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


The Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke DD., is a retired Anglical Clergyman. He was Executive Director Council of Christians & Jews 1984 - 87, and Chairman of the World Congresses of Faiths 1978 - 83 & 1992 - 99, and is its current President. He is the author of more than a dozen books. His Lambeth Doctor of Divinity was presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in recognition of "his world-wide work for inter-religious understanding and co-operation." Published by Oneworld Publications, 185 Banbury rd, Oxford OX2 7AR England. Used by permission of the author. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


4. Hoping for a New World Order in the Midst of War: 1936-1942


With the Congress drawing to its close, Younghusband wasted no time in thinking about the future. On the last day of the Congress, a meeting was held at Caxton Hall to consider what should happen next. The main suggestions were the formation of a Continuation Committee and the establishment of a Council. Within a week, the continuation committee was meeting, with Dr Radhakrishnan, Mr H N Spalding and Herbert Samuel amongst its members. Younghusband was at once elected chairman and Arthur Jackman Secretary.

The Chairman suggested that the next Congress might be in Oxford. He thought that many distinguished people from overseas would be in Britain for the Coronation. It was hoped the Congress would be held a week after the Coronation, which was planned for May 12th. It was not until December 12th, 1936 that George VI was officially proclaimed king, following the abdication of Edward VIII.

It was also agreed to send a letter to Weller and Das Gupta 'explaining that while recognising our debt to them in carrying on the idea of the World Fellowship of Faiths, we must ask them to leave us perfectly free to pursue the outcome of the Congress and its subsequent work in our own way and in accordance with British practice'.

The name World Congress of Faiths was approved for the time being. Quite a lot of time was spent discussing an, in the end, abortive scheme to show religious films followed by a short devotional service, conducted by members of different religions, in some cinemas on Sundays.

Attention was also given to publishing the proceedings of the 1936 Congress and to agreeing a constitution and a publicity leaflet. Discussions were also initiated with some University Extra-Mural Departments.

Early in 1937, Younghusband visted India to attend the centenary celebrations of the birth of Sri Ramakrishna, one of the outstanding Hindu saints of the nineteenth century, after whom The Ramakrishna Vedanta Society is named. His conference name badge survives amongst his papers. In the summer, the Oxford Congress was held at Balliol and Somerville Colleges on the theme 'The World's Need of Religion'. The fact that it was residential made for greater discussion and fellowship (1). The following year the Congress was held in Cambridge (2).

The records of each Congress are of interest, partly to see the names of participants and partly because of the content of the talks and discussions. There is obviously not space to summarize all the conferences and this would also become repetitive. It seems best to sample just a few congresses and conferences. It is worth mentioning that there was talk of arranging a congress in Travancore and also in Beirut, before the Committee settled on Paris. This indicates just how worldwide Younghusband hoped the WCF would become and he would have had the contacts to achieve this. World War was to thwart his hopes. The Paris Conference itself was held less than two months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Paris Conference.

The Paris Conference was held at the Sorbonne from July 3rd to the 11th, 1939. It had some support from the French government. The theme was 'How to promote the Spirit of World-Fellowship Through Religion'.

The Conference attracted some eminent scholars. The most substantial paper - and certainly the most lengthy - was from the Catholic scholar Louis Massignon, who was a student of St Thomas Aquinas, on whose writings classical Catholic thought has been based. Massignon began by observing that 'nothing in history goes to show that religious feeling or religious ideas have been particularly successful in pacifying men'. He stressed the need for people to be faithful to the light shown to them. He outlined the Catholic understanding of the relationship of religions. The doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church 'means that there is no salvation outside the truth - which explicitly or implicitly and gratuitously offers itself to all'. The truth speaks to every man's heart, wherever and whenever they may have lived. The fellowship WCF hoped to create was not at the level of intellectual agreement, but of love and friendship.

'In the first part', he eventually concluded, 'I emphasised the fundamental plurality of our respective points of view' but I have also spoken 'of a fellowship, based on friendship and leading to common action'(3).

Baron Palmstierna, in the chair, tried to clarify the nature and purpose of the World Congress of Faiths.

This is not a theological movement; it is not a movement for a comparative study of religions. It is a movement for really practical ends, a movement to create fellowship between men on the basis of that essence of religion that is common to all, which resides within all religions'(4).

