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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.


5. Carrying On: 1942-52


Younghusband concentrated all the work of WCF in his own hands, as Baron Palmstierna observed in the first circular to be sent our after Sir Francis' death. This was appropriate for a pioneer, Palmstierna added, but his successors would have to rely on team-work. Lord Samuel became Chairman of the Executive Committee, Baron Erik Palmstierna Chairman of the Action Committee and Lady Ravensdale took on responsibility as Treasurer and Chairman of the Finance Committee.

Herbert Samuel, who was created a viscount in 1937, was one of the first Jewish members of the British cabinet. He was a member of Campbell-Bannerman's Liberal government. In 1916, for a few months, he was Home Secretary and again in 1931. From 1920-25, he was British High Commissioner for Palestine. After the Second World War, he became leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords. He wrote a number of books, including Philosophy and the Ordinary Man, The Tree of Good and Evil and Belief and Action. Herbert Samuel showed a consistent interest in WCF and was a man of wide contacts and sound judgment.

Baron Palmstierna had been for a short while Foreign Minister of Sweden and then from 1920-37 he was Swedish ambassador to Britain. When he retired from diplomatic service, he stayed on in Britain. He found a kindred spirit in Younghusband. He was an effusive and spontaneous man and a good extempore speaker. His books, Widening Horizons, Horizons of Immortality and The Innocence of God reflect his deep spiritual interests.

Lady Ravensdale was the daughter of Lord Curzon, who was the Viceroy of India who appointed Younghusband to lead the expedition to Tibet. She was well known for her love of music and for her social welfare work, especially in the East End of London. She was intimately involved in the foundation of WCF from 1936 onwards and continued to work for what she called a 'spiritual design for living in a greater universalism' . A devout Anglican, it was she who introduced W W Matthews, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and Dr Edward Carpenter to WCF. She had a considerable knowledge of Eastern religions and wrote movingly of a pilgrimage to Benares. 'Hindu worship', wrote Heather McConnell of her after her death, 'struck her as a great irresistibly pulsing heartbeat offered to the Eternal Unkown. Visits to Ceylon and Burma, where in Rangoon barefoot she joined the pilgrims climbing the hundreds of steps up the Shwedagon Pagoda, added to her feeling that some part of her being was only completely fulfilled in the East' (1). She continued throughout her life to be a generous and loyal supporter of the Congress and made possible the purchase of Younghusband house.

Arthur Jackman was appointed Hon. Secretary. Five new members joined the Executive: Eileen Younghusband, Sir Francis' daughter, Sir John Stewart-Wallace, who was Chief Land Registrar for England and Wales from 1923-1944, Mr Paul Shuffrey, the Editor of the Guardian, Rev W W Simpson, at the time Secretary to the Christian Council for Refugees from Germany, who was soon to become Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews and Rev J van Dorp, Rector of the Dutch Church in London. It is noticeable that the majority of members of the Executive were British and Christian. Steps were taken to register the movement as a legal entity.

Palmstierna wrote the first Circular letter of 1943. When this was replaced by the journal, Forum, he continued until his death to contribute a letter to each issue. In the first Circular letter, Palmstierna paid tribute to Sir Francis and insisted that the work must be carried on. 'Lasting peace and progressive order cannot be reached on earth until the spirit of fellowship quickens in human souls and mankind realises that all spring from the same source of Life and Love'. He indicated that it had been agreed to hold a big public meeting in May and that plans were in hand to continue the series of annual conferences (2).

Palmstierna's next letter tells of further activity. The Brotherhood Movement had become affiliated to WCF, a Library was being created, members' meetings were being held regularly and the Public Meeting had been fixed for June 4th 1943, with R.A.Butler, President of the Board of Education, as one of the speakers. An Annual Conference was to be held in London in September on 'The Religions and World Recovery'. The office had been moved to Parliament Mansions in Abbey Orchard Street.

A Public Meeting.

Because Caxton Hall had been requisitioned, the public meeting was held in Central Hall Westminster, where an attendance of 750 people, which would have been too many for Caxton Hall, looked rather lost. The Chair was taken by Lord Samuel, who outlined the action that had been taken since Younghusband's death. He also reiterated the purpose for which WCF existed. He again rejected the idea 'which prevails in some quarters that the object of WCF is to create some new combined religion'.

