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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.


11. From Aids to Yoga: Working With Others


The files in the WCF archive at the Parkes Library at Southampton University, cover a wide range of subjects. More than half relate to correspondence with other organizations. The list includes the 'Anti-apartheid movement'; 'Black people in Britain: the Way Forward', which was the title of a conference in the seventies; Humanism; the Niwano Peace Prize; Religious dance; the Teilhard Centre for the Future of Man; Ways of the Spirt, which was a spiritual festival held in London in the seventies; the World Peace Prayer Society and many more.

Many organizations have in the past approached the World Congress of Faiths to introduce them to faith communities in Britain. Religion touches on so many aspects of life; the arts, health, social issues, the concern for peace, human rights and justice. At the same time, WCF has been in touch with faith communities and there is correspondence with many religious bodies. As an educational charity, WCF has been concerned to educate people of all ages to appreciate the great religions, so there are letters to educational bodies and to the media. WCF has also tried to encourage contact between people of different faiths not only in different parts of the United Kingdom, but throughout the world, so there is correspondence with local interfaith groups and, as we shall see in chapter 13, correspondence with other international interfaith organizations.

In this chapter, we shall look at WCF's efforts to encourage local interfaith activity in Britain, its support for the Inter Faith Network of the UK, its educational work and its contact with one or two other societies.

Local interfaith activity.

Local interfaith activity has largely depended on the enthusiasm and initiative of one or two keen people in an area. Some of these have been members of the WCF and in a history of WCF it is appropriate to concentrate on these people. This is not, however, the place to tell the varied and fascinating story of the development of local interfaith activity, which now exists in many parts of Britain. That history deserves to be written and will tell of many more far-seeing, generous and creative people.

Kathleen de Beaumont.

Thanks particularly to the inspiration of the Hon Mrs de Beaumont, there was, in the fifties, a lively branch of WCF in Cambridge. Kathleen de Beaumont, the eldest child of Lord and Lady O'Hagan, was born in London in 1876. She was brought up a Roman Catholic, but when she was a teenager, the family converted to the Church of England. This caused a rift with many of the relations, which took many years to heal. Kathleen was a devout Anglo-Catholic but of broad vision. She acclaimed the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and the ecumenicial outlook of Pope John XXII (1). Her husband, known as Dr Klein until the time of their marriage, had also left the Roman Catholic Church. Soon after they were married, he became the Unitarian minister at Little Portland Street, Marylebone, in succession to Dr James Martineau, by whose writings he had been much influenced.

In 1915 the de Beaumonts moved to Cambridge, where Kathleen was involved in many community activities, especially in work for the Girl Guides. In 1909, she and her two daughters, complete with broomsticks, had attended the first Scout rally at Crystal Palace. Noticing the girls' presence, Sir Robert Baden-Powell enquired about them and decided something must be done for girls. Once it was decided to set up the Girl Guides, Baden Powell asked Mrs de Beaumont to become County Commissioner for Cambridgeshire, a position that she held for thirty years. In Cambridge, she and her husband made many friends, especially of Dr Raven, who was Master of Christ's College and of Dr Burkitt, a Professor of Theology.

Kathleen's husband died in 1934. Soon afterwards, she met Sir Francis Younghusband and took part in the founding of WCF, which, she wrote, 'became a major interest and activity in my life'(2). Unfortunately her memoirs give few details of her work for WCF. During the war she was active in her support for La France Libre. In 1953, she returned to London, after forty years in Cambridge.

Back in London, Kathleen regularly attended meetings of WCF and served on the Executive Committee and became a Vice-President. She also was a regular participant in the meetings for contemplative meditation, arranged by Rev G Coulson, which have been mentioned in chapter 5. For many years she suffered from arthritis and her last years were ones of illness, but her spirit was indomitable. 'Finally, came illness - a truly blessed experience because at the same time that I was stricken by the illness which kept me house-bound for years, some of the works of Pere Teilhard de Chardin came into my hands. A new heaven opened for me with the vision glorious of the Cosmic Christ. To have lived to witness this opening of a new era in the history of religion on this earth is indeed a privilege for which I am humbly thankful' (3).

