A Pioneer's Journey
A TIO Interview
TIO: When you first became involved in interfaith activities, few if any discerned how several decades of globalization would put religious diversity issues, for good and for ill, center stage in millions of communities. As a preeminent historian of this transformation and its best fruit, the interfaith movement, please share with us how you were drawn to this arena.
Marcus Braybrooke: I can still vividly remember, over forty years ago, climbing up into the Air India ‘Palace in the Skies’ on a journey that was to shape the rest of my life. I spent a year studying Hinduism at Madras Christian College, meeting people from many faith communities and seeing at first hand the degrading poverty that blights so many lives. Already as a ‘candidate for missionary work,’ I had attended a conference where some of the pioneers of dialogue caught my imagination by the descriptions of their work.
On my return, soon after starting my first job as a Church of England clergyman in London, I saw a small advertisement about the World Congress of Faiths and went to a meeting where I met Geoffrey Parrinder, who wrote numerous books about world religions. He agreed to supervise my post-graduate studies, eventually resulting in my first book, Together to the Truth.
I was also very soon asked to be a Secretary of the World Congress of Faiths. (This was, like all my interfaith work, an ‘honorary’ or unpaid voluntary position which I had to fit in with my many commitments in the parish). As secretary I met wonderful and inspiring people from many faith traditions. I also for several years edited the WCF journal, World Faiths – a predecessor of Interreligious Insight.
In the 1980s as new interfaith organisations came on the scene, I was one of those who took the initiative in bringing them together so that they worked in partnership. This led to a lot of international travel in connection with the ‘Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation in 1993 and the subsequent establishment of the International Interfaith Centre in Oxford.
TIO: Your essay in this issue offers a short history, starting in 1893, of the world’s religious leaders meeting each other for the first time and building relationships. As you look back at this gradually accelerating development, what achievements do you most value, and why? To put it another way, what are the most constructive learnings to report back to our communities?
Braybrooke: The great achievements are the changing attitudes of religions to each other. When I began there was a lot of hostility to interfaith work. Christians and others were mainly in the business of conversion, not conversation. Now religious and political leaders endorse the work, although they may have their own agendas.
I am also glad that the international interfaith organisations – each with a different emphasis, constituency and methodology – now work together.
TIO: As the media make clear every morning, the Earth and its creatures, including us, are in big trouble on several fronts. Conflict and violence, climate and poverty, at home and abroad – it’s a brutal mix. In this context, what can interfaith culture, in its plenitude, offer the world? And what can we do to encourage a healthy, vital interfaith culture?
Braybrooke: It is very important for people of faith to speak with one voice in defence of human rights. It is too tempting to turn a blind eye to abuse if they are perpetrated by co-religionists. We need also to challenge the economic injustices which underlie so many problems.
People of faith need not only to offer practical help to the poor and disadvantaged and in protecting the environment, they need also to make clear that the problems are the result of the need for a new spiritual awareness of our oneness with other people and with the Natural World.
TIO: Your interfaith preoccupations go far beyond recording the history. Looking through your books, you seem particularly interested in public interfaith worship, prayers and hymns to share among traditions, different approaches to sacred practice, and how to share meditation and practice appropriately and with respect.
Now, first, what do you say to the vocal minority within the interfaith community who ask, “Do we have the pray together?” That said, what are some of the best resources and most compelling approaches for designing public interfaith celebration and worship?
Braybrooke: My deepest motivation for interfaith work comes from the mystical sense of our oneness with the Divine, with other people and with Mother Earth. That – only fleeting – realization transcends the particular dogmas and rituals of particular traditions.
I do not see interfaith worship as a substitute for the rituals of a particular faith tradition, but, on suitable occasions, as an affirmation of the truth that God is not the possession of any one religion and a reminder to us that the Divine Mystery is greater than any of us. It also is a powerful witness to our shared humanity and responsibility for each other. It inspires us to work together for peace and the relief of the suffering. It is also very valuable after a tragedy in binding together the community.