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.
10. Pages Enriched by Lives Dedicated to Truth
Through its journal WCF has sought to disseminate the lectures and conference papers to a wider audience. The aim has been to address a non-specialist serious readership, helping them to learn about the religions of the world and to consider how the relationship between them can be more creative and harmonious.
During the Second World War, Sir Francis Younghusband himself, as we have seen, started a 'Chairman's Circular Letter', which was carried on by Baron Palmstierna. It was designed to maintain contact between the scattered members of WCF. By 1941, this had developed from a type-written sheet to a four page printed pamphlet.
In 1949, Sir John Stewart Wallace persuaded a young member, Heather McConnell, who was just back from the Far East, to launch a journal for the WCF. 'My briefing', she recalled, 'was not to be academic and above the heads of our readers but neither was it to play to the lowest common denominator. It should strive to be of general interest to our members in many parts of the world. "Always remember", said Baron Palmstierna, "that we are a movement and not a study group"' (1). The journal was named Forum and sold for 6d, the equivalent of 2½p. It soon became a journal with reprinted talks, commissioned articles and included extensive book reviews. The Editor's Notes gave news of WCF activities.
Until his death, Baron Palmstierna contributed a regular, inspirational column. His last letter, written shortly before his death, ended with these words: 'Within each human soul exists a link with life eternal which gives us certainty of individual immortality. Death is evidently nothing but the opening in the wall which makes it possible for religious life to continue to progress independently and move ahead on the other side of the wall'(2).
In 1961 the journal was renamed World Faiths, 'as more descriptive of the contents'(3). Heather McConnell, who gave a lifetime of service to WCF, continued as Editor until 1976.
Looking back, with a hundred issues of the periodical lying on her table, Heather McConnell wrote of the way in which the journal had linked countless friends across the world. The correspondence which she received showed that the journal was passed from hand to hand. She recalled some of the distinguished contributors who had submitted material - Sir John Grubb, Professor Geoffrey Parrinder, Professor Norman Bentwich, Christmas Humphreys, Marco Pallis, to name only a few. She remembered some of the important events in the life of the Congress which had been recorded - conferences in Paris and Holland, the opening of Younghusband House, the Dalai Lama's visit. 'Most of all', she concluded, 'the pages are enriched by the personalities of those who made it all happen, by the many whose lives were dedicated to Truth and understanding and to building bridges of interfaith unity. To have had the privilege of their friendship and of drawing on their wisdom has been the most worthwhile experience of my life'(4).
In 1976, I succeeded Heather McConnell as editor. There was a lot of work, checking the proofs, pasting up the pages, trying to ensure the journal was on time and that it remained solvent. Heather said that one compositor always added a 't' whenever the word 'rabbi' appeared in the text. The material, however, was always fascinating and it was a privilege to be in touch with many inspiring people across the world. 'The editor', as Heather wrote, 'is simply the conductor of an orchestra and it is due to the many "players" involved that the concert has continued unbroken' (5).
The main regret is that so few took advantage of the rich and varied diet. Looking at World Faiths No 100 - the first issue that I edited in 1976 - there is a fascinating article by Kenneth Leech, known for books such as Soul Friend and the Social God, on 'Youth's Demand for Change'. 'Whether the mass of young people become more conformist, more quiescent, more compromised, or whether they become more critical, more visionary, more athirst for justice, one thing is certain', he warned, 'they will not be deceived by a superficial tampering with the surface manifestations of religious life'. He suggested that it will be from the Christians of the Third World that the churches in the West would be 'recalled to the realities of prophecy and vision' (6). The issue includes a sensitive account by W W Simpson, Secretary of the International Council of Christians and Jews, of the first conference to be held by the International Council of Christians and Jews in Jerusalem; a comment on the Festival of Islam by Sir John Lawrence, Editor for many years of Frontier and an incisive report by Dr Stanley Samartha, an Indian theologian who was Director of the World Council of Churches programme on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, on the debate about dialogue at the 1975 Nairobi Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
After some negotiation, in 1980 it was agreed to unite the WCF journal with the journal Insight, which had been produced from 1976 by the Temple of Understanding. The merged journal was called World Faiths Insight. Professor Seshagiri Rao, of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and I became co-editors. Seshagiri Rao, who graduated from Mysore University, studied at the Centre for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. He subsequently became Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He has written extensively, especially in the field of Gandhian studies and is now editing a multi-volume Encyclopaedia of Hinduism
The happy co-operation between a Hindu professor and an Anglican clergyman has itself symbolized the spirit of WCF. The link increased the breadth of contributions and gave an international flavour to the journal. The American market was likely to be in universities which offered courses in the study of religions, whereas the British readership was less academic. This added to the considerations in ensuring the right balance of articles - considerations which included fair representation of different religions and countries, as well as a proper gender balance. Another difficulty was that it was inappropriate for an international journal to carry information of interest only to WCF members, such as news of British local interfaith groups. This difficulty was met by producing a British supplement, which was to be the seed of Interfaith News. A further difficulty was the constant struggle to break even, as World Faiths Insight never received a subsidy.