The Outbreak of War.

Even as war broke out, Younghusband and others were planning a Conference which they hoped to hold in the Hague in 1940 (5). War was soon to change the way WCF worked. At the 1939 Annual Meeting, it was admitted that perhaps WCF should close down during the war as it was hard to promote fellowship amongst people who were bombing each other. Younghusband insisted that the need for WCF would be greater than ever when the war was over. 'By 2036', he said, 'We may be holding our centenary celebrations in a Europe where war is unthinkable' (6).Throughout the war, a programme of meetings and conferences was maintained. Indeed in the autumn of 1939, a series of monthly meetings were held in the office, which was now at Abbey House in Victoria Street. One meeting even took place whilst an air raid was in progress (7). The difficulties of travel, however, led Younghusband to start a Chairman's letter to keep in touch with members.

Even war did not dent Younghusband's optimism. Indeed almost at the beginning of the first Chairman's Circular letter, he writes,

'Now in fact is our great opportunity. Now is when we are most needed. Lord Halifax spoke of building an international order based on mutual understanding and mutual confidence. And on the day of National Prayer the King and his people prayed that the nations of the world might be united in a firmer fellowship for the good of all mankind. Now you will remember that to create that firmer fellowship between nations and individuals has been our one great object from the very first. Here we are, an organisation already in being designed especially to carry out the precise object which our Government have in distant view' (8).

A New World Order.

The hope for a new world order was a recurrent theme. In the Chairman's letter No 3, referring to youth being disillusioned with religion, Younghusband stressed the need for Christians and non-Christians together to show the value of religion. A religious basis, Younghusband insisted, was essential for the new World Order. 'No reconstituted League of Nations', he had said earlier 'will be of the slightest avail unless it is inspired by an irresistible spiritual impulse' (9). In his Chairman's letter he refers to the efforts of Rudolf Otto, best known for his book The Idea of the Holy, to create an Inter-Religious League as a parallel to the League of Nations. Not knowing much about this, Younghusband invited Rabbi Salzberger, who had known Otto, to speak to the Members' Meeting in April. A subsequent letter refers to a book by Professor Norman Bentwich, called The Religious Foundation of Internationalism in which Bentwich expounded in detail the idea of a League of Religions (10). At a subsequent meeting, Bentwich said the idea had a long history. Leibnitz had propounded it and so had Rousseau. Incidentally Norman Bentwich maintained an interest in WCF, as did his brother, Joseph Bentwich, who settled in Israel. I met him there in the seventies and he introduced me to a small group concerned for inter-religious understanding, which produced a newsletter called Petahim.

Unable to meet in the Hague, the 1940 conference was held at Bedford College, London. Its theme was 'The Common Spiritual Basis for International Order'. Speakers included Lord Samuel, Bishop Bell of Chichester, Mr Yusuf Ali, and Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz. The latter expresed 'his deep conviction that without a common spiritual basis for International Order we shall all be labouring in vain'. Lord Zetland, a member of the government, presided at the inaugural meeting and stressed the need for 'a spirit of religious unity' (11).

The Church Times was not impressed. It 'suspected that the consequences of its (WCF's) labours are for the most part entirely mischievous... The results from such perverse efforts could only be to abolish the religion of God' (12). Younghusband responded that for most people to listen to inspiring thinkers from each religion led them 'to a greater concept of God and what he wills for the world' (13).

In Letter No 11, Younghusband came back to the idea of a New World Order, which was by then a subject of public discussion. He stressed that Christians should work with members of other faiths for this. He quoted from a Times leader that 'the fundamental precepts of Christianity are shared by millions in other lands and of other religions'. He also quoted words from the French philosopher Henri Bergson: 'God common to all mankind, the mere vision of Whom, could all men but attain it, would mean the immediate abolition of war' (14).

The subject of the 1941 Conference at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford was 'World Religions and World Order; the Interdependence of Religion and the Political, Economic, Social and Cultural aspects of the New World Order'. Younghusband was pleased with this Sixth Annual Conference and Lord Samuel commented on the improvement in the quality of the contributions and the discussion. Addresses were given by, amongst others, Canon Grensted, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and by Dr Gilbert Murray. Participants were invited to a service at the University Church (15).

