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Parliaments Past – A Personal Journey

By Marcus Braybrooke


“Were you there yourself?” a student asked me after I had given a talk about the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. “No” was the answer, but Mary and I have taken part in all the modern Parliaments of World Religions.

A souvenir from the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions – Photo: Chicago Vedanta

A souvenir from the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions – Photo: Chicago Vedanta

In the nineteen eighties, the then leading international interfaith organisations – the International Association for Religious Freedom, Religions for Peace, the Temple of Understanding, and the World Congress of Faiths – agreed to mark the centenary of the first Parliament as a “Year of Interreligious Understanding and Co-operation.”     

Events were held in many parts of the world, and the four organisations joined together to arrange a major event, Sarva-Dharma-Sammelan, in Bangalore. (In 1893 there had been plans for another Parliament in India in 1901 – better late than never!) From Bangalore, Mary and I went to an event commemorating the 1893 Parliament, held in Delhi, where the then Prime Minister spoke. Then flying through a typhoon, we arrived in Japan for centennial events there. I was shown the badge that one Buddhist monk had been given in Chicago in 1893.

A Tradition is Born

When we arrived from Japan, the 1993 Chicago Parliament was already in full swing. “At first,” in the words of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, “it was like a huge playground. The grand lobby, with so many gorgeous robes, became a garden of rare and exotic flowers.” In a crowded lift I had my first close encounter with a White Witch – and it was such meetings with inspiring people of different faiths and cultures that are my most vivid memories. The Closing Plenary in Grant Park, with its reading of “Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration,” is just as unforgettable.

Nelson Mandela addressing the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa – Photo: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Nelson Mandela addressing the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa – Photo: Parliament of the World’s Religions

For Mary and me, the Cape Town Parliament in 1999 was our first time in South Africa. Visits to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela, who spoke at the Parliament, had been incarcerated for so many years, and to a township, are special memories. Just as well I remember the many conversations while waiting for buses to the various venues. The Cape Town Parliament began on World Aids Day – December 1st – with a big rally in the center of the city.

At the preceding Assembly, for invited religious leaders, the “Call to the Guiding Institutions,” a follow-up to the Global Ethic, was debated. For me a special memory was being asked to preach at St. Mark’s Church, which still stood at the heart of what was once District Six. This had been a vibrant multi-cultural area, but under the apartheid regime it was cleared and the inhabitants dumped twenty miles or more away. Even so, four years after the end of apartheid, many of those who lived there still came back each Sunday to St. Mark’s. I asked two of the women who had been dispossessed how they felt. They replied: “We must forgive as Jesus forgave us,” an echo of Nelson Mandela’s “mission to the victim and the victimiser.”

Five years later when the 2004 Parliament met again, the heady hopes that greeted the New Millennium had been shattered by the tragedy of 9/11 and the Madrid bombings. Barcelona was an appropriate venue, as one could symbolically look across the Mediterranean from Christian Europe to Muslim North Africa. Barcelona itself is a multi-religious society with a sizeable Muslim population.

Speaker after speaker insisted that religions do not endorse violence and should not be used as ideologies to cloak what were really economic and political battles. Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Iran, declared that “terror, violence, torture and humiliation are unacceptable in any society.” Highlights of the Barcelona Parliament, preceded by the invited Assembly of religious leaders meeting at the famous monastery of Montserrat, included an appearance of Sri Mata Amitanandamayi,  known as Amma, the hugging saint, and a Sacred Music Concert in the courtyard of Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia Temple or cathedral. For many, the most vivid memory is of the Sikh langar in a tent on the beach, where each day, for free, the Sikh community fed thousands.

Again the main themes for the Parliament showed the practical concern of people of faith for the pressing problems of today: the need for clean water, the crippling debts of developing countries, the needs of refugees, and religiously motivated violence.

A plenary gathering at the 2009 Melbourne Parliament – Photo: Parliament of the World’s Religions

A plenary gathering at the 2009 Melbourne Parliament – Photo: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Melbourne, Australia was the chosen venue in 2009. First Peoples played an important part in the gathering, and Australian volunteers gave us all a warm welcome. If my memory of Chicago is lifts, and of Cape Town is buses, my memory of Melbourne was its trams, on which we had ‘deep dialogue.’

Melbourne is home to people from more than 200 countries, speaking some 230 different languages and following 130 faith traditions. So it understandable that one of the organisers described the Parliament as “A Celebration of Difference” and that the emphasis was on “Respect for the Other.”

This perspective was in line the Parliament's clarification (or modification) of its core principles in the years between Cape Town and Barcelona. The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions had made clear that its aim was now to encourage “harmony rather than unity,” “convergence rather than consensus.” This shift is highly desirable. It allows more traditional groups to take part because their exclusive claims are not threatened.

Yet does this live up to the hope voiced by Charles Bonney at the opening of the 1893 Parliament, “that when the religious faiths of the world recognise each other as brothers or sisters, children of one Father, whom all profess to love and service, then and not till then, will the nations of the earth yield to the Spirit of concord and learn war no more”? I hope my relationship with my sisters goes deeper than respect for differences. Certainly our friendships with people of many faiths – in part facilitated by the Parliaments – is far deeper as I have learned to see in the other the image of the One God in whose likeness we are all created. It is these friendships that I hope will be deepened and new friendships made in Salt Lake City this coming October, because it is friendships that cross all boundaries that will create a compassionate heart for the world.

Perhaps the student was right. Maybe I would have been more at home at the 1893 Parliament. Would that we could recover something of its optimism!

A fuller account of the previous Parliaments of Religion can be found in the third section of Marcus Braybrooke’s book Widening Vision: The World Congress of Faiths and The Growing Interfaith Movement, ISBN 978-1-291-36232-9 – also available as an e-book.