Kathleen de Beaumont, like Sir Francis Younghusband, had deep personal spirtual experiences and a wide sympathy for the faiths of the world. She was also a member of the Fellowship of Meditation and was much influenced by Marion Dunlop. With her links with and deep concern for France, she helped to maintain links with the Union des Croyants (the French branch of WCF) and became a close friend of Comtesse Jacques de Pange.

It was Kathleen de Beaumont, who in the early fifties, inspired the Cambridge branch of WCF in which both Canon Raven and Dr Stewart Carter, the Unitarian minister, took an active interest. The branch had a varied programme and attracted good support. In 1954, for example, The Cambridge Daily News reported that there had been a crowded Service for People of All Faiths (4).

During the fifties a WCF branch was established at Bournemouth and Poole and several events took place at the home of Lady Madeline Lees at Lytchett in Dorset. A film was made to promote the idea of 'World peace through Religious Drama' (5). Lady Lees remained a supporter of WCF throughout her life and continued, almost to the end, to paint water colour cards to raise money for the cause.

Another 'devotee' of Younghusband was George Harrison, who himself had had deep mystical experiences. For a time he was the WCF's North of England officer, but there seems to have been disagreements about the financial arrangements for his work. Nevertheless, despite the demands of his work for British Rail, he found time to do much to promote WCF in the north of England. There are many reports in World Faiths of talks that he gave and of All Faiths services being held in Sheffield and Leeds and other northern cities.

Bristol and Bath.

The beginnings of interfaith work in the Bristol and Bath area owe a lot to two very remarkable, if very different people: Albert Polack and Brian Pamplin.

In the late sixties a 'Younghusband branch of WCF' was established in the Bristol and Bath area. At the time, I was a visiting lecturer at Bristol University. I met Albert Polack and we talked about Younghusband.

Albert's father, Rev Joseph Polack, was the first housemaster of Polack's House, which was a house for Jewish boys at Clifton College. Albert was a school boy there and in 1926 himself became housemaster of Polack's house. He knew about and admired Clifton's famous son, Francis Younghusband. When he 'retired' in 1949, he became Education Officer of the Council of Christians and Jews. By the late sixties, he had just 'retired' again and had returned to live in Bristol. Together we arranged a meeting, at it which was agreed to set up a Bristol branch of WCF. Albert suggested that as Sir Francis had been a pupil at Clifton College, it should be called the Younghusband Branch. Tony Reese, a member of the Bristol Progressive Synagogue, soon became an active member and officer of the branch and is still active in interfaith work.

After a time, Dr Brian Pamplin, a science lecturer at Bath University became interested, partly through his study of the writings of Teillard de Chardin. He decided to set up a new group, which was called SHARIFH, Sharing the Future in Hope. This was designed to seek reconciliation between the religions and science. The work was centred on Bath University and there were several interfaith gatherings at the chaplaincy centre. He is still remembered in Bath by the Pamplin Addresses, which seek to promote dialogue both between members of different religions and between them and scientists. Although SHARIFH was potentially a national and international group, it remained centred in Bath. After Brian's death, those in the group whose main interest was interfaith dialogue and those more interested in Brian's scientific and spiritual enquiries separated and two independent groups were established. The Bath Interfaith group has continued to have a regular and varied programme. The difficulty is that faith communities other than Christian are small and it is hard to get a balanced membership - not that more than a few Christians have been actively interested.

In Bristol, by contrast, many faith communities are well established. There is an active interfaith group in the city, which had a particularly imaginative programme during the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation in 1993. Neither the Bath nor Bristol interfaith group is now a 'branch' of WCF, but several members of both groups are members of WCF.

