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.
13. A Worldwide Interfaith family
Although Younghusband quickly took steps to establish the World Congress of Faiths as an international organization, the Second World War largely destroyed his efforts. Subsequently, small WCF groups have come into being in some other countries. The journal has had a small international circulation. WCF has also had friendly links with organizations with similar aims in several parts of the world, such as, in the fifties, the World Alliance for International Friendship Through Religion and subsequently with the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Temple of Understanding and the World Conference on Religion and Peace.
WCF Overseas Groups.
The Netherlands: Interreligio.
Interreligio, founded in 1948 and then called 'Wereldgesprek der Godsdiensten', has been one of the most successful of WCF groups outside Britain.
News of the 1936 World Congress of Faiths created quite a lot of interest in Holland, especially among Liberal Protestants, Theosophists, Sufis and others with a real interest in eastern cultures and religions. In 1938, Sir Francis Younghusband visited the Netherlands, with the hope of arranging for a congress in the Peace Palace at the Hague. The Council of the Peace Palace were, however, not enthusiastic about the idea. In any case, the outbreak of the Second World War soon made the project impossible.
After the war, the initiative to found a Dutch branch of the Congress was taken by Professor C J Bleeker of the University of Amsterdam, who was a distinguished scholar of comparative religion, who was for some years secretary of the International Association for the History of Religions. When the society was officially registered on November 17th, 1948, Professor Bleeker became the first chairman with Mrs Helene Calkoen-van Thienen as secretary. The objects of the society were the furtherance of inter-religious dialogue, the spreading of knowledge of the different religions and improving contact between different religious communities in the Netherlands. Lectures were held in several major cities and a number of conferences, often with participants from other countries, were held at the School for Philosophy at Amersfoort, just outside Amsterdam.
The sixties and seventies saw a considerable change in the population of the Netherlands, which is now a plural society. Interreligio, as the society was now named, was devotedly led by Dr Rudolf Boeke, whose doctoral thesis was on Rudolf Otto. Interreligio attracted many who were not in contact with the main religious bodies but who were concerned for spiritual values and religious experience. It dealt with inquiries about the specific practices of the world religions and with requests for educational material, for speakers, and for information on new religious developments. A quarterly magazine, Levensteken (Lifesign) was started. Interreligio maintained contact with similar centres abroad, especially through the newsletter Lifesign, which went to about five hundred people or institutions overseas. For a time Interreligio had a centre in a busy street in Rotterdam, from which it provided help for teachers of world religions, answered a wide range of queries and at which it arranged exhibitions. It started meetings for those working for the media, to encourage more responsible reporting of religious matters.
After twenty years as chairman, Dr Boeke felt the time had come to resign. After an interregnum, his place was taken by Mrs Toja van Dongen-Meyer, a liberal Protestant. She was very active in organizing many lectures. She also attended a large number of national and international conferences on behalf of Interreligio. A good library of religious and spiritual books and magazines was formed and housed in a rented room in the Remonstrant house in Deventer in the East of Holland. The library room quickly became a centre for meetings.
After nine years, Mrs Toja van Dongen-Meyer was succeeded by chairman, Mr Erik Hoogcarspel, who is a Buddhist and a teacher of philosophy. The number of lectures and meetings has decreased recently, but greater importance is attached to the journal, Levensteken, of which the quality and the size has been improved. Interreligio is represented at many interfaith meetings in the Netherlands and is actively engaged in improving contacts with the various ethnic and religious groups that make up the population of the Netherlands.
In France, as we have seen, a Congress was held in 1939 (1). The war made any immediate follow-up impossible. In the late forties, steps were taken, to establish a French branch of WCF, which became known as L'Union des Croyants with the private encouragement of Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote a paper for the inaugural meeting, although it was read for him because of restrictions imposed on him by the Church. (2).
In her 1978 Younghusband Lecture, Professor Ursula King, of the University of Bristol and a Vice-President of WCF, spoke of Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the ‘convergence of religions’. He did not use the term in the sense of syncretism.
