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Back page interview: Gary Bouma, Parliament of the World’s Religions

by
22 April 2009

For me, the Parliament of the World’s Religions promotes an interest and understanding of interfaith. The event itself [in Melbourne, Australia, 3-9 Decem­ber] will appeal to some of the world’s largest and most influential religions and its leaders. It will also be a wonderful opportunity to dis­cuss how we as a society can manage diversity, and offer examples of mutual respect rather than hostility.

As a professor of sociology, much of my work is focused on social and religious issues. I also have a strong focus on the diversity of religion and how our society deals with it. I have advised federal and state government [in Australia] on certain religious policies; provided training to the government on healthy interfaith rela­tions; and worked with the UN on bringing religious sensitivity into the world.

I also chair the Intercultural and Interreligious Relations — Asia Pacific at UNESCO; and I’m vice-chair of the World Conference on Religion and Peace — Australia; and a board member of the World Conference of Religions for Peace — Asia Pacific.

And I am an Associate Priest in the Anglican parish of St John’s, East Malvern, in the diocese of Mel­bourne.

I spend much of my time writing and publishing a variety of books.

As chair of the board of manage­ment for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I oversee the develop­ment and strategic direc­tions. I keep an eye on the financial aspect of the 2009 event, and I am also the public face of the Parlia­ment.

The theology of interfaith relations is not yet well developed. There are published papers, biblically based, on a harmonious respect for inter-religious attitudes. We need to have a respect for and value in religious diversity. God’s plan was for us all to seek relationships with others, no matter what their religious beliefs are.

The conference will take place mostly in English. The degree of translation and interpretation has not yet been decided. Speaking one another’s language, both literally and metaphorically, has been man­age­­able before, and should be this time, too. Religion, faith, culture, and, at times, language are intim­ately bound up. It is a myth that they can be disentangled and a pure form of a religion dis­tilled.

I started working on this event about three years ago. We put together the bid team, produced the bid document, and won the process.

Melbourne won the bid to hold the Parliament because Australia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. We have learned that religion and spirituality are part of a healthy society. They must be part of the search for a just and cohesive society in which dif­ference is not only respected but welcomed.

For example, Australia’s indigenous people have suffered greatly as a result of the disrespect for their cultures, religions, and spiritual­ities. Reconciliation requires that we learn about and come to respect the spiritual lives of others (including those who choose to have none).

My wife is very much involved in interfaith matters. We are both deacons, and together we have taken Anglicanism to interfaith groups. We have also offered many Angli­cans the opportunity to discuss religious and world issues with Muslim groups.

Right now I am reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. I enjoy books on interreligious relations, including works by Peter Byer on religion and globalisation and James Beckford.

The most important choice I’ve made was coming to Australia from Canada 30 years ago. My wife was offered a terrific position, and I figured I was ready for a change. Why was it significant? Try it and it will become clear.

I’d like to be remembered for enhancing respect for and under­standing of the myriad of religions practised around the world.

I don’t enjoy the patriarchal sec­tions of St Paul in the Epistles. I like the Gospels, and thoroughly enjoy the Hebrew scriptures.

I relax by swimming, sailing, and travel.

I’m happiest when I’m writing.

My favourite holiday would be spent on the beach.

I pray for rain. The drought-ridden state of Victoria is in dire need of a long downpour.

I’d like to be locked in a church with my wife. We thoroughly enjoy working together, and love attending mass and church together. We would also have a bit of fun as well.

Professor Gary Bouma was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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