12. A Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Cooperation: </P>

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

12. A Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Cooperation: </P>

Creating interest.

1993 marked the centenary of the World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago. The International Interfaith organizations, as we shall see, agreed to designate 1993 as 'A Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation'. In Britain, celebration of the Year was co-ordinated by the World Congress of Faiths.

In order to prepare for the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation in 1993, the World Congress of Faiths called together a small group to discuss how to promote it in Britain. The World Congress of Faiths offered to co-ordinate the activities, but in a way that encouraged as many other groups as possible to arrange a special event to mark the centenary.

It was clear that there were not the resources to organize many central events. In fact, the only central events were the Launch at Global Co-operation House in January and a concluding service at the West London Synagogue.

First, however, people had to be made aware of the year. The aim was never just to mark the centenary of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions at Chicago. We wished rather to focus on the achievements of one hundred years of interfaith activity and to encourage people to look forward to the task ahead.

To many, it was a surprise to learn that the interfaith movement was a hundred years old. They knew little about interfaith work, less about the interfaith organizations and nothing about the World's Parliament of Religions. If we were to gain support for the year, we had to increase awareness of interfaith activities. My history of the interfaith movement, Pilgrimage of Hope, which was published in February 1992 in Britain and the USA provided a solid historical account of what had happened and had been achieved (1). It was deliberately written in a factual rather than a hortatory style. In many faith communities there is still suspicion of interfaith activity. I wanted to avoid the accusation of special pleading. The aim was to present evidence of what had actually taken place, leaving people free to make their own evaluation of this.

Because there was so much material, the book was long. This meant that it was published as a hardback and so seemed expensive. Something much simpler was also needed, so I prepared a study guide as part of a study pack which a small group put together (2). Both became quite popular and - a rare event in WCF history - the project made a profit thanks to much voluntary labour.

We could not, however, rely just upon our own publications. Considerable efforts were made to get news of the year into a range of journals and newsletters. An enormous variety of publications emanate from religious communities and although by themselves they have quite small circulations, together they have a cumulative effect. Rev James Paterson was particularly effective at getting the Scottish Religious Press involved. Local papers reported local events which were arranged for the year.

There was some attention in the national media. The Launch was featured on BBC Thought for the Day. The Independent had a series on inter-religious relations and Mr Indarjit Singh in particular mentioned the year, hoping that it would lead to 'action for a saner world order' (3). In the autumn of 1993, BBC 1 showed an excellent series called 'Faith to Faith'. The first programme, shown as the Chicago Parliament ended, focused on that event. Subsequent programmes looked at the contemporary multi-faith situation in Britain. In one, a Christian/Hindu couple talked about the early years of their marriage. In another, a group of friends attended worship in a gurdwara, a synagogue and a mosque and discussed the possibility of people of different faiths worshipping together. Another considered the extent to which the environment is a religious issue. There was some coverage on the radio, including two very thoughtful programmes on the World Service of the BBC.

Media coverage - both mass and mini media - served to increase public awareness of the possibility of religious people working together and provided some contrast to the sombre news from former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and other areas of conflict.

In order to contact as many organizations as possible, a letter inviting participation in the year was sent out in March 1992 to religious bodies and local interfaith groups. In the letter, WCF offered to produce a hand-out listing events. This would help to create the sense of participating in a national event. In fact, the hand-out became a well produced four page news letter, called 'One Family'. The response was such that the first issue could only list events up till the end of July 1993 and it was necessary to produce four issues. As we have seen, 'One Family' has proved so useful as a listing of events and summary of interfaith activity in the UK that it continues to be published. An envelope sticker advertising 1993 also proved to be popular.

Local Events.

Events took place up and down the country and were very varied in character. Bristol, which anticipated the national launch with its own launch nine days earlier, had monthly meetings for which each faith in turn took responsibility. The Lord Mayor, as well as the Bishop of Bristol, attended the Bristol launch and subsequently the Mayor arranged his own event at the City Hall. The Mayors of several other cities also gave their support to the Year.

