6: New Shoots: 1952-1967

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

6: New Shoots: 1952-1967


India gained its independence in 1947. An even more important date, however, in marking the end of British imperial ambition is Sir Anthony Eden's disastrous attempt to seize the Suez canal in 1956. By the late fifties, the Empire was being metamorphosed into the Commonwealth. On a visit to South Africa Harold Macmillan spoke of winds of change. Those who had served the Empire were growing older and this meant that the appeal of the World Congress of Faiths began to alter.

At the same time as Britain was adjusting to a new role in the world, so British society was changing. After the Second World war some Midland firms recruited labour in the Indian subcontinent. Immigrants also came from the West Indies. By the early sixties, restrictions were being imposed on the number of immigrants allowed into Britain. Nonetheless, Britain was starting to change into a multiracial and multireligious society, although the ethnic minorities are still concentrated in the major conurbations.

Slowly the media began to notice the change. In 1954, the Home Service of the BBC broadcast a series of talks about the religions of the world. Canon Charles Raven wrote an introductory article in the Radio Times. An article in The Christian in October 1957 referred to the presence in Britain of immigrants and students who belonged to other faiths. In 1959, Good Cookery had a series of articles about the religions of the world. The next year The Times, not to be out done, had an interesting article about Eastern religions establishing themselves in Britain. 'A remarkable array of oriental religions can be found - and found to be flourishing today - in Britain'. The article referred to The Woking Mosque, Shanti Sadan in Notting Hill Gate, to Swami Avyaktananda's Centre in Bath, to the Sikh Gurdwara in Shepherds Bush and to Zoroastrian House, which had recently been opened. 'Between them and the Jewish communities, the World Congress of Faiths has helped to maintain a deal of good will'(1).

Yet there was a general lack of interest in other faiths. In 1961, the BBC refused Lady Ravensdale's offer to endow a series of broadcast lectures about the great faiths. As late as 1 80, Clifford Longley, Religious Affairs Correspondent for The Times could say that 'the main denominations know far more about each other than they do about non-Christian religions, and tend to treat those outside any formal belief system as mere "tabula rasa" needing not understanding but conversion "from scratch"'. He noted Archbishop Runcie's wish to talk to and learn from people of other faiths as a new departure which 'for reasons of inherited prejudice, the Church of England and the Free Churches have shied away from' (2). This is why Dr Runcie's 1986 Younghusband Lecture was so important not only for what he said but for its symbolic significance, although admittedly the series of Lambeth Interfaith lectures was started under his predecessor, Dr Donald Coggan. It was only in 1977 that the British Council of Churches established its Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths.

The widespread British indifference to the understanding of other religions, except amongst orientalists and some missionaries, may be illustrated by the situation at Cambridge University, when I was an undergraduate in the early sixties. Rev. Dr. A. C. Bouquet, who had a few years before published his Comparative Religion and his Sacred Books of the World, gave the only lectures on the subject. They were held in the May term, which was dominated by examinations, at 5.0 p.m. in the afternoon, when no one in the summer expected to be indoors. It was assumed that hardly anyone would come and the assumption was self-fulfilling. Before I went to Madras Christian College, Dr Bouquet invited me to tea and gave me much helpful advice about India. Dr Bouquet saw Christianity as fulfilling all that was best in other faiths. The frontispiece of his Sacred Books of the World has two quotations from Justin Martyr. It will suffice to quote one: 'We have shown that Christ is the Word (Logos) of whom the whole human race are partakers, and those who lived according to reason (logos) are Christians, even though accounted atheists'(3).

A letter from Dr A C Bouquet to Bishop Bell of Chichester, written in 1956, casts an interesting light on how WCF was perceived at the time. The suggestion had been made that the Cambridge Society for the Study of Religion should become in effect the Cambridge University branch of the World Congress of Faiths. Bouquet was concerned about this as in 1951 he had joined the WCF Council, but quickly felt himself compromised as an Anglican clergyman - evidence of the mood under Sir John Stewart Wallace's leadership. Bouquet had noticed, however, that Bishop Bell had taken part in the dedication of Younghusband House. Bell, in his reply, said that WCF had changed and referred Bouquet to Lord Samuel's statement, which is quoted below, on the occasion of the opening of Youghusband House.

Despite Dr Bouquet, Canon Raven, Dr W W Matthews and one or two more clergy, Christian thinking about other religions was still negative. It was dominated by the influence of Karl Barth and Hendrik Kraemer, who, as has been mentioned, stressed the discontinuity between the Gospel and the religions of the world.

