really keen and maintain the local group’s activities. WCF can offer them the stimulus and encouragement they need. This depends on WCF offering a programme of a high quality.
As interfaith activities increase, it becomes clearer that there are different motivations and agendas. Whilst WCF has always affirmed the integrity and distinctiveness of the world religions and has repudiated syncretism, it has also been conscious of the mystical tradition, voiced by Younghusband, which suggests a meeting in the spirit. The arrangement of retreat weekends where people of different faiths can explore each other’s spiritual disciplines is an expression of this dimension. This again gives a special emphasis to WCF’s activities.
‘The World Congress of Faiths is suffering from an identity crisis’, wrote Nikki Malet de Carteret in one of the many reports on future strategies for WCF. ‘Many’ may be an exaggeration. There are in fact three reports by consultants, but many more comments and papers by officers and staff. The first report was by Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell in 1973, the second by Nikki de Carteret in 1987 and the third by Pauline Astor in 1989. They all sprang from a desire that WCF should become a larger, professionally run organization, which meant that it would need to raise considerable amounts of money. It was assumed that no ‘holy men’ of any faith would know about money and that it was essential to have the advice of business consultants. The real problem has been that faith communities have not so far been willing to make significant resources available for interfaith work.
The previous section has told of the changes of personnel and the failure ‘to change gear’. The reports are worth further consideration because they raise questions about different expectations of ‘interfaith dialogue’ and should be of interest to many people beyond WCF members.
I have to admit to being a little sceptical about consultants’ reports! It has always seemed clear to me what WCF’s purpose is and that it is likely to remain a fairly small group of individuals who sense a spiritual unity that transcends religious differences. Re-reading the reports, however, I recognize that others had different expectations. I have also as a parish priest spent much of my life working with volunteers so am less confident that ‘professionalization’ (to use a consultant’s term!) is a solution to all problems.
Nonetheless all the reports are carefully prepared and astute in their comments. They reflect the varied motivation of different members of the Congress, which in turn illuminate the different understandings of and approaches to interfaith work.
Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell makes much of the different objectives of the original (1936) constitution and those adopted in 1966.
The 1936 objectives were:
a) To promote a spirit of fellowship among mankind through religion.
b) To awaken and develop world loyalty while allowing complete freedom for diversities of men, nations and faiths.
The 1966 objective was
‘To advance religious education by promoting knowledge and understanding of the beliefs and practices of the religious faiths, sects and denominations of the world by promoting the study of comparative religion’.
As I recall, the 1966 objectives were adopted reluctantly because the Charity Commissioners indicated that promoting a spirit of fellowship, like contemplative prayer, was not in itself charitable. It was felt at the time that religious education – a term acceptable to the Charity Commissioners – would promote a spirit of fellowship. John Rowland’s comments at the Extraordinary Meeting at which the constitutional amendments were approved and a subsequent note by Heather McConnell confirm my memory. Members who voted for the changes did not see them as marking any significant alteration in the purposes of WCF, but as necessary to retain the tax-advantages of being a charity. This is why some of those interviewed by Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell ‘were obviously not aware of the limitations suggested by the amended objects’.
Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell rightly recognized that some members retained an international outlook, whilst others were content to focus on the British situation. This meant that, in her view, the name World Congress of Faiths was misleading. In fact, as she noted, by the seventies, when her report was written, Britain’s concern for the Empire was decreasing, whilst Britain was itself becoming a multi-faith society.
What, she asked, was WCF’s role:
‘Is WCF’s primary role to work for world peace and world loyalty, as the founder envisaged when Britain was a world power with a vast Empire?
Is it to promote the academic study of comparative religion for its own sake, within the narrow limits of the 1966 objects?
Is it to promote mutual understanding and tolerance between British citizens of different ethnic origins, by helping them to understand and respect one another’s faiths and cultures?
Is it all three, and if so, in what order?
Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell clearly thought the third option was the most relevant, especially as the Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education was taking on the second task (8).
Nikki de Carteret also felt that the 1936 objectives were inspired by ‘the romanticism and idealism’ of the Empire. It is interesting how such a concern has today again become widespread as we adjust to living in a global society. Hans Kung’s phrase ‘no world peace without peace between the religions’ is widely quoted’. Nikki de Carteret recognized the different concerns of members. ‘Is WCF’s role to bring people of different religions together? Is it to inspire spiritual experience? Is it to educate? Or to foster academic study? Or is it all of these? Can the organization be all things to all men and women?’ The lack of clarity about WCF’s purpose, she argued, made it hard to project WCF to a wider audience.
