9. Truly Extraordinary: Foreign Religions in a Christian Church

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

9. Truly Extraordinary: Foreign Religions in a Christian Church

Interfaith Prayer.


It has been said that religions meet, where religions take their source, in God. The deepest meeting of people of faith is as they wait together in the acknowledged presence of the Eternal Mystery.

The Church Times for November 19th, 1869 reported that the opening of the Suez Canal had been marked by 'religious services of a somewhat mixed character, Mussulmen and Roman Catholics each taking part in them'(1). Presumably this refers to separate services, but it is a reminder that there is quite a long history to occasions when people of different religions are together to pray. I have attempted to summarize this history, which certainly dates back to the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, in All in Good Faith (2). Here, therefore, I shall concentrate on the World Congress of Faiths' contribution to this development.

In Britain, WCF has pioneered the arrangement of special times for people of different faiths to meet together to pray as well as providing the opportunity for members to meditate together and to be present at each other's times of prayer.

Times when people of different religions pray together have been given a variety of names. They are sometimes called All Faiths Services or Multi-Faith Worship or Interfaith Prayer. Sometimes a more neutral word such as 'celebration' or act of witness is used. A distinction is sometimes made between 'praying together', which implies joint prayer and 'being together to pray', which suggests praying in each other's presence but not saying together the same prayer. The latter term suggests rather more clearly that each religion is distinct. These occasions have been held in churches of many denominations, in synagogues, temples and other religious or secular buildings.

At the 1936 World Congress of Faiths, each morning started with prayers led by a member of one faith. As Younghusband explained in a broadcast prior to the Congress, 'Every morning before the proceedings begin there will be held devotional meetings, conducted on one day by a Hindu in the Hindu manner, on another day by a Muslim in the Muslim way and so on. At these all members of the Congress will be welcomed in the hope that they may in some measure catch the spirit of each of the different religions' (3). The final session included readings from the scriptures of the world. Some hymns were sung during the Congress. All were taken from the Christian tradition but they were chosen in the hope that many members of other faiths also would feel able to sing them.

Similar arrangements were made at the early conferences of the World Congress of Faiths. In this, Sir Francis probably received help from Will Hayes, an early supporter of WCF, who had published in 1924 A Book of Twelve Services, which were universalist in character and which expressed Hayes' belief that the religion of the future would be a world religion (4).

One of the first public services in which members of different religions read from their scriptures was the memorial service for Sir Francis Younghusband. It was almost certainly the first such service to be held in an Anglican Church - taking place at St Martin-in-the Fields on the 10th of August 1942. Participants included Bhikkhu Thittila, Sir Atul Chatterjeee, Rabbi Dr Salzberger and Sir Hassan Suhrawardy. Dorothy Thorold, who was there, remembered the service as 'truly, truly extraordinary. I had never seen anything like it at that time. It really was most unusual to have foreign religions gathered at that kind of service in a Christian church - but quite appropriate' (5). The Church Times, whilst careful not to speak ill of the dead, made it clear that, in its view, it had been a 'rather improper performance' (6).

By the early fifties, an 'All Faiths' service had become a regular feature of the World Congress of Faiths' Annual Conference. Then, in 1953, in response to Queen Elizabeth II's request at the time of her coronation that people of all religions should pray for her, a public service was arranged (7). Thereafter, for many years, the World Congress of Faiths arranged an Annual All Faiths Service. Distinguished figures were asked to give the address, including the Indian High Commissioner, Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Sir Basil Henriques, Sir John Glubb, the Hon. Lily Montagu and Dr Edward Carpenter.

In 1958, the service was held for the first time in an Anglican Church, at St Botolph's, by invitation of George Appleton who at the time was vicar there. The preacher was Dr Aurabinda Basu, a lecturer at Durham University. In 1961, the service was held at St John's Wood Liberal Synagogue. Ten years later it was held for the first time in a Roman Catholic Church, at the Church of the Holy Rosary in Marylebone. The preacher was Fr Tom Corbishley who insisted that the service was an act of worship. Despite the differences between religions, there was enough in common, he said, to come together in worship. In 1972, for the first time, the preacher was a Muslim, Al Haj Sheik M Tufail.