Each member', he said, 'holds his own views and holds them tenaciously'. 'This Movement does not enter into any of those disputations, it merely declares that all religions worthy of the name have at least two common principles, one that they seek righteous conduct in the individual, the other that they inculcate good-will among human societies, each with its own particularities and so each has its own element of universalism. This last I wish to stress, this element of universalism and we wish to bring it out clearly before members of all Faiths. (3).

The main address was given by R.A Butler, who after some years as Under-Secretary in the India Office and the Foreign Office had become Minister of Education. Religious Education and worship in schools continues to be a subject of keen debate. In view of the influential 1944 Education Act, with its important sections on religious instruction and collective worship, Butler's talk is of particular interest. He suggested that despite significant differences between creeds, what is 'of transcendent value is common to us all - the fact of faith'. He quoted the poet:

Think not the faith by which the just shall live

Is a dead creed, a map correct of heaven,

Far less a feeling fond and fugitive,

A thoughtless gift withdrawn as soon as given;

It is an affirmation and an act

Which makes eternal truth be present fact'

He stressed the importance of faith in helping the United Nations to resist Nazism. The personal values of our civilization, he said, depended mainly upon the development of the spiritual life. His first point was 'that these spiritual values are emphasised in all the Faiths of the world and not only in Christianity'. Religious education had been a cause of much controversy. Complaints were made that the schools were godless. He was awaiting evidence from School Inspectors, but certainly felt arrangements were too haphazard. He went on:

I can tell you that it is the Government's intention that religious teaching shall take a definite, enduring and assured place in the school day. It is our intention that all children shall be given the opportunity of being brought up in the faith of their parents. The rights of conscience must remain inviolate and distinctive teaching must be available where desired by parents for their children. I have discussed this with the Chief Rabbi and others'.

The broad foundations of religious teaching were already present in the Agreed Syllabuses. 'These are not intended to be a form of State religion but are the beginnings of the teaching in what I may call the literacy of faith'. His hope was that in addition, for those who desired, there would be teaching on special faiths. He warned against the harmful effect of dissension amongst Church leaders on the subject (4).

The Dean of St Paul's, W.W.Matthews, made clear that he was a convinced Christian and that he rejected the idea of a pale abstraction from all religions. He stressed the importance of understanding others at their best and that members of one faith can learn from members of another faith.

1943 Conference

The next circular letter, written it would appear in the Spring of 1944, mentions the 1943 Conference, which was held at the Institut Français. It explains that plans for a Congress in Edinburgh had to be abandoned. Members' meetings were continuing, but clearly the strains of wartime conditions were making it difficult to maintain the momentum of the Congress. Ill health had led Lord Samuel to resign as chairman of the Executive and his place had been taken by Baron Palmstierna.

The Three Faith Declaration.

The most interesting activity at the time was WCF's efforts to canvass support for the Three Faith Declaration on World Peace. It is reminiscent of recent attempts, following the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, to gain support for the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.

On April 4th, 1943, Dr George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, spoke in the Lords of 'the acceptance of an absolute law with a common ethos to be secured in the dealings of nations with each other' and 'of an association between the International Authority and representatives of the living religions of the world' (5). The Bishop was subsequently invited to submit his proposal to the Executive of WCF. In a letter dated April 17th, 1943, recognizing that the League of Nations lacked a supporting religious body, he wrote 'my idea was whether there could be some group officially recognized of representatives of all religions' - an idea which has resurfaced fifty years later with talk of a World Council of Faiths or a Religious UN.

The WCF Executive asked Dr Bell to set up a private committee to examine the proposal in detail and to report back. The Committee included, Lord Perth, late Secretary General of the League of Nations, Lord Samuel, Sir S Runganadhan, Indian High Commissioner, Baron Palmstierna and M Mo'een Al-Arab, Secretary of the Royal Egyptian Embassy in London. After several meetings it was unanimously agreed to ask WCF to circulate the Three-Faith Declaration on World Peace.

The American Three Faith Declaration had been issued in October 1943 over some 140 signatures of authoritative leaders of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish communities. The Declaration proclaimed:

1. That the moral law must govern the world order.

2. That the rights of the individual must be assured.

3. That the rights of the oppressed, weak or coloured [sic] peoples, must be protected.

4. That the rights of minorities must be secured.

5. That international institutions to maintain peace with justice must be organised.

6. That international economic co-operation must be developed.

7. That a just social order within each state must be achieved.

In Britain, the statement gained the support of the Council of Christians and Jews. CCJ's Executive issued a statement affirming that 'there can be no permanent peace without a religious foundation'. All social righteousness had to rest on divine law. 'The re-establishment of moral law, of respect for the rights of the person, especially those of the poor, the weak and the backward, and of responsibility towards the whole community, must be the first charges on the energies of all right-thinking men and women' (6).