Nikki de Carteret recognized that if WCF remained as it was it would only attract the liberals within religions and ‘seekers’. She recognized the importance of interfaith dialogue to communities which are divided by fear and suspicion and acknowledged the important role in this of the then newly established Inter Faith Network of the UK. If WCF wished to grow significantly it would, in her view, need to become more popular and focus more on religious community relations (9).
The Carteret report again made clear the need for a full-time paid Director and the raising of the necessary funds for this. A Chairman’s appeal for £50,000, however, met with an ‘extremely disappointing’ response and the appointment of a director was put ‘on hold’.
The report by Pauline Astor was an attempt to move things forward. She noted three weaknesses: a ‘muddled identity, a lack of enthusiastic committed support and a lack of funds’. She suggested three ways forward, either to remain as it was and to continue to decline, to seek a merger with a larger body or to create a team of workers and to appoint a paid director (10).
Efforts were made to set up a number of sub-groups, so as to involve more people in the work of WCF and to increase activity. Tom Gulliver, as Hon. Secretary, worked tirelessly to build the basis on which WCF could move forward or ‘change gear’. In 1990, it was decided to go ahead and advertise for a part-time director and a part-time secretary. Some money had been raised but no source had been found to guarantee their salaries for at least three years. It was hoped that a new image and greater activity would generate fresh income. In fact, despite several meetings, no real fund raising campaign was undertaken and the recession meant that new money was extremely difficult to find. The position was not helped by the cancellation of the 1991 Annual Conference. Lesley Matthias took up her post as part-time Executive Director in the autumn of 1990, but by the autumn of 1992, WCF, having eaten into its reserves was no longer able to guarantee a salary. Lesley Matthias returned to her college teaching. The hope was that she would continue as programme Director on an honorary basis, but it soon became obvious that she did not have the time to do this.
WCF is now clear, as has been said, that it is an organization for individual members. The journal and newsletter are important endeavours. Conferences are organized, often with the Extra-Mural Department of London University. The aim is to explore in depth matters which other organizations might find it difficult to treat. Its influence will be in terms of the quality of its thinking. It will be listened to if it has anything significant to say.
My own view is that Younghusband’s intention was that WCF should help people of different faiths to discover a mystical unity which transcended particular religious traditions. Such an awareness of human unity would inspire a concern for peace. Had the aim just been the study of religions there was no reason to establish WCF, as the Society for the Study of the Great Religions, in which Younghusband was active, already was in existence.
Younghusband’s intention was quickly perceived by critics as ‘syncretistic’, although this was consistently denied by members of WCF. If syncretism means an attempt to create one world religion, this has never been WCF’s aim. If the aim is that members of each religion should recognize a spiritual affinity with members of other religions this was Younghusband’s intention. His efforts rested upon a mystical understanding of religious experience and religious truth.
Not all who are concerned for good interfaith relations share this approach. There is an important difference between those for whom the starting point is the conviction that there is a transcendent unity and those who stress the real differences, which require people to find a way of living together harmoniously. The latter view seems to have been emphasized by WCF in the late eighties and early nineties – partly to get away from WCF’s ‘syncretistic’ image and partly to focus on the community relations dimension of living in a multifaith society. With this went a concern not to offend members of so-called ‘main stream’ religious groups by encouraging seekers or members of ‘new religions’ to take an active part in WCF. My own view is that genuine spiritual experience may well be found in newer groups as well as in more traditional communities. Several new groups, such as Brahma Kumaris, have a strong sense of the fellowship of faiths.
The hesitation to relate to new groups is shown in the correspondence and minutes of the late eighties. It reflects the deep suspicion that some WCF members harboured towards ‘New Age’ spirituality.
There was equal suspicion of new religions. This was shown in the sharp criticism of the London group when it arranged a series of talks by members of new groups such as Unificationists and Scientologists. Earlier, the WCF Executive had agreed that members of any group could join WCF, although the Executive retained the right to suspend the membership of anyone found to be using WCF meetings for proselytism or political activity – a power which has so far never been exercised.
These are issues which are still unresolved. Whilst WCF has not set boundaries on who should join and ‘seekers’ have always been welcome, its primary task is to build up fellowship between members of the world religions. This means that it is important to try to ensure a proper balance to the membership, which of course is difficult in an organization based on individual membership.
The proper balance between recognizing a spiritual affinity between religions and avoiding syncretism is also difficult, as the enormous amount of literature on this subject indicates. WCF has always been careful to avoid defining the relationship between religions. Its emphasis has been on building good relations between people who belong to different religions.
It is this that perhaps makes its purpose distinct from semi-official bodies such as the Inter Faith Network for the UK or the departments for ‘other religions’ of religious or denominational bodies and from university departments for the academic study of religions. WCF characteristically has been and still is a fellowship of spiritual pioneers. Together, as we shall see, they have explored many different aspects of the coming together of people of faith.