Friday, two days before the New Year,
My teacher and friend, Huston Smith died on the day my wife and I were flying back from Dulles Airport, USA to Heathrow, England. Huston's books and TV appearances influenced millions. I was at his last class at U.C. Berkeley and joined 200 students in giving him a standing ovation. He adapted not just the texts but the rhythms of religions and while remaining a Methodist, could say, "I never met a religion I didn't like." I gave Huston's THE ILLUSTRATED WORLD RELIGIONS to William Swing, Episcopal Bishop of California. Swing phoned Huston and invited him to visit. In a few years Bishop Swing and his wife were mortgaging their house to help create United Religions Initiative (URI). Perhaps the World's most effective interfaith organization in reaching young people. I was honoured to host Huston and his wife Kendra on a number of occasions including a World Congress of Faiths programme at Fintry House in South England and an International Association for Religious Freedom Conference at Palm Springs, California. He also shared with us at a programme at Harris Manchester College. Huston taught us there are many ways to experience "the ONENESS OF THE HOLY."
From Marcus Braybrooke
Mary and I first met Sir Sigmund and Lady Hazel Sternberg soon after I had become Director of the Council of Christians and Jews in 1984. It was at Gatwick Airport. We were on the way to the International Council of Christians and Jews. When Sigi saw us he came down the elevator which was going up. I realised at once that here was a man who would not let difficulties stand in his way.
At the time Sigi was Hon. Treasurer of the Council of Christians and Jews. Early on when I was worrying about finances, he said, ‘There’s no point having an appeal until we have a good sized deficit’ - which I soon supplied him with. Sigi was also then President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which he had done much to re-establish.
At that time, both ICCJ and CCJ were beginning to invite Muslims to share in their programmes and both Sigi and I thought that in time both would organisations would broaden their remit. I was also already active in the World Congress of Faiths (WCF), of which Sigi soon became a Vice-President.We both attended the first modern Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) in Chicago in 1993.
In the mid 1990s, CCJ made clear that its focus was specifically on Christian-Jewish relations, with its unfinished agenda. WCF and CPWR included all faiths. Sheik Zaki Badawi -a leading Muslim who was Head of the Muslim College in Ealing - and Sir Sigmund were aware that a piece in the interfaith jigsaw was missing. There was a need for a place where members of the Abrahamic religions could meet. Sigi rang me up and told me about this and I said it was a good idea. A few days later, I discovered that I was a Co-Founder.
There are times when you want the whole family together, other times when you want to be alone with your spouse or occasions when you may want to talk to one child by herself or himself. In the same way, each dialogue has its own dynamic – rivalry between interfaith organisations in a world where so much needs to be done is a disgrace.
Despite my surprise, I am very grateful for playing a part in the astonishing growth of the Three Faiths Forum. Mary and I were soon being introduced to Monarchs, Ambassadors, Cardinals, Rabbis, Imams and numerous Rotarians, as well as lots of enthusiastic young people. More important, with the growing importance of the Muslim community, the festering wounds in Israel/Palestine and the growth of extremism, Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue has a special importance, although 3FF rightly welcomes people of all religions or none to take part in its programmes.
Sigi took an interest in everyone he met. He and Hazel have been wonderful friends to Mary and me, as they have been to so many other people in many parts of the world. Indeed, interfaith is really about making friends – and friendship knows no barriers.
May their example inspire us, like those who kept faith in the dark days of the Shoah, to be united in opposition to violence and religious extremism and work together and pray for the healing of the world.
The World Congress of Faiths mourns Sir Sigmund Sternberg who died on Sunday 16 October 2016 aged 95. He was born in Budapest, Hungary. He emigrated to Britain in 1939 and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1947.
His contribution to the Interfaith world was immeasurable. Amongst many other achievements, he was responsible for the relocation of a Roman Catholic convent at Auschwitz, organising the first papal visit to a synagogue in 1986, negotiating the Vatican's recognition of the state of Israel and organising the erection of statues around the globe to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews from the Nazis but who perished , probably executed by the Soviets, some years after the Second World War.
He served as vice-president of the World Congress of Faiths for many years. He loved to attend our meetings and was generous in his support of our endeavours. Along with two other World Congress members, the Rev Marcus Braybrook and Sheikh Zaki Badawi, he was co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum. He was also the sole Patron of the International Council of Christians and Jews and attended their meetings in many different countries, always supporting the work of reconciliation and dialogue.
He was knighted in 1976, appointed a Papal Knight in 1985, and awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1998 for his interfaith work worldwide. His work for understanding between faiths took him to every continent and has brought him recognition from nineteen countries as well as the Vatican winning him many medals that he treasured.
He was a prominent member of the Movement for Reform Judaism, serving as its Life President.