Brian Pamplin, gradually moved to a universalist position. He saw God's presence in every form of religion and indeed in all life. In 1983, he spent Christmas at the ashram of Sai Baba and heard him preach about Jesus. From that sermon he took the words which became SHARIFH's motto, 'There is one religion - the Religion of Love'. He sought not only the reconciliation of religions but of science and religion at the highest philosophical level. He was deeply interested in the relationship of the latest scientific thought to the speculations of Buddhist metaphysicians. This search for reconciliation was not just an intellectual matter, but for the future of the world and for the sake of the poor. From service in the forces in Korea, he was personally aware of the horrors of modern warfare. Just before his death he had visited Mother Teresa who had directed his attention forcefully to the needs of the destitute.

Bill and Joan Steiner.

Another person who combined an interest in the reconciliation of religions and of religion and science was Bill Steiner, a Unitarian, who served for many years on the WCF Executive. He regularly taped the lectures given at WCF conferences and the tapes are still a rich source of inspiration. He and his wife Joan came on several WCF tours. Joan, an Anglican, herself gave her energies to work for WCF in Wellingborough, where an active WCF branch existed for many years.

The above groups were all initially established as WCF branches. After a time, it became clear that less formal links were more helpful.

There are today many other local interfaith groups. In some, members of WCF have played an active part. In Wolverhampton, for example, there has for many years been a well organized and lively group, in which a leading member, Ivy Gutridge, had long been a member of WCF. In Glasgow, the moving spirit was a deaconess of the Church of Scotland, Stella Reekie, who became a keen supporter of WCF. Her home at the International Flat became the venue for numerous arranged and chance interfaith meetings. Stella helped to establish the Sharing of Faiths group in the city, where there have been regular exhibitions and where the St Mungo Museum was opened in 1993. The aims of the Sharing of Faiths group, which reflect Stella's wide concerns, are worth recording. They are

'to share human friendship across religious boundaries;

to foster understanding among people of different races and faiths

to learn from each other

to share religious experience

to deepen our religious insights' (7).

The stories of other groups, such as Westminster Interfaith or Leeds Concord, also deserve to be told and mention made of the many people, like Penny Reynolds of Bognor, who by their gift of friendship have brought people together. Groups are very different, just as the needs and character of towns and cities up and down the country vary. Some are very practical in their programmes, some more philosophical in their discussions. Some are well organized, some quite informal, some are universalist in outlook, some are more akin to religious community relations councils where the distinctive identity of each faith community is clear.

Local interfaith groups have offered people a chance to meet their neighbours who belong to other faith communities. Such meeting has broken down ignorance and prejudice and has led to friendships, which have enriched many lives. Local groups have dealt with a wide range of enquiries, but most important they have helped to sustain and build up the fabric of the multifaith, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, which Britain is becoming.

The Inter Faith Network for the UK

How to give some cohesion to this varied activity has been a continuing concern. There has also been a wish to ensure that national interfaith organizations should work as partners.

In 1965, besides WCF, only the Council of Christians and Jews and the London Society for Jews and Christians were already active. Since then, all three organisations have expanded their work and influence. Whilst Christian-Jewish dialogue retains its specific character, it has become more related to wider interfaith dialogue. In 1977, The British Council of Churches Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths was formed, with Rev Kenneth Cracknell as first full-time secretary, followed by Rev Dr Clinton Bennett. The work was then taken on by The Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland, with Canon Dr Christopher Lamb as its officer for interfaith relations. Several denominations now have special committees for interfaith reflection and dialogue, some with, at least part-time, officers. Meanwhile, other faith communities have developed national structures. There is, for example, a National Council of Hindu Temples and an Imams and Mosques Council.

There has also been a growing interest in the teaching of world religions. Compared to twenty years ago, there is a plethora of interfaith activity and meetings and greater support from the leaders of the different faith communities. Some indication of the variety of religious life in Britain and of the various bodies linking faith communities is given in Religions in the UK, a Multi-Faith Directory, edited by Paul Weller, of the University of Derby, which runs to over 600 pages (8). Even so, those involved need to be aware that a large majority of the population are still untouched by these developments.