In a realistic appraisal, he affirmed that religious diversity is here to stay... The idea of the convergence of religions is the opposite to the attitude which assumes that all religions are already one in essence... Unity is not pregiven, it is not reducible to something already there. Like all living things it has to grow and take shape over time. True convergence means the presence of an overall orientation, an axis along which certain developments of major importance occur.
With such a viewpoint, Teilhard de Chardin, who like Younghusband had travelled widely, especially in China, was naturally sympathetic to the aims of WCF.
L'Union des Croyants was led for many years by Comtesse de Pange, who quite often attended the annual conference in Britain. L'Union des Croyants, for several years, arranged lectures at a high scholarly level, but it has become less active in recent years.
In Belgium, Rev Christiaan Vonck, a Belgian Protestant clergyman, has, from small beginnings, established a Faculty for the Comparative Study of Religion at Antwerp University. Christiaan Vonck initially drew support from the World Congress of Faiths and continues to keep in touch with WCF activities. The Faculty has grown steadily to become an important centre of study.
In South India, based on the ancient city of Madurai, Dr Ahamed Kaber, who is a poet and the author of The Beacon Light to the World, founded a branch in 1950. As Founder-President of the South Asiatic Zone of WCF, he arranged regular lectures and meetings.
Pilgrimage is part of the life of several religions. WCF was amongst the organizations to pioneer the idea of travel as a way of inter-religious meeting. Each WCF tour has included visits to a variety of religious communities.
The itinerary of the first WCF Tour to India was hastily rearranged because of extensive flooding in North India. The group spent time with the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta and also visited Madras and Madurai, where the local WCF group arranged a memorable reception. Bernice Joachim, in her report, beautifully captured the 'intriguing kaleidoscope of colour and contrasts' of the days in India.
We sat cross-legged on a cool stone floor of an ashram at the feet of a guru for two hours in the early morning at Poona; and wound our way through massive crowds and between or over reclining bodies beneath the blare of piped music at midday at the Meenakshi temple at Madurai; trod softly, with wonderment, between the "thousand pillars" of the hall of the neighbouring museum with its stirring altar of flame at the far end.
For short while we shared the still attention of the simple, devoted worship at the temple of the Ramakrishna Mission at Belurmath, and with the sound of the worshippers' chanting in the background, stood on the banks of the swollen waters of the Ganges as it swept silently by, carrying unidentified bundles in its swirling torrents...'(3).
On the Second India Tour, the group was warmly welcomed by the Guru Nanak Foundation in New Delhi and welcomed to the Golden Temple at Amritsar, where the Treasury of Jewels was specially opened. Many of the group travelled to Dharamsala for an audience with the Dalai Lama.
Mary Braybrooke in her report, mentioned both the poverty and the exhilaration of a first visit to India.
'Materially it is impossible to forget that we have so much in the West and many of them so little. Yet they have much to teach us about acceptance, about family love and hospitality - some of them about the way of non-violence.
I cannot begin to describe all we did and saw. Highlights were a visit to the Taj Mahal, as impressive as its pictures; houseboats on Lake Dal in Kashmir; watching arti, Hindu evening worship by the Ganges; shopping and bargaining in the bazaars; riding on an elephant in Corbett National Park; flying over the Himalayas; the ashram at Vrindaban and unforgettably crowded street scenes of cars, buses, rickshaws, tongas, cows and dogs - all converging'.
The group was reminded of the suffering that is caused by religious hostility. On ‘the Sunday before we left we attended worship at the local Church of North India in Srinagar - burnt down twice during Muslim rioting' (4).
Indeed memories of that tour, with its visit to Amritsar and Kashmir, have added poignancy to reports of subsequent troubles and suffering in both places
Many members of WCF also travelled to India in 1993 for Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana (see below) and took part in the accompanying tours.
There have also been tours to the Holy Land. The first took place whilst George Appleton was Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem. He arranged an interesting interfaith conference for the group, which stayed at a hotel on the Mount of Olives.