The most memorable services perhaps were when the Dalai Lama spoke, once at the West London Synagogue in 1973 and again at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in 1981. The latter service was held on a hot summer evening and the church was packed. At the start everyone was asked to offer his or her neighbour a greeting of peace. This created a relaxed and happy atmosphere. In his sermon, the Dalai Lama said he disliked formality. Neither birth nor death was formal! He said we needed variety of religions, just as we like variety of foods. Each has a particular insight to share.

In recent years, whilst WCF has continued to arrange times for meditation and prayer at its various conferences, the tradition of an annual All Faiths service has not been maintained. Occasional public services have been organized, for example at the end of the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation, but it has been felt that a number of such services are now arranged in different parts of the country, so that a big central service is less necessary.


A Matter of Controversy.

In the mid-sixties the question of 'interfaith worship' became a matter of controversy. In 1965 a 'Ceremony of Religious Affirmation' was arranged at St Mary-le-Bow by Rev Joseph McCulloch, a member of WCF, to mark the opening of the Commonwealth Arts Festival. The event, which was attended by Prince Philip, included readings offered by representatives of each of the great world religions. The following year the first Commonwealth Day Multifaith celebration, which was attended by the Queen, was held at St Martin-in-the Fields.

The next year, some Christians, led by Rev Christopher Wansey, objected to the Commonwealth Day Service and also to the WCF Annual Conference service which was held at Great St Mary's Church, Cambridge. The Bishop of Ely allowed the service to proceed and in the event only a handful of protesters gathered outside the church, although correspondence about it continued in the church press for several weeks.

In his sermon, Canon Hugh Montefiore, The Rector of Great St Mary's who later became Bishop of Birmingham, explained the significance of the service. He suggested there are four stages in our meeting with people of other faiths. First, there is learning about what they believe. Then, there is reflection about what this new knowledge means to us. Then comes the confrontation, when we are stripped naked and grapple with each other in our agreements and disagreements. Then, 'beyond doctrines and convictions, we move into the reality of God Himself'. We retain our religious identity.

We simply acknowledge that we are all creatures of the one God, his Spirit is in us all, we all experience the one God, that all our lives are lived in him. As our different prayers and scriptures in this service witness, we experience before him human sinfulness and awe: we offer to him human thanksgiving and gratitude: we place before him human desires and hopes: we receive from him all that is good and beautiful and true. To deny the propriety of common worship seems to me almost a blasphemy against the One God who made us all, and it is certainly a denial of our common humanity' (8).

The question of interfaith services was taken up by the British Council of Churches, which in 1968 agreed that churches should 'scrupulously avoid those forms of interfaith worship which compromise the distinctive faiths of the participants and should ensure that Christian witness is neither distorted nor muted' (9). The final draft had read 'all forms of interfaith worship', but this was changed to 'those forms of interfaith worship', after representations from the World Congress of Faiths.

The final report to the British Council of Churches made clear that Christians would not wish to compromise the uniqueness of Christ nor would members of other faiths wish to compromise their convictions. 'The presupposition of any interfaith service must be the acknowledgment of our religious diversity rather than a presumption of some (lowest) common denominator... What needs to be stressed is the religious approach to life and the common endeavour to bring spiritual values to bear on all its aspects'. The Report suggested exchange visits to different places of worship and 'occasions on which those of different faiths do in turn what is characteristic of their own religion, enabling the others present to share to the extent to which they conscientiously can'. The latter suggestion seems to be the genesis of what have become known as 'serial interfaith occasions', when members of different faiths in turn offer prayers on a chosen theme (10).

The World Congress publicly welcomed the British Council of Churches' recognition of the changed situation in Britain. The WCF statement then pointed out that WCF was careful in its services to ensure the 'distinctive witness of all participants'. The statement added that many of those attending interfaith services experienced a new awareness of God and found that their own particular faith had been enriched by contact with other faiths (11).

In view of the public debate, the World Congress of Faiths asked a working group, under the chairmanship of Dr Edward Carpenter, to prepare a justification for the services which it arranged. As the debate was between Christians, the WCF report, Inter-Faith Worship, was drawn up by Christians who were sympathetic to interfaith activity and was primarily addressed to Christians.