World Faiths Insight, besides a variety of articles, carried news of major interfaith conferences and events as well as book reviews. Although the circulation is still not large, the journal goes to many parts of the world - often to libraries. It has been one of the ways by which WCF has tried to offer a service to the world rather than just to Britain.
In 1991, Rev Alan Race, an Anglican clergyman particularly known for his book Christians and Religious Pluralism, succeeded me as Editor. Alan Race was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1951. His initial training was in chemistry, but he followed this with theological studies at Oxford and Birmingham. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1976. His interest in interfaith encounter grew out of living in multi-cultural and multi-faith Bradford in the early seventies. Dr George Chryssides, a Lecturer in Religious Studies, became Review Editor for a time.
Although Professor Seshagiri Rao has continued as co-editor, the Temple of Understanding decided, in 1991, that they were unable to continue their support for the journal. Despite this, a significant North American readership was. maintained,
Together with the change of Editor, other changes were introduced. The first was a change of name to World Faiths Encounter (March 1992). This was to indicate that the revised journal intended to focus 'more sharply on both the interactions between religious traditions and on the relationships between people of different religious communities, in our contemporary world'. This reflected the growing recognition that the meeting of religions had an important impact on society - for good or bad. 'We live with competing religious convictions pervading every department of life'. The journal was designed to appeal to many different constituencies - 'theologians and religious specialists of the different traditions, educationalists, inter-faith organizations and local activists who are faced with the daily confusions and joys which a pluralist society generates' (7). Such a wide audience creates difficulties, but these have been successfully met and the great variety of content indicates the range of contemporary inter-religious encounter.
The format and lay-out of the journal was redesigned to produce a more attractive publication - together with an eye-catching logo and green cover.
In the early eighties, WCF approached other bodies to discuss the publication of a news-sheet of interfaith activities, to keep pace with the proliferation of interfaith activities in Britain. The Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths of the British Council of Churches, the Interfaith Association, The Week of Prayer for World Peace, The World Conference of Religions for Peace (UK) and the World Congress of Faiths agreed to sponsor a publication, which was called Interfaith News. By the late eighties, The Interfaith Association had merged with WCF, but its place as a co-sponsor was soon taken by the then recently established Inter Faith Network. The first issue of the news-sheet appeared in 1982.
The first editor of Interfaith News was Geoffrey Bould, a member of the Friends, who has had a particular concern for prisoners of conscience. He was succeeded in 1989 by Dr Paul Weller, who at that time was Resources Officer of the Inter Faith Network and who now heads the Religious Resource and Research Centre at the University of Derby. The organizing committee was chaired by Brian Pearce and the administrative work was handled by WCF.
It is difficult to ensure that a newsletter breaks even. The cost of postage and administration make an economic price unrealistic in terms of expecting people to pay for it. The subscription rate of £1 and then £1.50 for three copies never fully covered costs and in 1991 Interfaith News, for financial reasons, had to cease publication.
Interfaith News gave a lively account of activities, advertised future events and helped to ensure that those working in this field, for various national and local organizations, kept in touch with each other.
To glance through the copies of Interfaith News is to be reminded of the significant events of the eighties, which was an important decade in the development of interfaith work not only in Britain, but across the world. No 3 has the headline 'Interfaith Breakthrough?' with a report of interfaith activities at the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which was held in Vancouver in 1982. At the Assembly, for the first time, members of other faiths addressed a plenary session, whereas twenty years before at the New Delhi Assembly, people of other faiths could not even attend as accredited press representatives (8)
Issue No 12, highlights Archbishop Robert Runcie's Younghusband lecture, which Dr Kenneth Cracknell, then secretary of the British Council of Churches' Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths, wrote of as a 'miracle at Lambeth Palace'.
