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The World Congress of Faiths – An Overview

Nudging Religion Towards Inclusiveness

Participants at the 1933 World Fellowship of Faiths. Photo: Mahanam.orgStudying the history of the interfaith movement, one finds an indirect link from the 1893 World Parliament of Religions to the World Congress of Faiths (WCF). In 1933 The World Fellowship of Faiths held an International Congress in Chicago. It was also called a ‘Second Parliament of Religions.’ One of those who attended was Francis Younghusband (profiled last month in TIO). Younghusband was encouraged by the organizers to arrange a second World Fellowship of Faiths’ congress in London, although Younghusband soon made clear that he was in charge of plans for what became known as the World Congress of Faiths.

Just as the then Archbishop of Canterbury refused to support the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, so in 1936 Archbishop Cosmo Lang advised King Edward VIII not to preside at the World Congress of Faiths, because Christianity was the only ‘true religion.’ Most of those who attended the Congress were scholars, such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Yusuf Ali, and D. T. Suzuki. Religious leaders wanted to hold on to their followers.

Inspired by a sense of Oneness that transcends particular religions and inspires active service of others, members of WCF have continued to be gadflies urging faith communities to come together and to be more adventurous and socially concerned.

Overcoming Exclusivism

Pioneers such as Bishop Bell (a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Ninian Smart, Geoffrey Parrinder, George Appleton, and John Hick, all members of the World Congress of Faiths, encouraged Christians to risk an ‘inclusive’ attitude even if ‘pluralism’ was still too dangerous. WCF members who belonged to other religions were also challenging the exclusivism of their traditions.

WCF’s first and continuing task has been to reduce the ignorance and prejudice with which people viewed other faiths. As late as the 1960s, Archbishop of Canterbury Ramsey visited a Hindu temple for the first time, and no one had advised him to take off his shoes! From the 1950s WCF campaigned for children to be taught about all religions – not just Christianity – a change that eventually happened in the eighties.

Sixty years ago WCF held perhaps the first public ‘All Faiths Service,’ when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and asked people to pray for her. Even now interfaith prayer is controversial. It is still an open question whether the Church of England will want to monopolize the next coronation.

By the seventies, immigrants in Britain wanted to find places to meet and worship. A colleague and I offered the use of our church hall to the local Sikh community, who were meeting in the back room of a pub – never thinking it would spark a debate in the national press. Even today, plans to build a mosque will anger some local residents.

As late as 1980, the Religious Affairs correspondent of the Times said that church leaders knew nothing about other faith communities, although WCF had ensured there were friendly relations between them. But by the mid-eighties change was on its way. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were building their own religious centers; Christians at last were acknowledging that centuries of anti-Jewish teaching had prepared the seed-bed in which Nazism could grow; the shadow cast by Barthian theology was disappearing; the Inter Faith Network for the UK was established in 1987; and the government was taking steps to counter racial prejudice.

By the nineties, the ending of the Cold War and hopes for the new Millenium created a mood of optimism. With growing trust, faith communities began to cooperate in prayer and work for peace and in defense of human rights. Indeed on January 3rd, in a moving ceremony at the Palace of Westminster, with Royalty and the Prime Minister Tony Blair present, leaders of faith communities committed themselves

To work together for the common good,

Uniting to build a better society,

Grounded in values and ideals that we share.

All too soon hopes for a new Millennium were shattered by 9/11 and other acts of violence. Interfaith activists had to struggle to prevent the ‘War against Terror’ becoming a new crusade. The dangers have led to greater support for interfaith work by many governments and by the United Nations.

Representing Yourself, not Your Faith

Because members of the World Congress of Faiths join on an individual basis, not as representatives of a religion, WCF has been able to pioneer and take risks. It has welcomed members of minority groups and seekers, as well as the major faiths. Today dialogue between those who call themselves ‘spiritual’ and committed members of a faith community is becoming more significant. Equally, all faiths in the West are increasingly challenged by more aggressive secularism – especially over traditional teaching on sexuality and gender equality.

The 2013 WCF Executive CommitteeAlthough British based, WCF has strong links with other international interfaith organisations and took the initiative in convening meetings in 1985 and 1988 which led to them jointly observing the centenary of the 1893 Parliament as a ‘Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation.’ The journal Interreligious Insight has an international readership, and WCF has arranged interfaith tours to many countries.

Even today, when interfaith is endorsed by governments and religious leaders, WCF has still to remind people that despite the practical benefits of interfaith activity, the primary motivation is spiritual and springs from an experience of Oneness with the Source of All Life, which transcends particular religions and is the deepest wellspring of compassion and the commitment to human rights, peace building, non-violence, and reverence for all life.

This history of the World Congress of Faiths is explored in detail in Marcus Braybrooke’s Widening Vision: The World Congress of Faiths and the Growing Interfaith Movement (2013), available in print or as an e-book from www.worldfaiths.org or www.lulu.com.