In 1977-8, Canon Peter Schneider, Rev Jack Austin and I, with some others, made tentative moves to explore forming a 'Consultative Interfaith Council'. In a Memorandum, Canon Peter Schneider, outlined the possibilities. On the projected Council, compared to the BCC Committee on Relations with People of Other Faiths, 'members of various Faith Communities would meet and discuss as equal partners. All are hosts and none are guests'. Compared to WCF, which was based on individual enthusiasts, the Council 'would consciously relate to the various Faith Communities as a whole and seek to provide a structured forum of meeting and discussion'.

The aims of this Council can be seen as facilitating a more comprehensive meeting and acquaintance and knowledge of different Faiths than is at present the case. Further its purpose would be that issues of common interest and concern could be discussed and if it seemed proper decisions reached. In times of crisis the Council would be the obvious framework for urgent consultation and possible united decision, provided this had the support of the Faith Communities represented in the Council' (9).

Nothing came of these moves, partly because of the untimely death of Peter Schneider and because of lack of support from the religious communities.

Some ten years later, Brian Pearce, who had taken early retirement from the Civil Service, patiently researched the best ways to strengthen good relationships between the faith communities in Britain. One possibility might have been to try very considerably to strengthen and expand the work of WCF, as Rev Jack Austin had tried ten years before. It became clear that members of several faith communities felt this would mean accepting the view of the relationship between religions implicit in the approach of WCF. This they were reluctant to do. The WCF Executive, in April 1985, unanimously agreed to give its support to the attempt to establish a new organization, which would bring together representatives of the faith communities and those already active in promoting good interfaith relations (10). It would be an organization for organizations and not for individuals and it would be a network, dependent on consensus for any policy decisions.

After a consultative period of nearly two years in all, the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom was formally established in 1987 and by 1996 linked over seventy organisations and groups. These included representative bodies from within the main world religious communities in Britain, such as the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, the National Council of Hindu Temples and the Buddhist Society; national interfaith organizations, such as the Council of Christians and Jews and the World Congress of Faiths; local inter-faith groups, such as the Wolverhampton Inter-Faith Group and the Leeds Concord Interfaith Society; and study centres and academic bodies concerned with the study of religions and the relationships between them, such as the Community Relations Project of Leeds University and the Religious Education Council. Not all local interfaith groups are, at present, affiliated to the Network, but all of them are invited to the area meetings that the Network arranges.

The constitution sets out the aim of the Network as being 'to advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions, and practices of the different faith communities in Britain including an awareness both of their distinctive features and of their common ground and to promote good relations between persons of different religious faiths'. At the inaugural meeting, this resolution was adopted:

We meet today as children of many traditions, inheritors of shared wisdom and of tragic misunderstandings. We recognise our shared humanity and we respect each other's differences. With the agreed purpose and hope of promoting greater understanding between the members of the different faith communities to which we belong and of encouraging the growth of relationships of respect and trust and mutual enrichment in our life together, we hereby jointly resolve: that the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom should now be established' (11).

The Network provides information and advice on inter-faith matters and helps put organizations and individuals in touch with the different faith communities at national and local level. It is increasingly consulted by government departments, other public sector and voluntary bodies, the media and the leaders and members of religious communities. The Inner Cities Religious Council, set up by the Department of the Environment in 1993, for example, included three of the Network's officers in its membership.

The Network has held regular national and regional meetings and has organized seminars on particular issues such as 'The blasphemy laws', 'Women and Religion', 'Religious Education and Collective Worship in Schools' and 'Religion on Radio and Television'. It has produced a 'Statement on Inter-Religious Relations' and in 1993, it issued a short code of conduct on 'Building Good Relations Between People of Different Faiths and Beliefs', as well as a longer document called 'Mission, Dialogue and Inter-Religious Encounter'.