Most local interfaith groups and councils reported that events were better supported than usual. There does seem to have been some quickening of interest. A number of people for the first time met with and talked to people of other faiths. Many events included a shared meal and a cultural programme. This is evidence of a growing recognition that difference is a gift not a threat. British life today is enriched by its wide variety of peoples, cultures and religions.

Some events were in inner cities and others in country gardens. Many religious groups arranged special programmes. The Ramakrishna Order, whose Swami Vivekanada played a leading role at Chicago in 1893, held a series of meetings. The Unitarian Church arranged some national events and local Unitarians were supportive of local programmes. A Methodist Day Conference to commemorate the Parliament was held in West Yorkshire. In Edinburgh, a day long programme was held in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, with a welcome from the Moderator. There were a few protestors and one wondered what John Knox, whose statue dominates the courtyard, would have made of it. The Swedenborgian Church arranged a conference in London. This was appropriate because Charles Bonney, who suggested the Chicago Parliament and was its President, had been a Swedenborgian. Birmingham Cathedral hosted events as did St James, Piccadilly, St Martin in the Fields, Christ Church, Bath and a few other churches. The predominantly Anglican Modern Churchpeople's Union, which in 1991 had held a conference on the monotheistic religions and in 1992 on eastern religions, devoted its 1993 conference to 'Faith Outside Faiths'. Westminster Interfaith, which has strong Roman Catholic support, focussed its very active programme on observing the centenary. There were special lectures or meetings at Lancaster University, at Exeter University and at some other universities and colleges. The World Congress of Faiths' own programme, naturally enough, focussed on the year.

The above is only a sample, but indicates the breadth of support, although one is aware that large numbers of the practising members of religious communities still are unaware of, disinterested in, or opposed to interfaith activity. There was some endorsement from acknowledged religious leaders, but still considerable caution - His Holiness the Dalai Lama, during his visit to Britain, being a notable exception to this generalization. Even if religious leaders are increasingly recognizing the importance of interfaith co-operation, religious bodies are still very reluctant to make available the funds and resources that this work requires.

The Launch.

Although the emphasis for the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation was on local activity, it was agreed to arrange a major national event to launch the year. The hope was that this would create public awareness of the Year and would encourage and inspire those planning local events.

A committee widely representative of the faith communities in Britain was convened to plan the Launch. The first meeting of the committee was held on April 22nd, 1992. It was encouraging almost all of those invited attended the meeting, which was chaired by Lord Ennals, with great charm and skill. Lord Ennals gave a great deal of time to the detailed planning of the event. Whilst not identified with a particular religious community, he was a spiritual person. This was significant because from the beginning it was hoped that the Launch would not only be a gathering for an 'inter-religious in-group', but would also speak to many in British society, who are not involved with institutional religions, but who have a deep concern for spiritual and moral values. This was why the programme included participants from many walks of life.

The Launch, held at Global Co-operation House at the invitation of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, on January 27th, 1993, was a day-long event. It fell into three parts. The morning was fairly formal; the afternoon was spent in workshops and the evening was a cultural celebration. I have described the Launch quite fully in my Faith in a Global Age, so here I will summarize the main components of the day (4).

The morning began with welcomes from Lord Ennals and Dadi Janki, who is Additional Administrative Head of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. There were addresses from Bishop Trevor Huddleston, known for his long campaign against apartheid, Dr Mai Yamani, a social anthropologist who gave a very clear exposition of Islam's concern for a society based on moral values, Swami Bhavyananda, head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre in Britain, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, of the West London Synagogue and Edgar D Mitchell, the Apollo XIV Astronaut, who spoke movingly of the sense of the oneness, beauty and fragility of our planet as seen from space. That image had in fact been shown at the start of the proceedings.