By the early sixties a few church leaders were giving attention to the new situation. Max Warren, an experienced missionary, wrote 'The Christian Church has not yet seriously faced the theological problems of "co-existence" with other religions' (4). This was in the introduction to an influential series of books called 'The Christian Presence'. Contributors, including George Appleton and Kenneth Cragg, wrote in a sympathetic way about other religions.

In a sermon preached about this time for the World Congress of Faiths, at St Paul's Cathedral, Dean Matthews elaborated on his understanding of the work of WCF. He outlined five points.

1. Members of WCF believe that religion is the most important thing in the world and that there is an urgent need to bring all the indifferent people who are untouched by religion to see that this is so.

2. They recognize the multiplicity of religions.

3. They believe 'that the first step in a study of religions other than our own should be an attempt to understand and to try to grasp the meaning of each religion on its highest level, as experienced and explained by its saints and thinkers'.

4. They hope that the way of understanding may lead us to see that, at their best, the spiritual religions converge...and, if this is the case, there may well be some divine revelation in other religions from which we might profit ourselves. The Holy Spirit has been at work in them and we may gain some new insights and inspiration from them.

5. They are not trying to make a new religion from a mixture of all the religions of the world. Its members hold fast to their own faith, whatever that may be.

Turning then to his position as a Christian, Matthews did not question the missionary command, but thought more was achieved by appreciation of others than denunciation. 'We come not to destroy, but to fulfil'. By this means, he said, 'we shall be led to a deeper apprehension of our own religion'. Others ask 'Is not your quest hopeless?' He agreed that profound differences between religions could not be overlooked. 'Any attempt to reconcile ideas of the Divine in Buddhism and Christianity appears to be hopeless'. Yet 'all the saints of all the religions agree that the Divine is not material and it is not unreasoning force or fate. They agree too, I would urge, in believing that we must seek for any suggestion of the nature of the Divine within the spirit of man'. There are agreements too in their view of man and on what makes for the true good of humankind.’(5).

Other Anglican clergy who became supporters of WCF at this time were Edward Carpenter, a Canon of Westminster Cathedral, who was to give increasing support to WCF and to become its President and George Appleton, later to be Archbishop in Jerusalem who was to become chairman of WCF. George Appleton, as Vicar of St Botolph's Church in the City of London, invited WCF to hold its 1958 Annual service there. This was, it appears, the first interfaith service to be held in an Anglican church.

Younghusband House

In later chapters, we shall look at the various activities of WCF, such as its publications and the conferences and lectures which it arranged. In this and the next chapter, we shall concentrate on the development of theorganization and the changing personalities who led it.

For WCF an important achievement was the purchase of Younghusband House. The house at 23 Norfolk Square, which is near Paddington Station, provided a spacious meeting room on the first floor, and offices for the Hon Secretary. On the ground floor there was an office for the housekeeper and for the office secretary and also a library and reading room. The cost of shelving and equipping the library was met by the Spalding Trust. The rest of the house consisted of furnished bed-sitting rooms and a furnished flat. The weekly charge for a single room, with breakfast, was £3.5s. 0d. The house was vested in the World Congress of Faiths Trustee Association Ltd, which has now been wound up. Its cost was £5,600, met by a loan from Lady Ravensdale. Members raised £1,700 towards the cost of furnishings and decoration.

The opening must have been an impressive occasion, with a talk by Lord Samuel and prayers offered by the Bishop of Chichester, by Rabbi Livingstone and by members of other faiths. The opening received fair coverage in the national press. Lord Samuel said it had been hoped that religious intolerance was fading, but, sadly, religious antagonisms had again become a principal feature in world affairs. There were, he said, some 2,500 million members of religions in the world. Was it not common sense, as well as a duty, for them all to dispute less and to co-operate more? He mentioned that WCF was hampered by persistent misunderstanding of its purpose. People seemed to think the aim was to amalgamate religions. 'That has never been the aim and it is not now'. 'The principle has been - I have my belief, you have yours - on that understanding let us work together to soften antagonisms, to organise co-operation; to bring the leaders of all faiths together in order to promote goodwill among their followers and so guide mankind along the ways of gentleness and the paths of peace'(6).

Unfortunately, the house was difficult to run and there were financial problems, accentuated by the discovery of dry rot. The first meeting that I attended at Younghusband House was in the gracious upstairs lecture room. The speaker was Professor Geoffrey Parrinder of King's College, London, who both by his teaching and writing, did much to encourage a scholarly interest in the world religions. By the time I next visited the house, WCF had retreated to the ground floor. In 1965, the house was sold to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington to be a nurses' hostel. The ground floor was leased to WCF. The front room became the meeting room, with the adjoining room as the office. The Spalding Room remained the library.