The Bishop of Chichester's committee invited WCF to make the Declaration and Statement known to religious leaders of the world and to enlist their support.

This was done through embassies, legations and rectors of foreign churches in London. By mid 1946, one thousand and fifty copies had been despatched. Several copies sent to European countries were returned by the censor. WCF kept Dr Lois Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the USA, who was one of the original signatories, informed of the response.

Pamphlet 27 of 1946, shows an interesting range of supporters, including the Sheikh of the Mosque at Mecca, as well as Muslim leaders from Iraq and Syria. The Dewan of Travancore affirmed his sympathy as did the Raja of Aundh. The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj published the document in full in its newsletter. The Archbishop of Sweden, after consultation with the Swedish Ecumenic Committee, expressed his whole-hearted agreement. To Palmstierna's bitter disappointment, however, there was little backing for the initiative from most Christian leaders. In any case, the Communist block prevented the United Nations from any public endorsement of religious principles. A reception was arranged for members of UN delegations during the first meeting of the Assembly in London in 1946 to tell them about the Declaration, but only a few people turned up.

WCF had done all it could, but religious leaders failed to build on this initiative. I hope that fifty years later the same will not be true of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.

1945-50.

Apart from work on the Three Faith Declaration, the next period shows no enormous sign of activity. There were a few members' meetings. Arthur Jackman had resigned - the minutes make clear that he and Palmstierna could not work together (7). An Hon Secretary pro tem was appointed, but this was not a success. 'For a few brief months the Chairman and Hon. Treasurer (Lady Ravensdale) were assisted by a "pro tem" Hon. Secretary - a renegade whose name had better not be mentioned, for there was more "pro tem" about him than any right to the title', said Baron Palmstierna in his Annual Report for 1945. To my disappointment, none of the minute books reveal the secretary's name and 'pro tem' has to become synonymous with anon (8).

By early 1946, Sir John Stewart Wallace had become Hon. Secretary. The Congress also had various office secretaries, sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time. By late 1945, a new secretary, Miss Iris Wade, who commuted from Brighton, had been appointed. Her salary was 250 per annum, plus the cost of a third-class season ticket from Brighton, which was then 10. I doubt whether you would now get a day ticket for that amount!

It is easy to underestimate the difficulties of life in Britain in the years immediately after the war, but the impression given by the various changes of staff is that no one of Arthur Jackman's experience and ability was available to take on the running of the organization and that this was the point at which WCF lost much of the momentum created by Younghusband.

The next circular letter I have come across is No.3, 1948, dated October. Minutes for the intervening years do not show much activity. At the Annual Meeting on 19 February 1948, the Executive Committee was forced to recommend that, because of lack of money and decreasing support, the Movement should go into 'cold storage' until such time as conditions improved. In the ensuing discussion, 'it was clear that the members were vigorously against the closing-down of the Movement and many pledged their support to help keep it going'(9).

It was left to the Executive to take appropriate action. For a time the office was closed and moved to the country under the directorship of the Colonel van Dorp. This proved to be a failure, even before Colonel van Dorp's death made other plans essential. Lady Ravensdale appealed to Sir John Stewart-Wallace to take over the re-organisation of the society and to re-open a London office. He agreed to do so. A restatement of the purposes of the Congress was produced. Heather McConnell started to edit a magazine called Forum, which replaced the Chairman's letter. A Youth Group was set up, again thanks to the energy of Heather McConnell. A series of meetings on Contemplative Meditation were arranged, led by Rev R G Coulson. His son-in-law, Viscount Combermere, was to become chairman of WCF in the eighties.