The second tour, which I led with Rabbi Hugo Gryn, included Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. Amongst the visits was one to Yad Va'shem. Jean Prickett wrote:
This coloured for some of us all our subsequent experiences in Israel. Of course, we all knew about it, but I walked out into the sunlit concourse feeling hollow and numb. It was a sensitive move to take us next to see Chagall's brilliant stained glass windows of the twelve tribes of Israel in the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew Medical centre.
On our last evening, we stood in silence by the shore of the Sea of Galilee as dusk came and distant lights appeared across the water. The single plaintive call of a bird became less insistent and then ceased. A boat glided out from the bank a few yards and the fisherman circled the boat, spreading his net' (5).
In 1994, the tour included a visit to Jordan as well as Israel. This was just after the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had been signed. In fact, the group left Amman on the very day that Jericho and Gaza became autonomous areas. A highlight of the tour was the welcome by the Bahai's to their holy places at Haifa, Bhajji and Akko.
Links with Other Interfaith Organizations.
In recent years, WCF has tried to discharge its international role by building up links with other interfaith bodies in different parts of the world and particularly by initiating the conferences for international interfaith organizations which led to them working together to mark 1993 as a Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Cooperation.
Friendly relations with other international groups have been developed by WCF being represented at many international gatherings. Heather McConnell and I attended the Temple of Understanding's Second Spiritual Summit Conference, which was held in Geneva in 1970. Bishop Appleton, K.D.D.Henderson, Mary Braybrooke, Vera Harley and I have attended other Temple of Understanding events. Several WCF members over the years have attended Congresses of the International Association for Religious Freedom and also the Assemblies of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. Regular contact has been maintained with World Thanksgiving, which is based in Dallas.
WCF has also kept in touch with many world religious bodies and been represented at some of their gatherings. For example, I attended the Vancouver Assembly of the World Council of Churches and David and Jean Potter attended the Canberra Assembly. David and Celia Storey and others have been to several interfaith meetings in India and Mary and I have been invited to conferences in Korea and Japan as well as the USA.
Much of the lasting value of such gatherings is the friendships which are created and remain. There has slowly developed an international interfaith family. This has enriched the lives of those involved, but also provided an important channel of information and support in building up good inter-religious relations. Whilst the expression of this often is very local, the international dimension is important. What happens in one country, affects relationships in another. Communal trouble in India has had repercussions in Great Britain. Violent clashes in the Middle East have affected Christian-Muslim-Jewish relationships in Europe. Events in former Yugoslavia, have caused problems for Muslims elsewhere.
To try to strengthen the sense that various interfaith organizations were partners, WCF arranged a meeting of representatives of international interfaith organizations at the Ammerdown Conference Centre near Bath in April 1985. It was not as representative as had been hoped, being dominated by Europeans and Americans. This was partly because no funds were available to subsidise travel for participants from Asia. Even so, the major international interfaith organizations participated. A number of national organizations and some study centres were also represented.
Ammerdown, is a retreat as well as a conference, centre. The discussions were deliberately set in the context of quiet, meditation and prayer. Time was given to building personal relations, which are vital in interfaith work, and to describing the work of the organizations represented.
Besides recognizing the need to strengthen links between interfaith organizations, the conference suggested that the various events held to commemorate the Chicago World Parliament of Religions might be linked and that the year 'could provide an opportunity to touch people more widely with the spirit of interfaith dialogue'.
In a rather euphoric mood, the conference warmed to the suggestion of Dr John Taylor of trying to create a 'World Council of Religions', 'to bring together people of all religions to overcome religious sectarianism, to work for peace, and to link individuals and organizations which are working for interfaith understanding' . Attempts to pursue this came to nothing, but the idea was mentioned again at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993 and at the Conference held in San Francisco in 1995 to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Charter of the United Nations (6).
Following Ammerdown communication between interfaith organizations increased. WCF, the Temple of Understanding, IARF, World Thanksgiving and WCRP were invited to be represented at the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi in 1986.