In 1967, after Miss Joan Dopping, who had been a conscientious and helpful Librarian, resigned, most of the books were given to the Selly Oak Colleges. Others have now found a home at Westminster College, as part of the recently established International Interfaith Centre there. I regretted this particularly, as I had made considerable use of the library in writing a thesis for the London Master of Philosophy degree - material which I used in my book Together to the Truth. When I became Executive Director of the Council of Christians and Jews in the eighties, it too had just disposed of its library. Increasing postal costs made lending libraries less useful: but there were several books, in the WCF library, published in India, which were not readily available anywhere else in Britain.

The eventual sale of the property made it possible to repay the loan and provided WCF with some capital. No one at the time knew how property prices were to soar in the seventies. WCF never seems to have been destined to be wealthy and there is much in most religions about renunciation and the way of poverty!

When WCF's lease ran out, there was a further retreat, to save money, into the Spalding room, until eventually costs forced WCF to move out of the house altogether - only the fanlight, painted with the bold letters 'YOUNGHUSBAND HOUSE' are a reminder of its former use (7).

Arthur Peacock.

The moving spirit during the fifties was the Rev Arthur Peacock. Following the resignation as chairman of Sir John Stewart Wallace, because of illness, Lady Ravensdale combined the position of Treasurer and Chairman. At the same time, Lord Samuel became President in place of Baron Palmstierna. It is clear that the main responsibility for running the Congress rested with Arthur Peacock who became the Hon Secretary in 1951.

As a young man, Arthur Peacock became editor of the Clarion and for fifteen years he was secretary of the National Trade Union Club. In 1937 be became a minister of the Universalist Church. This was quite a strong body in the USA, where the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. In Britain, the Universalist Church was always very small and gradually disappeared, with many of its members joining the Unitarian Church, as Peacock himself did. In 1951 he became a Unitarian minister. He did much to help build up the Social Service Department of the Unitarian Church.

He was an imaginative and energetic secretary. He was, as an ex-journalist, a fluent writer and wrote Fellowship Through Religions, which tells the history of the first twenty years of the Congress. His motto was a verse from Elizabeth Barrett-Browning:

Universalism - universe religion - the unity of all things,

Why it’s the greatest word in our language'(8).

Arthur Peacock left in 1959, 'under a cloud', but I have not been able to discover what the problem was. At Executive committee meetings in 1961 there were heated debates about whether Peacock should still be invited to review books for the journal.

His place as Secretary was taken by Fr Lev Gillet, an Orthodox priest, with an amazing range of knowledge, shown in his extensive book reviews for the Spalding Trust Newsletter.

An interesting memo survives of some suggestions that he made to the Executive Committee. He wanted university theological students to be made aware of and to use the library. He suggested a Year Book to serve two purposes:

'(1) An objective account of the main events having happened during the year in all the great religions - not journalistic - try to show the trends of thought at work in these events.

(2) An objective review - short, not articles - of the main books on the subject published during the year'.

He also proposed a World Council of Religion. This is particularly interesting in view of the establishment in the eighties, thanks partly to the efforts of WCF, of an International Interfaith Organizations Co-ordinating Committee. There was also talk about the need for a World Council of Religion. As we shall see when we look at WCF's international work, no such council has been established although the idea reappears from time to time. 'Implement this idea of Younghusband and Spalding', Lev Gillet wrote in his telegraphic style. 'The World Congress of Faiths cannot, of course, do this alone, but can provoke and stimulate. Try to form an initiative group or committee, not asking at the start Churches or Associations, etc, but well-known individuals - e.g. Buber, Suzuki, Kagawa, Vinobha Bhave, Radhakrishnan, Taha Hussein. Correspond with them actively. Find, with them, how to approach the "collectivities". This requires faith, intensity of feeling and will and firm decision not to drag on, but act quickly'. The first immediate steps, he suggested, were to consult with Dr Heiler and Canon Raven. Fr Lev Gillet also suggested that prayer or meditation meetings should be held at Younghusband House. (9).

For a while Heather McConnell was joint Hon Secretary with Fr Gillet, but in 1963 Rev John Rowland, a Unitarian Minister, combined this work with his position as treasurer. Another active worker for WCF at this time, especially in the North of England, was George Harrison, who was a great admirer of Younghusband. He was himself also of a mystical inclination.

