THE increasing incidence of hate crime, and growing fears of attacks by terrorists, blasphemously shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is most great”) (News, 29 July), have given renewed urgency to the search for interfaith co-operation. In 1936, with rising anti-Semitism and preparations for war in Nazi Germany, it was an equally dangerous time. The response of Sir Francis Younghusband, an explorer and mystic, was to found the World Congress of Faiths (WCF), which marks its 80th anniversary this year.
Younghusband’s mystical and far-reaching vision of “Oneness” is still relevant. There are now many worthwhile interfaith initiatives, but they often seem to be a response to problems rather than to the “search for a new world order”.
Talk of “Oneness” is still a challenge to the exclusive claims made by many believers, which add to the alienation of the growing number of people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”.
In 1936, there was little support from religious leaders for the congress. Archbishop Cosmo Lang advised King Edward VIII not to attend it, and refused to take part, because “it might imply that Christianity was only one of many religions, rather than the one true religion based upon Divine Revelation.”
Instead, the WCF Congress attracted support from leading scholars such as Yusuf Ali, who translated the Qur’an into English; Dr D. T. Suzuki, whose books on Zen Buddhism were widely read; and Nikolai Berdyaev, an eminent Russian Christian philosopher, who said: “Good Hindus and Buddhists belong to the true Church.”
INDIFFERENCE to, and suspicion of, other religions continued after the Second World War, and there was fierce criticism of the “All Faiths Services” that the WCF arranged. Barthian theology made a clear distinction between the gospel of God’s grace and other religions, which were dismissed as human efforts to reach God.
Later on, in the 1970s, Archbishop Donald Coggan appointed a team of interfaith advisers. But the significant moment was when, in 1986, Archbishop Robert Runcie, in his Younghusband Lecture, while rejecting a synthetic world religion, looked forward, quoting Paul Tillich, to the time when “religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.”
A year later, the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom was established. Already in schools, religious education (RE), which included some teaching of world religions, had replaced religious instruction about Christianity. School assemblies, too, had begun to change to include readings from all faiths.
Increasingly, also, members of world faiths were working together for peace and human rights. In the mid-’80s, for example, 100,000 leaflets for the Week of Prayer for World Peace were printed.
INTERFAITH co-operation for a better world grew during the ’90s. The centenary of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was observed around the world as the “Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation”
In 2000, at an interfaith gathering in the Palace of Westminster, representatives of all faiths pledged themselves “to work together . . . to help bring about a better world now and for generations to come”.
Storm clouds were already on the horizon, however, and the Three Faiths Forum, which now works with young people of all faiths, was founded in 1997 to address growing tensions. Soon, the world was changed by the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, and other attacks such as the London bombings in 2005. Tony Blair recognised the need for social cohesion, and encouraged many new local and national interfaith initiatives.
But this also changed the way in which the word “faith” was used. For Younghusband, faith referred to a person’s spiritual convictions, which is why the WCF is based on individual membership, and welcomes “seekers” as well as committed adherents of a faith. Today, faith can be seen as a badge of identity which determines what one wears or eats or whom not to marry. As a result, people now often belong to interfaith councils as representatives of a faith rather than in an individual capacity.
Not only tensions at home, but also conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, fuelled by false religion, as well as the suffering of millions of people who are hungry or homeless, have been prompted a rising number of interfaith initiatives. For example, the International Interfaith Peace Council played a part in the campaign to ban landmines, and Islamic Aid works alongside Christian Aid and other faith-based charities to bring help to Syrian refugees and to the people of Gaza.
For many years at the UN, there was a Communist veto on religion. When I met the Assistant Secretary-General to ask for his backing for the Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation, in 1993, he said: “I give you my full support, but I can say nothing.” By 2000, the UN was free to host a Millennium Peace Summit.
VITAL as is all such work, the pioneers of the interfaith movement recognised that the fundamental problem was religious exclusiveness, which would be overcome only by a vision of the One All-Merciful God, whose love embraced “every child of every race”.
The language of the Creeds — for example, “only Son of God” — becomes a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2.14). “Only” is a stumbling block to Hindus, and “Son” is problematic for Muslims and Jews. Other biblical language, such as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15), or “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5.19), may be more helpful.
Jesus, I believe, came to create “one new humanity”. The love of God that he made known transcends religious divisions. As the Sufi teacher Rumi said: “The religion of love is the true message of all religions.”
The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is Joint-President of the World Congress of Faiths (www.worldfaiths.org), and a co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum. His books include Widening Vision (Lulu Press, revised edition, 2016).