Ammerdown, April 1988.
In April 1988, a second meeting of international interfaith organizations was held, again at Ammerdown. The main outcome was a call for 'world wide celebration of the centenary of the World Parliament of Religions'. By the following January, all four organizations, IARF, the Temple of Understanding, WCF and WCRP agreed jointly to sponsor 'A Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation' in 1993 and to hold a special centennial gathering. After considerable discussion, Bangalore was chosen as the venue (7).
The planning body - an ad hoc group - became known as the International Inter-religious Co-ordinating Committee (IIOCC), with David and Celia Storey as secretaries and myself as chairperson. I had known David at College and we had met on occasions since then. I was asked to speak at Chichester and had a meal with Celia Storey beforehand. David was away at Findhorn. Very quickly they became excited by the plans for 1993 and soon found themselves immersed in an enormous amount of work to make it possible.
To publicise plans for Bangalore and to link other events being planned around the world to mark the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation, a newsletter 'Towards 1993' was circulated. The first issue appeared at the beginning of 1991.
Besides the main conference, known as Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana, which means Religious People Coming Together, there were other conferences in Bangalore, as well as at Kanyakumari, organized by the World Fellowship of Inter-Religious Councils in which Fr Albert Nambiaparambil has played a leading part, and in Delhi and also retreats at Mt Abu and in Rishikesh.
Nearly six hundred people attended Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana, which was held at the Ashok Hotel at Bangalore. There is a full record of the conference in Visions of an Interfaith Future (8).
The whole conference was set in a context of prayer and meditation. Indeed in the hotel garden, where many events took place, there was a tree under which Gandhi used regularly to spend time in meditation when he was in Bangalore.
The conference began with a joyful and prayerful Opening Ceremony. This started with the lighting of a lamp by Cherry Gould, a member of WCF, and by various religious dignitaries. There were prayers from each tradition, I gave a message of welcome, Dr N Mahalingam, President of the Ramalinga Mission, gave the keynote address and the main address was given by HE Kursheed Alam Khan, the Governor of the State of Karnatika.
The final ceremony, arranged by the younger participants, was also a joyous and prayerful occasion. Each day participants came together in the morning and evening for times of prayer and meditation, led by members of one faith community.
There were three programmes. One involved intensive small group work in which participants produced a shared vision of interfaith co-operation. The second consisted of visits to a large number of local religious centres. In the third programme, there were seven workshops on key issues, such as 'Education for Understanding' or 'Service and Solidarity'.
In the evening there were cultural programmes, some hosted by local communities. These allowed many of the citizens of Bangalore to share in some of Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana. The Governor kindly arranged a reception at Raj Bhavan for all the delegates.
One Japanese participant, who had been afraid to come to India because of reports of communal trouble, said of Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana that it was a foretaste of paradise, with the blue skies, beautiful flowers, butterflies and everywhere smiling faces. Certainly, my own lasting memory is of the warmth of the friendships and the sheer enjoyment of our rich variety. It was primarily a gathering for those involved in interfaith work and gave them the chance to share their achievements, their failures and their hopes. It showed that in all their diversity, those committed to inter-religious understanding and co-operation have become an international family and are a symbol of hope to a world still scarred by ethnic and religious conflict.
In Delhi there was a Day Centennial Meeting, at which Dr Karan Singh, a former member of the Indian government and Chairman the Temple of Understanding presided and gave a keynote address. The highlight was a speech from Shri P V Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister of India, who stressed that India's constitution gave equal respect to all faiths.
There were other international gatherings to mark the centenary of the World's Parliament of Religions, especially in Japan and at Chicago itself. Dr Daniel Gomez-Ibanez, the Executive Director of the Chicago Parliament, attended several meetings of IIOCC and has become a good friend. Mary and I were privileged to represent WCF both in Japan and at Chicago. Several other WCF members, including Sir Sigmund and Lady Sternberg, David and Celia Storey and Brian Pearce were present at Chicago.
An International Interfaith Centre.