In 1959, Lord Samuel resigned as President, because of age. His position was taken by Lady Ravensdale, who remained as President until her death on February 9th, 1966. She was succeeded by Dr Edward Carpenter, who at the time was Archdeacon of Westminster and who became Dean of Westminster. He had long been a supporter of the Congress and of a wide range of organizations concerned for peace and human rights. He and Lilian, both of whom have regularly attended WCF events, made the Deanery a home for all who were active in the interfaith movement. By their wisdom, wide contacts and personal charm they have made an incalculable contribution to the life of the Congress.

Reg Sorensen

In 1959 the Rev. Reginald Sorensen, M.P., who in 1964 was created a baron, became chairman and retained the office until his death in 1970. Born at Highbury, London in 1891, Sorensen entered Parliament in 1929, by winning the seat for Labour. He was defeated in 1931, but regained the seat in 1935 which he held to 1950. After boundary changes, he became MP for Leyton from 1950 to 1964, when he accepted a life peerage, in the hope of enabling Mr Gordon Walker, the Foreign Secretary, who had lost his own seat, to re-enter Parliament. In the event, in a sensational result, Gordon Walker was defeated by the Conservative candidate.

Reg Sorensen was a tireless worker for numerous causes. He was a convinced pacifist and was President of the International Friendship League and chairman of the National Peace Council. He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and one of the first Britsh politicians to advocate Indian independence. In 1958, he received the freedom of Leyton. I remember at his memorial service in the town hall the innumerable organizations that were represented and paid tribute to his work for them.

He and his wife Muriel brought to the World Congress of Faiths, their wide concerns and contacts, their gift of friendship and their kindness to individuals of all races and conditions. He was a Unitarian and his interest was especially in seeking the common moral values contained in the teachings of the world religions. The emphasis shifted, therefore, away from the mystical.

Conscious of the obscurantist and reactionary character of so much religion, he had a love-hate relationship with organized religion. In his book, I Believe in Man, he criticized religions' opposition to new knowledge, to scientific advance and to social progress. In a letter to Heather McConnell he said 'I do not think the book is suitable for the WCF and would certainly not wish it to be displayed at WCF gatherings because it would be too challenging and provocative to many of our members'. He added a PS to his letter that he was sorry that Edward Carpenter had mentioned it at the Annual Service (10).

Sorensen disliked all intolerance and found orthodox Christianity too rigid and dogmatic. Yet he never doubted that the human spirit could commune with the divine and sought to commend a 'modern faith'. 'I affirm that we should not be seduced into thinking that the only reality is the tangible and the sensuous, but that reality is vaster and more permeative of our material environment than we can neatly tie up with intellectual string'(11).

With his belief in a divine spirit, went a deep and optimistic belief in the human spirit and in man's ability eventually to overcome evil and suffering in the world. He held that this belief was enshrined in all the great religious traditions and hoped that the Congress could help the religions emphasize the ethical values which they held in common. Impatient with doctrinal debate or theological dialogue - despite his questioning mind - again and again Reg Sorensen, in his addresses, came back to matters of ethical and moral concern.

He was well aware of the endless variations of moral patterns or 'mores', but held that there could be found in the world religions an essential moral content beyond transient communal codes.

It is necessary', he said at a conference service, 'to distinguish between paramount moral values and what I term "moral patterns"'. 'Moral patterns vary considerably, but penetrating, yet transcending those variables are moral values, that, with degrees of priority and emphasis, exist within all faiths and religions. Among these are justice, mercy, compassion, integrity, courage, sacrifice, fidelity and fraternity. Here is where all can meet on common ground'. He believed that despite differences of metaphysics and custom, all religions could agree on these moral values and that such agreement was vital for the world. 'I would claim that only a measure of inter-religious, international and inter-racial agreement on essential moral values can enable mankind to dwell on this earth in co-operation, amity and peace'(12).

Lord Sorensen was chairman when I became Joint Hon Secretary. He and his wife Muriel had a great gift of friendship. At an Annual Conference they would make a point of speaking to everyone. I have happy memories of their visit to our home in London and then in Kent, where he preached at a local interfaith service. He had a quizzical and enquiring mind and a great sense of fun, shown by his skill as a ventriloquist.

With his death, the dominant contribution that Unitarians had made to the leadership of WCF was to fade. Subsequent chairmen have all been members of the Church of England, although all would probably share Edward Carpenter's sentiment that they are grateful to the C of E, but glad to have spent a lot of their time outside it!