The miracle for those with hearts and minds to discern it was in this: Dr Runcie was introduced at the beginning of the lecture by a Muslim Sheikh and thanked at its close by a Rabbi. Both spoke warmly and affectionately of the Archbishop...It was a splendid occasion, but more than that, it was a marvel, a portent, a miracle of God for those with eyes to see... Thank God for Dr Runcie, and thank God for Sheikh Gamal and Rabbi Hugo Gryn and for so many others who sing the dawn chorus of a new creation' (9).
The next issue spoke of the historic World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi in October 1986. Next year, Interfaith News heralded the 'Birth of the Inter Faith Network'. The June 1988 issue, reporting on the Global Forum of Spiritual and Political Leaders, held in Oxford, is headlined 'Towards a Global Ethic' - pointing forward to the work of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago five years later.
The issues of the early nineties reflect a changing scene. The optimism of the eighties was giving way to awareness that religious passion was still a divisive force. The June 1990 edition concentrates on some of the issues raised by the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and includes a report on the refusal to extend the blasphemy laws. The February 1991 issue highlights Dr Runcie's address to the Inter Faith Network. After talking about the progress in interfaith relations, he spoke of the hostility to other faiths still evident in some parts of the churches and of what he called 'the tribalising of religion' in places as varied as Sri Lanka, India and Northern Ireland as well as the rise of Islamic 'fundamentalism' (10).
The wish to link the various activities up and down Britain during the Year of Inter-Religious Understanding and Co-operation in 1993 led to the production of a fresh newsletter. One Family, collated and edited by Sandy Martin and Jean Potter, was produced to list the various activities of the year. There were so many events that four editions had to be published.
One Family has been found to be so useful that it has continued to appear three times a year. It is published by the World Congress of Faiths and reports on WCF events and gives details of future programmes. It is not, however, confined to news of WCF but includes details of the activities and programmes of quite a number of interfaith organizations in Great Britain.
WCF has sponsored a number of other publications. The papers of the pre-war conferences were published (11).
Two booklets have told the history of WCF. In 1956 Arthur Peacock wrote Fellowship Through Religion, which gives a good summary of the early years (12). In 1976, for the fortieth anniversary, I wrote a brief account of WCF's life and work. Bishop George Appleton wrote a Foreword, (a printer's error called it 'A Forward', which perhaps expressed the hopes of the moment!) in which he included his personal 'guidelines', which had emerged after nearly fifty years of contact with people of other Faiths. They are the principles which guided a Christian who was committed to building good interfaith relations, but ones which, suitably adapted, he hoped members of other faiths could make their own. They are still well worth reproducing:
1. Be deeply interested in the religious experience of people of other Faiths, the faith they have formulated from it and the values by which they live.
2. Pay special attention to the central faith or gospel of each religion and examine its relevance to others.
3. Look keenly to see in what ways God may be at work in other religions, for in my own faith he is Creator of all men, the Source of all truth, goodness and love.
4. Be ready to receive new truth, which will verify, correct and enlarge what I have already received.
5. Judge other religions by the highest in them and not by failures or distortions, and hope that their adherents will reciprocate in reference to my expression of Christianity.
6. Be as true as grace and my own effort can make me to the mind and standards of Jesus Christ, and want others to live up to the highest they know from their own religion.
7. Work with others to discover the principles of true religion in our contemporary world.
8. Not to proselytise, but be ready to accept transfer either way if a person feels he can serve God and men better by a change in religious affiliation.
9. Be eager to meet people of other Faiths within our own neighbourhood, welcome the expression of their own self-understanding, and work with them for social justice, human happiness and human unity.
10. Make love the mainspring of my life, realising that a wide open-heart and a great love always opens the hearts of others.
11. Make reciprocity the principle for inter-religious thinking and relationships, allowing to others the same right to commitment, witness and proclamation as I claim for myself.
12. Not to be over-defensive of my Lord Jesus Christ, always bearing in mind the humility of the birth at Bethlehem, the defencelessness of the Cross on Calvary and the glory of the Resurrection (13).
Other WCF publications include some of the Younghusband lectures, which have been published as pamphlets. WCF also arranged, as we have seen, for the publication of the report on Interfaith Worship by Galliards, which is part of Stainer and Bell.
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