R.G.Coulson in his book I am explained the purpose of the contemplative meetings. Previously, in his view, WCF had confined itself to 'exercises in comparative religion which led to increased sympathy between the great institutions. But little actual co-operation followed, and certainly little real prospect emerged of a united search for the I AM, as the Lord of The All' (10). Agreeing to put aside dogmatic differences, some Christians, Hindus and Buddhists were prepared to come together for a joint experience in contemplative silence. A single meeting enabled them to reach a truly joint experience of The Supreme. Slowly they found that they agreed that 'The Supreme is the entire Reality composed of three essential aspects which are indissolubly interrelated'. The first aspect of the Supreme is the Nameless, the second aspect is the Infinite manifested as knowable and the third aspect is 'actually made known on this earth as incarnate in particular corporeal Selves' (11).

This experiment in the early fifties is of considerable interest. Sadly, there was quickly disagreement between Coulson and Stewart-Wallace, as surviving letters indicate. Coulson insisted that only committed members of a faith should be invited to these meditation meetings. Stewart-Wallace wanted 'seekers' to be invited and seems to have seen WCF as a new spiritual movement.

Sir John Stewart Wallace was critical of traditional orthodox religions. The high religion of the future, of which he wrote, would be for those who could no longer accept traditional doctrines. It would be universal in character. 'Only through a high religion, all-embracing and tolerant as the love of God, can mankind be linked in the bond of peace for which the whole world so piteously travaileth - and for which, without religion, the politicians travail in vain' (12). In an article in the Hibbert Journal, Sir John asked why 'any suggestion of synthesis in religion is anathema to the orthodox' ... The great cosmic process is confused with an attempt to make some superficial, eclectic religion...Behind and above all the World Faiths there is to-day, here and now, a transcendent oneness, a Fellowship of the Spirit, of which the world, breaking from the swaddling clothes of the institutional theologies, is becoming conscious... At the heart of the synthesis lies the ever-living spring of all religion ... the mystic vision' (13).

Under Stewart-Wallace's guidance, it is clear that the Congress had regained some of its lost vigour. The emphasis, however, had subtly changed. The new leaflet talked of two categories of members: those who were committed members of a faith and those who were 'seekers'. The latter were people interested in spiritual matters, but who were unable to accept the tenets of any particular faith and who did not belong to any particular faith community. Seekers have continued to be welcome members of WCF, but if they appear to be in the majority they may deter committed members of faith communities from joining, as they may be uneasy with what they feel is the unspoken assumption that all religions 'really say the same thing'. The introduction of sessions on contemplative meditation may have added spiritual depth, but may have reinforced the impression that the Congress was a private spiritual group. There was perhaps also more emphasis on the underlying unity of religions. Religion, in Object One, is 'interpreted in its wide and universal sense. A sense far transcending its particular expression in any one of the world's faiths and penetrating to that divine essence we believe to be common to them all' (14). Younghusband himself no doubt believed this, but was always more cautious about voicing this in public and the claim was certainly not so 'up front' in earlier leaflets. Any idea of a new amalgamated creed is rejected, but there is less about the differences between religions. This was at a time when the mood in the churches had become less sympathetic to other religions, under the impact of Hendrik Kraemer, a Protestant missionary theologian who in 1938 wrote a very influential book called The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, which sharply distinguished between the religions and the Gospel.

A series of lectures at the Caxton Hall to coincide with the Festival of Britain on 'The Drama of Faith and Belief' was poorly attended. The lack of big public meetings lessened the emphasis on world concerns and may have further reinforced the feeling that WCF was in danger of becoming a spiritual coterie, despite the universalism of its message. Indeed in a circular, Baron Palmstierna said he thought the time for big congresses was over.

There were some continuing international links, but Younghusband's sense that WCF was an international movement had receded. Baron Palmstierna, in a newsletter, mentioned that he and Sir John had attended a conference in Paris arranged by The World Alliance for International Fellowship through Religion (USA). For a time WCF received some financial help from this body. A leaflet from this period describes a Conference in Paris arranged by French members of the Congress. The French Union des Croyants was quite active and had the support of Teilhard de Chardin. The Paris Conference was attended by representatives of the British, French, Dutch and Indian branches. It was agreed to set up an international central committee. It does not, however, seem that much came of this.

WCF had avoided 'going into cold storage'. The theological mood of the churches, however, was now unsympathetic to its aims. The Empire and British interest in it and its religions had waned. As yet, Britain had not in a significant sense begun to become a multiracial and multifaith society. The Cold War had dashed hopes of building a new moral world order. Nonetheless, a few people kept alive the original vision of the World Congress of Faiths for a time when its importance was again to be more widely recognized.

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