Many who took part in the year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation have felt it was important to maintain the links that have been built up. A number of new initiatives are being explored. There is a continuing organization at Chicago, concerned both with work in the metropolitan area and internationally. A Peace Council, of which Dr Daniel Gomez Ibanez, who was Executive Director of the Chicago Parliament is now Executive Director, held its first meeting at Windsor at the end of November 1995. A United Religions Organization was initiated by Bishop Swing of California, following celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco. Existing international interfaith organizations are increasing their programmes (9).
The World Congress of Faiths has been particularly involved in the establishment of an International Interfaith Centre at Oxford. The energies which were channelled into its International Committee are now invested in the Centre.
For some time before 1993, IARF and WCF had been in conversation about the need for such a centre. After careful consultation, it was agreed that Oxford would be a very suitable venue and Westminster College, which has a strong department for the study of religions, agreed to co-operate with the project. By the end of 1993, both the International Association for Religious Freedom and the World Congress of Faiths had relocated their offices to Oxford (10).
In December 1993, a Trust Deed was signed to establish the International Interfaith Centre (IIC) at Oxford, which is now a registered charity. The objects of the Centre are:
"To advance the education of the public world-wide in its understanding of the different faith traditions and various faith communities and how they might live in harmony, by establishing a Centre to promote or assist research into:
1. Issues of interfaith understanding, co-operation and religious freedom;
2. teaching methods and the development of educational materials;
3. aspects of worship, prayer, meditation and spiritual discipline;
and to disseminate the useful results of such research".
The Centre held its first international conference, in April 1994, on 'Religious Practice, Justice and Transformation'. It took a critical look at the effectiveness of religion in helping to make society more just. There was discussion of the patterns of religious education in several countries. The second international conference, in April 1995, was on 'Threat or Promise? The Study of Religions and Interfaith Activity'. There was again sober analysis of what interfaith organizations could do in areas of conflict.
Lectures on the relation of religions to the environmental crisis have been given by Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr, of George Washington University, USA and by Professor Seshagiri Rao, of the University of Virginia, USA. Reports of the conferences and lectures are contained in International Interfaith News.
Visits to faith communities and educational centres in or near to Oxford have been arranged, including The Postgraduate Centre for Hebrew Studies at Yarnton, Keston College and The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Other visits have provided an opportunity to learn about different aspects of worship, prayer, meditation and spiritual discipline.
The Centre in its first eighteen months has received a steady stream of visitors, who have come to seek advice and information. Several have been staff members of international or national interfaith organizations or of world religious bodies. Others have been scholars in this field. A far greater number of enquiries have come by letter, telephone, fax and E-mail.
The co-ordinators, Celia Storey and Sandy Martin quickly collected information on major international interfaith organizations and multi-religious world bodies. Information is also held about many national and local interfaith organizations. Information is also being gathered on major faith communities and their structures for interfaith relations and also about major academic centres for the study of religions. A programme of research is being developed.
Plans were put in had for a purpose built centre at Westminster College. The architects Evans and Shalev, who have designed a number of distinctive buildings, prepared an initial design for the centre. A fund raising campaign for the building and endowment fund, under the guidance of Mr Neville Sandelson, a former member of Parliament, was launched. HRH Prince Charles wrote a message of support and Sir Richard Greenbury, Chairman of Marks and Spencer, agreed to be President of the Appeal. Sadly this ambitious project was frustrated, mainly because local residents objected to the proposal and planning permission was refused. The work of the Centre has continued but not on the scale initially envisaged.
The preparations for the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation and the travel involved showed me how many people in different parts of the world are working for inter-religious understanding, human rights, peace, the relief of the hungry and the preservation of the planet. As I said in my welcome at Bangalore, 'The flowing together of so many streams of new life will create a river strong enough to wash away the stains of ethnic cleansing, racism, sexism, discrimination, communalism and apartheid. Many people long for renewal, for a world rebuilt on spiritual principles. What is necessary is that those who share this hope should share their energies' (11).
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