For its first years, the co-chairs of the Network were the Rt Rev Jim Thompson, then Bishop of Stepney and Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Senior Rabbi of the West London Synagogue. They were succeeded by Mr Indarjit Singh, Editor of the Sikh Messenger, and Rt Rev Roy Williamson, Bishop of Southwark. The growth of the Network and the high regard in which it is held is to the credit of the Director, Brian Pearce and the Deputy Director Dr Harrriet Crabtree and the other members of staff. They have patiently gained the trust of the various faith communities involved and helped these communities to trust each other.

In their report for 1994-5, the co-chairs stressed the importance of making multi-faith Britain a place of harmony and understanding between religions. 'In many areas of the world inter religious conflict causes great hardship and misery. We must never slacken in our endeavours to make sure that misunderstandings and prejudice do not take root here with tragic consequences for our society. Our individual faith traditions need not be sources of conflict. Practised with integrity, they can offer rich resources for a shared life together based on mutual respect and deeply held values' (12).

Religious Education.

Education clearly has an important part to play in ensuring that misunderstandings and prejudice do not take root in British society. Much of WCF's work has been in the area of public education, but at times particular attention has been given to the religious education of the young, both in schools and universities.

The 1944 (Butler) Education Act required religious instruction in all local authority schools together with an act of Collective Worship. Although provision was made for Jewish children and opting-out was permitted, both the instruction and worship were almost wholly Christian, even though, as we have seen, R A Butler in his address to the WCF recognized that spiritual values are emphasized in all religions. WCF was one of the first bodies to advocate the teaching of world religions and to express concern about provision for the religious education of children of minority faiths. An article in World Faiths, in March 1961, said there was a need for an 'Advisory Council for Inter-Faith Understanding in Education', 'on which would be representatives of the teachers' bodies, local education authorities, teachers' training colleges, the churches and such organizations as the WCF and the Council of Christians and Jews' (13). On more than one occasion, Lord Sorensen raised the matter in Parliament (14).

In 1965 Bernard Cousins, a Jewish member of the Congress, published a booklet giving examples of his own efforts to introduce world religions into the classroom. 'The study of one faith in isolation', he wrote, 'with scarcely any reference to the greatness of others can produce a narrowness of outlook, an arrogance and exclusiveness which give rise to suspicion, contempt and dislike for the unfamiliar'(15). In the same year, Rev. John Rowland compiled an All Faiths Order of Service for World Childrens' Day, which was distributed through UNICEF (16).

In 1969, the Congress convened an Education Advisory Committee. At that time it was thought that a new Education Act was being prepared, so the Committee's first task was to draw up a statement, issued in July 1970, about the provision of Religious Education in local authority schools 'with particular reference to the teaching of world religions and the needs of all children in a plural society'. The Committee, on which all major religions were represented, argued that religious education should have a place in schools, primarily on educational grounds.

We believe that religious education should have a continuing place in our schools. The primary reason for this is educational. A knowledge of man's religious history is essential to an understanding of our culture and our fellow beings. The spiritual dimension is a part of human experience and pupils should be given the opportunity to understand and assess religious claims. As people of faith we believe that individuals and society need a spiritual basis. Moral values, too, although they may be independent, are often closely related to religious faith.

In calling for the teaching of other religions, besides Christianity, the group said that what was needed was 'the imaginative sympathy that enables a child to appreciate what living by another faith means to its followers' (17). The committee suggested that assemblies might sometimes be interfaith in character. Subsequently the committee discussed assemblies in greater detail (18).

The Education Advisory Commitee of WCF continued for some years, with Catherine Fletcher, a distinguished educationalist, in the chair. For some time members discussed the misunderstandings that religious communities have about each other. A number of conferences for teachers were arranged and an essay competition for young people was organized.

As Education Secretary for the British Council of Churches, John Prickett, a former headmaster, was particularly interested in this area. In July 1972, he arranged through the BCC Education Department a two day residential interfaith conference on education at Leicester University. A couple of similar conferences had already been held, sponsored by the National Society in 1970 and 1971. A follow-up to the Leicester Conference was held at Westhill College, Selly Oak, in 1973, sponsored by the Extra-mural Department of Birmingham University. Participants felt it was important that the work should continue, so a new body was formed called The Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education (SCIFDE). This fledgling needed a parent, so WCF agreed to be the sponsoring body. John Prickett, who had retired from the BCC, became the very active secretary and Rabbi Hugo Gryn became chairman. A series of conferences have been held, some of which resulted in publications, including, Marriage and the Family, Death and Initiation Rites, all edited by John Prickett. John Prickett was succeeded by Angela Wood.

