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Creating the Order of Universal Interfaith

By Timothy Miner

Since its inception, leaders in the interfaith movement have asserted that interfaith is about bridge-building, not creating a new tradition; and that we treasure our differences as well as the values we share. Not everyone agrees though, and there have always been minority opinions.

Today a growing number of people grow up without ‘religion,’ are unaffiliated, and often identify as spiritual-not-religious. Many want to pursue ministry, but without the confines of any single tradition. Without denying the importance of our historical differences, they discern a spiritual bond connecting us all, transcending theological, institutional differences. Fifteen alternative “interfaith seminaries” are serving this growing constituency, as Kurt Johnson and Diana Berke report in this issue. Thousands of ‘interfaith pastors’ have been trained since 1981 in an alternative approach to religious leadership and ordination. Timothy Miner tells the story of a new religious Order or ‘society’ he helped found which welcomes these leaders and the communities they serve.

Like Tim, many of the 500 plus clergy who have joined come from institutional chaplaincy, which has been the historical frontline for interfaith pastoral care. On the battlefield, in a hospital or jail, a pastor’s religious affiliation is less important than the quality of care he or she provides someone who may well be from a different faith. This distinction led Tim and his colleagues to create the “Order of Universal Interfaith.” Ed.

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Redefining Religious Leadership

On a cold New York January morning in 2009, three ministers with a long history and calling to chaplaincy met at a coffee shop and began the process of creating a universal religious community to serve people of all faiths and practices, those seeking and those without faith. The result was the creation of the Order of Universal Interfaith, spelled “OUnI” and pronounced Oh-You-n-I. Three years later, the Order has more than 500 members and is incorporated as a religious society, or moving in that direction, in five countries.

Artist’s rendition of OUnI’s logo.

Artist’s rendition of OUnI’s logo.

The fledgling order quickly joined with other interfaith ministries in the United States and around the world in a Council of Interfaith Communities. The goal was to become a living example of moving beyond interfaith dialogue to make “interfaith a spiritual expression” and demonstrate an inclusive theology, spirituality, and consciousness, validated by thousands of laity who recognize these clergy as inclusive spiritual leaders and servants.

Chaplaincy has long had a history of providing spiritual soul-care without restrictions. Compassion and service have always been more important than spiritual identity. Police and fire chaplains provide ministry to accident victims and others in crisis according to the needs of the specific faith of the victim. During war, United States military chaplains perform rites of other faiths before and after battle when they are the only clergy available. Hospital and hospice chaplains have been called to perform ceremonies and rites of other faiths when there was no time to reach another chaplain. These examples of the “universal chaplain” offer the role model for service for clergy in OUnI.

OUnI accepts all clergy and lay ministers into its membership. Many come with their own traditions, and some have communities where they stay affiliated.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Downes, co-founder of OUnI, performs the rite of co-ordination into OUnI

Rev. Dr. Thomas Downes, co-founder of OUnI, performs the rite of co-ordination into OUnI

When asked, OUnI also provides a co-ordination to interfaith-interspiritual-integral ministry so long as the clergy person affirms three ideas.

  • The first is that all people are of divine origin and worthy of respect and compassion.
  • The second is that everyone, including those who identify with a specific tradition or faith path, have different understandings of philosophical and spiritual truth; leading to the conclusion that everyone must be considered unique in his or her own spiritual development — physical diversity on the outside mirrors the truth of spiritual diversity on the inside.
  • Finally, OUnI clergy providing spiritual services and soul-care must do so with a discerning, caring eye to the needs of the individual, his or her life journey and spiritual path. OUnI clergy must serve as “universal chaplains” when providing service.

An increasing number of OUnI’s members are taking on the mantle of “interfaith clergy.” In the past year over a dozen graduates of seminaries have declined appointments to their home faiths and asked OUnI for direct ordination to serve all people and faiths. Many former clergy are asking for OUnI to re-ordain them to a more inclusive path of service.

The power of OUnI’s organization is the network of communities under its umbrella. These communities are the spiritual heart of the Order, where individuals and their uniqueness are nurtured. Several members of the Order are exploring a “new monasticism” to bring people of different faiths together into artistic and mystic communities. “Interspirituality,” a term first used in 1991 by Br. Dr. Wayne Teasdale, is fostered in several communities around the world. Integral Spirituality, first articulated by philosopher, Ken Wilber, is another community-building view that is bringing people of different faiths together to serve others.

Other communities gather to express ‘cosmo-centric’ or eco-centric ministries as articulated by figures like Francis of Assisi and Matthew Fox. Some activities are more scholastic, modeled on the work of Huston Smith, and include publications and theological conferences. Over 100 books have been identified, beyond the sacred scriptures of faith traditions, which act as an apologetic for inclusive spirituality and service to the larger community.

The Order of Universal Interfaith is a revolutionary and evolving way of living and serving with an interfaith perspective. For more information on the Order, please visit the website at www.ouni.org.