A smaller conference was also held in the spring of that year at Downe House, near Newbury. At this one of the speakers was Dr Maxwell Garnett, a former Secretary of the League of Nations. At the closing session, Younghusband drew attention to a recent pronouncement made by Christian leaders and suggested that a similar pronouncement should be made by leaders of all the great religions. He returned to this theme at the Annual Meeting on December 3rd, 1941 and appealed to the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo to give a lead. Reference was also made to a suggestion by Sir James Marchant that there should be an International and Inter-Religious Day of Prayer.

It was natural for the WCF to welcome The Atlantic Charter and, subsequently, the Three Faiths Declaration. The Atlantic Charter was issued by Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt in August 1941 - the USA had not at that point entered the war. It was subsequently incorporated by reference in the Declaration of the United Nations (as the Allied Powers called themselves) of January 1st, 1942. The Declaration affirmed that neither country sought territorial aggrandizement and described the just and peaceful world and settled economic order for which they hoped. The spring meeting for 1942, held at a much bomb-damaged Bedford College in London, was on 'The Atlantic Charter: its Spiritual Basis'. Younghusband suggested that the influence of mothers was probably more important than that of Popes and Archbishops. The devotional service at the conference was led by Oliver Mathews, a priest of the Christian Community, which is a small denomination founded in Germany in the nineteen twenties by some Lutheran priests, who were much influenced by Rudolf Steiner.

Birmingham 1942.

The summer conference was held at Birmingham on 'Religion Today: The Mutual Influence of East and West'. Some of the WCF officials thought it would be better to abandon plans for the conference. But when the office manager voiced this, Sir Francis reacted swiftly. 'Miss Anderson', he wrote, 'you, I know have the interests of the Congress most deeply at heart and I shall be ever grateful to you for the help you have given us for a long time past. But...' She was dismissed and Sir Francis, now in his late seventies, personally took on the day-to-day running of the office (16). Despite constant setbacks, he worked very hard to ensure the meeting's success. He and Lady Madeline Lees, whom he had first met in 1939 and with whom he formed an intimate friendship, stayed just outside the city with Dame Elizabeth Cadbury.

On July 17th Younghusband gave the opening address. He said that the need in the thirties had been for a Gladstone, with his passionate indignation, to denounce the Nazis. Sir Francis blamed himself for not creating WCF twelve years earlier. He came back to a theme that recurs in his later talks, namely the crucial role women should take in creating a more peaceful world. He insisted that when peace came there should be no vengeance, otherwise more conflict would follow in the future. Whilst repeating that WCF respected differences, he spoke of the need to stress the unity. This would make possible 'deep down genuine spiritual fellowship which would issue in the bliss divine of union with God, which is both the source and end of all religion, to which goal WCF presses forward' (17).

The attendance was thin, but the atmosphere he felt was more inspired than ever. Speakers included Rabbi Georg Salzberger, Canon Guy Rogers and Swami Avyaktananda, whom I was later to get to know when I lived in Bath.

It was on the fourth day, after listening to the last named speaker, that Younghusband complained of feeling rather tired and was taken by taxi back to Dame Elizabeth's house. The next day he travelled by train to London to say goodbye to his wife, Helen. Before leaving Helen's nursing home, he wrote in a shaky hand to his daughter Eileen. 'My dear Rogie, The Congress was a huge success. The University, the Lord Mayor and Canon Guy Rogers all played up like Billy oh, and Sir Francis Younghusband... was a bit played out at the end so Madeline is motoring him straight to Lytchett today and he is giving the Men of the Trees the go by. Your loving Daddie' (18).

Madeline managed to get him to her home in Dorset on July 21st. During the next few days, he slipped in and out of consciousness. Early in the morning of Friday July 31st 1942, Francis died calmly and peacefully, cradled in the arms of Lady Madeline Lees.

He was buried nearby. Tributes poured in from around the world. On August 10th, WCF arranged a memorial service for him at St Martin-in-the Fields. Speakers included many of his faithful allies: Bhikkhu Thittila, Sir Atul Chatterjee, Rabbi Dr Salzberger and Sir Hassan Suhrawardy. It was fitting that he who had done so much in his life to bring people of different faiths together in fellowship should also have united them in mourning for him.

 

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