At the same time, as the WCF Education Advisory Committee agreed a statement on RE, it also produced a simple guide to resources for those wishing to teach world religions. It is a reminder of how few resources were then available that the guide was only four foolscap pages. At much the same time, Peter Woodward of Borough Road College, Iselworth, produced a slightly larger list of resources. This in time grew into a very comprehensive guide. SHAP now produces an annual journal World Religions in Education and the SHAP Calendar, which gives the dates of the major festivals of the main religions. SHAP, which was established after a conference to promote the study of religions, held at Shap in the Lake District in 1969, has arranged regular conferences (20).

To provide a forum where the variety of people concerned for the future of religious education could meet, a Religious Education Council was formed in 1973 (21). This includes representatives of professional organizations of faith communities and of interfaith organizations. WCF has for several years been represented by Dr Owen Cole, a distinguished educationalist. The RE Council has recently been active in trying to ensure that the needs of all faith communities were safeguarded in the 1988 Education Act and in its application.

Members of WCF have been active in all these organizations and some are members of local Standing Advisory Conferences on Religious Education. Others are RE teachers. Yet despite the considerable success of efforts to broaden the scope of religious education and the wide resources now available, the subject is still given a low priority in many schools and WCF should rightly continue to be concerned that children have an opportunity both to grow in their own faith and to learn and appreciate the faiths of others.

The increasing provision of courses on religious studies in British universities, advocated earlier in this century by the Union for the Study of the Great Religions, has been welcomed by WCF. A number of WCF members are active in the British Association for the Study of Religions (22). WCF has tried to encourage seminaries, theological colleges and other centres for training rabbis and imams, to provide teaching about all the great faiths. The increasing availability of good books for students and of translations of religious texts, for example by the Sacred Literature Trust (23), should remove any excuse for ignorance.

Peace and Human Rights.

Too often religious differences have been a cause of bitterness, which is one reason why education about world religions is important. At the same time, in all religions there is a concern for peace, justice and human welfare.

The World Congress of Faiths has therefore worked closely with many other bodies. For example, Dr Edward Carpenter, President of WCF, for many years chaired the United Nations Association's Religious Advisory Committee, on which a number of members of WCF have served. He, together with Bishop Appleton, helped to initiate the Week of Prayer for World Peace, of which for many years the organizer was Canon Gordon Wilson. WCF also supported the 'One Million Minutes for Peace' campaign, organized by members of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

The World Congress of Faiths has worked closely over the years with the World Conference on Religions and Peace (WCRP), both internationally and in Britain. The hope of the WCF has always been that its activities would contribute to understanding between peoples and so to peace. The 1995 conference, for example, was on the subject of 'Religions in War and Peace'. WCF, however, has not been a campaigning body on specific issues. WCRP has been more focussed on questions of disarmament and development.

Recently with growing popular concern about the environment, there has been renewed interest in what the religions have to say on the subject, shown for example at the Worldwide Fund for Nature's programme in Assisi in 1986. WCF has been represented at some meetings of the Global Forum on Human Survival and at the Summit on Religion and Conservation.

Whilst Younghusband himself and the pioneers of WCF hoped that religious people could 'awaken and develop a world loyalty', much of the work of the Congress has been preparatory to that, in that it has been necessary to dispel prejudice and build up friendly relations between members of different faith communities before they could begin to act together. The programme of the Inter Faith Network and WCF's co-operation with a wide range of other bodies concerned for justice, peace, human rights and the protection of the environment, suggests that a new stage in interfaith work is just beginning not only in Britain but across the world.

 

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