After giving a history of interfaith services and of the then current debate, the report set out the arguments in favour of such services. The first was that all religions worship the same God. It was a view voiced by Bishop George Appleton at a WCF service when he said, 'We stand in worship before the mystery of the final reality to whom or to which we give differing names, so great and deep and eternal that we can never fully understand or grasp the mystery of His Being' (12). Secondly, it was said that God is the creator of all people and that such services affirmed our common God-given humanity. The difficulty for some of reference to God was acknowledged. The Report also noted the ethical values which were shared by members of the great religions and said that an interfaith service could be an occasion of commitment to common action.

The objections of some Christians to interfaith prayer were noted and discussed. The Report also reflected the opinions of some members of other faiths, who mostly showed a preference for members of one faith visiting another place of worship rather than for all trying to arrange a joint service. The report included some practical advice and reproduced the texts of some services, including a particularly imaginative one, arranged with the help of Donald Swann for the 1972 WCF conference (13).

The question of whether people of different faiths should on occasion pray together has continued to be a subject of controversy. Reports have been produced by The Archbishops' Consultants on Interfaith Relations (1980), The Committee for Relations with People of Other Faith of the British Council of Churches (1983) and the Inter-Faith Consultative Group of the Church of England's Board of Mission (1992). I was a member of the first two groups and submitted material to the third of which Alan Race was a member. Whilst some Christians still strongly oppose interfaith prayer, many more have come to see that it is appropriate on special occasions and the practice has become quite widespread (14).

Many members of WCF take part in the annual Week of Prayer for World Peace, which was founded in 1974, partly on the initiative of George Appleton and Edward Carpenter. For many years Canon Gordon Wilson, who sat of the WCF Executive for some time, was the Organising Secretary. He was been succeeded by Jonathan Blake. In the mid eighties, as many as 100,000 leaflets were printed (15).

In the nineties, WCF gave renewed attention to the question of interfaith prayer. A multi-faith working party was set up, which consulted widely. The opinions of many local interfaith groups and relevant organizations were sought. Whereas most previous publications on this subject had been by Christians, for the WCF book on Multi-Faith Prayer, which was published in 1997 with the title All in Good Faith, members of different faiths were asked to share their views of interfaith prayer, in the context of their religion's understanding of prayer or worship or meditation. The texts included in the anthology were also chosen by members of different religious communities.

The book was in four sections. The first section gave some history of the development of interfaith services and of the discussion about them, followed by a series of chapters in which members of different faiths explained about their religion's view of prayer or worship or meditation and the attitude of members of that religion to interfaith prayer. The second part of the book was an anthology of texts on twelve chosen themes. The third part reproduced some orders of service and the fourth part included an annotated bibliography of collections of readings and prayers.

To broaden the consultation, a weekend conference was arranged at Ammerdown in November 1994 on Multi-Faith Worship, at which Shahin Bekhradnia, a Zoroastrian, Swami Tripurananda, Rabbi Rachel Montagu and I spoke. Anula Beckett, who is Adviser for Inter-religious Affairs for the Diocese of Britsol, said in her report of the conference that 'the first Multi-Faith meeting I was closely involved with was an interfaith "service" at Bristol Cathedral, in the Chapter House, in 1988. It was a joyful and moving occasion, but I little knew how much trouble it would cause'. This was because some Anglicans threatened to take legal action to stop an interfaith service being held in a building dedicated to the worship of the Holy Trinity. The weekend, she said, 'affirmed that we should continue our efforts to pursue greater inter-religious understanding through "Interfaith Celebrations"' (16).

The conference also affirmed the need for great care and sensitivity in the arrangement of interfaith times of prayer and that they are special and not a replacement of the regular pattern of worship of any one faith community.

Interfaith times of prayer are likely to remain controversial just because they challenge the exclusiveness of some faith communities. At the same time, they can be a deeply moving experience of the unity to be discovered in the presence of the Divine - a pointer to, what Younghusband called 'the underlying and overarching harmony which may reconcile all people of faith' (17).