Jenny Kartupelis writes:
2016, the year of our 80th anniversary, has drawn to a close and as we move into 2017 it seems a good time to reflect briefly on the gifts of the year. Members of the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) have been joined at a variety of events by guests and new friends, who have in turn enriched the discussion and brought new viewpoints.
Planning in 2015 for the forthcoming anniversary, the Trustees reviewed the role of WCF in the light of wide ranging conversations with academe, practitioners and potential partners and in the context of other interfaith activity in the UK and beyond. They decided that there was a need for greater understanding of the interaction between spiritual life and interfaith relationships, and also that WCF could be well placed to facilitate exploring and promoting the potential of such interaction as a bridge between perspectives.
The year therefore started with a symposium at Sarum College, which brought together members, academics, and practitioners from fields ranging from local interfaith groups to professional psychiatry.
The resulting conversations, reflected in four articles by participants in the ‘Creative Encounters’ section of Interreligious Insight (June 2016) confirmed the importance of WCF as a facilitator and mediator of ideas into the public realm. In the editorial to this issue, Revd Dr Alan Race commented: ‘What was fascinating about the symposium was the emergence of a kaleidoscopic nature… of spirituality: it was an inherent quality in being human, connected as much with our bodies as our minds; it was transformative in character for individuals and society or it was nothing at all; it remains a vehicle for expressing human needs, sufferings, hopes and desires irrespective of the cultural shape those expressions take’ (p 5). A full report of the symposium will shortly be published in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality.
A full day conference in September 2016, held at Emmanuel College Cambridge, provided the perfect arena to take forward these conversations; the agenda covered both the history and future prospects for interfaith activity from a variety of perspectives. The theme of the morning was ‘The Growth of Religious Pluralism’, to which speakers Rev Dr Alan Race, Professor Ursula King, and Dr Ankur Barua gave (respectively) theological, feminist and Dharmic responses. In the afternoon the theme was ‘Religion in Society’, with Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield speaking on ‘Observations from the Cutting Edge: What are the Challenges for the Next Generation?’ and Professor Chris Baker on ‘Religion and Public life: beliefs, hopes and fears’.
To ensure a variety of contribution, each presentation was moderated by someone of a different faith and gender from the speaker, inviting discussion from the floor. The day concluded with ‘Reflections for the future’ from Dr Edward Kessler and Dr Riaz Ravat. Those attending rated the day very highly, with comments including ‘Good variety… with coherent theme running through the day’ and ‘Fantastic range and very high level engagement’; the Trustees therefore felt the event took forward the aim of WCF to ‘make interfaith activity in the UK more effective, by contributing through innovative dialogue to the improvement of understanding’ through a continual renewal and synthesis of relevant knowledge, garnered by members and partners, and mediated into the public realm.
The annual Younghusband Lecture in November was chosen to continue this trajectory by enabling the author of the groundbreaking study The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World to apply his theory for the first time in public specifically to questions of spirituality and religion. Dr Iain McGilchrist is a qualified doctor, scientist and philosopher, whose work is rooted in a detailed understanding and analysis of how the brain works, and the relationship between the right and left hemispheres. His thesis is that the modern world is facing a major problem, in that we are losing a holistic understanding of reality in favour of a more fragmented view based on a limited dualism, which is about being judgmental as opposed to judicious; this clearly throws an important light on how relationships between faiths are conducted. His presentation is summarised in our previous blog The Riddle of the One and the Many: the 2016 Younghusband Lecture, and further reflections appear in the article THE RIDDLE OF THE ONE AND THE MANY: the insight of Dr Iain McGilchrist and its relevance to practice in Interreligious Insight (January 2017) (pp 84-88).
While members and Trustees take seriously their aim to ensure that WCF plays a useful role in interfaith practice and spiritual life, they enjoy a party as much as anyone, and were delighted to hold a summer garden party for friends and supporters in the lovely setting of the Royal Foundation of St Katherine in London’s dockland area. The 80th anniversary was celebrated in style, with music provided by the Berakah Choir, and an endorsement in person of WCF’s work by Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society. The guest speaker was Harmander Singh, who is not only a tireless worker for interfaith, but also trains older Sikhs to run marathons. His presentation can be read in the blog Running is like a religion to me.
WCF is now looking forward with hope and excitement to welcoming members and friends to its 2017 events, trusting that these will prove stimulating, and provide more food for thought and action.