To create a link with the 1893 Parliament, a lively dramatisation of the 1893 Parliament was presented by Jane Lapotaire, Clarke Peters and Robin Ramsay. At the end of the morning, children from a local school, Barham Junior School, carried in a great globe on a stretcher - the world was dying and required urgent care. As the children started to rescue the world they sang, led by Marneta Viegas, Michael Jackson's 'Heal the World', whilst an enormous 'One World Quilt of Unity', made by a group in Milton Keynes, was raised as a backdrop to the stage.

The morning was punctuated by the Water Ceremony. On the stage, there was a fountain. Two members of each faith were asked together to bring a gift of water and to say a prayer. For some the water came from a special source. The Christians brought water from the river Jordan, the Hindus from the river Ganges, the Muslims from Zamzam. Some of the prayers specifically related to water. The Christian prayer was from the Roman Catholic baptism service. From the Qur'an there was a verse which speaks of God making all things from water.

Because of suspicions that interfaith is really a new amalgamated faith, some care was taken with explaining the significance of the ceremony. The programme said,

Each religion has treasures to share with all people. In the ceremony, representatives of each World Faith will say a prayer and offer its treasures in the form of water. The 'water' may symbolise the cleansing of the scars of conflict, the bringing of refreshment to the thirsty or the renewal of hope for a just and peaceful world where nature's bounty is valued and not polluted. The mingling of the waters symbolises how from their own rich and diverse sources faiths can come together in the service of humanity. (5)

The afternoon workshops focussed on particular values but in a way which showed their relevance to world issues. This was done by the careful choice of co-ordinators and speakers, who represented a wide range of concerns and activities, including, for example, a member of the UN Department of Economic and Social Development and the President of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Mr Douglas Martin, Director General of the Office of Public Information of the Baha'i International Community in Haifa and I were asked to respond to the Workshop reports.

The evening, introduced by Clarke Peters, included moving readings by Hayley Mills and by John Cleese, who chose passages from Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and contributions of music and song from several faith traditions. As always, children stole the show. Tibetan children from the Pestalozzi Children's Village sang and danced. Thai children also danced. A young Sikh performed a spiritual sword dance, Jain children gave us a Lullaby Dance and children of Forest School acted a play. There was a devotional Kathak piece by Sushmita Ghosh and music from the Baha'i National Choir. There were closing messages by Edward Carpenter, former Dean of Westminster who, with his wife Lilian have long supported a variety of interfaith organizations and by Dadi Janki. At the end of a long day Sheila Chandra sang 'Sacred Stones'. Sacred Stones blended in a wonderful and moving way Eastern and Western traditions of sacred music and, late into the evening, provided a fitting climax to the day.

The day served its purpose. Over eight hundred people participated on a working day: many of whom were later to arrange local events. Some had travelled from Scotland and Wales. Some religious leaders had come from the South of France. The day was a blend of faiths, cultures and walks of life. It demonstrated the enrichment that our cultural and religious variety can bring to our life together. The Launch also made clear that interfaith is not just about how religions relate but about how together they can contribute to a divided and needy world.

A Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication.

This theme was to be taken up in a Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication held in the West London Synagogue to mark the conclusion of the Year. It was felt to be important that there should be a concluding event, as sometimes 'Years' just peter out.

The attendance of nearly two hundred people was much less than that for the Launch, yet it was quite good for a winter's evening. The service included a sermon by Bishop Tom Butler, the Bishop of Leicester and the reading of the Introduction to the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic, followed by comments on this. The service itself was for the Jewish festival of Chanukkah, which recalls the time when, in 168 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. It was recaptured by the Maccabees, but when they came to rededicate the Temple, only one day's supply of pure olive oil could be found. Miraculously it lasted for the eight days necessary to fetch further supplies of pure oil.

The light of faith and hope lit at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 has often been nearly extinguished by the bloodshed and cruelty of the twentieth century. The hope is that the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation has passed on that light to a new century. The word Chanukkah means dedication and all who attended the service of Thanksgiving and Rededication were aware of the work that remains to be done. There is a rabbinic saying that it is not given to us to complete the work, but neither is it for us to cease from it.