Bahai News - Episcopal Bishop Seeks To Unite World Faiths Monday, June 19, 2000

Episcopal Bishop Seeks To Unite World Faiths
His organization will act as a spiritual U.N.

Imagine trying to design a global agency that could speak for all the religions of the world, a spiritual parliament patterned after the United Nations.

That was the dream of Episcopal Bishop William Swing of San Francisco, who has been envisioning just such an organization for the past five years. One week from today, ``United Religions'' will be officially born at a charter-signing ceremony in Pennsylvania.

But transforming the vision into reality has not been easy.

While getting representation from organized churches with strict hierarchies -- such the Roman Catholic Church -- seemed doable, Swing found that the Vatican wanted nothing to do with his organization.

Then there were fundamentalist groups such as the 15.9-million- member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church in the United States. Many of its leaders today look at other religions and see little more than potential converts to their brand of Christianity.

Then came the problem of what to do with the groups at the other end of the theological spectrum -- the world's pagans, animists, shamans, goddess worshipers and other eclectic spiritualists. How do you even count them, let alone find someone to represent them?

And what of the other major world religions. Who can speak for the world's Jews, many of whom spend much of their time arguing among themselves? Or the Muslims, many of whom don't want to sit down with Jews?

Then there are Buddhists, divided into countless sects, and the teeming spiritual chaos in India, which the West tries to simplify with little words like ``Hindu.''

Add it all up and you see what Swing has been up against for the last five years.

BEGINNING OF THE DREAM

Swing, the spiritual leader of the Episcopal Diocese of California, publicly announced his United Religions dream in June 1995 at a worship service at Grace Cathedral marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

Since then, he and a growing global band of interfaith activists have been laying the foundations for the organization.

In a recent interview, Swing sat in an office at the United Religions headquarters at the Presidio, recalling the past five years.

``We sat in this room for three years working on a charter,'' he said. ``What we came up with is like nothing ever seen in the world of religion.''

Early in the process, Swing got a less-than-enthusiastic response from many religious leaders. So he and his colleagues decided to build the United Religions from the bottom up.

``We went out into the world looking for people doing interfaith work, and made contact with them,'' said Swing, pointing to a world map covered with pins representing those contacts. ``We couldn't wait around for religious leaders.''

Organizers soon gave up on the idea of actually trying to represent all the organized religions and eclectic spiritual movements on the planet.

``We don't want people coming over and thinking they are representing Orthodox Christianity or, as if anyone could, Hinduism,'' Swing said. ``But we are looking for a diverse presence.''

And, added the Rev. Charles Gibbs, executive director of the United Religions Initiative, ``We don't need some super-bureaucracy.

``We want people to be globally connected, but with tremendous freedom for local expression,'' Gibbs said. ``When appropriate, we will speak on global issues, but we don't want to play a tune and assume everyone else must dance to it.''

STRESSING COOPERATION

So, the basic unit of the United Religions will be ``Cooperation Circles.'' Any group of seven people or more from a mix of religions, spiritual expressions or indigenous traditions can become part of the U.R. by forming one of those circles.

Then they embark on a local project that promotes the organization's beliefs, such as nonviolent conflict resolution, protecting the environment, encouraging religious tolerance, and working for justice and peace.

These activities will be coordinated at the international level by a 41-member Global Council. Twenty-four of its members will be elected by the world membership of the United Religions in eight regional elections. Diversity will be ensured with a dozen at-large trustees, and the last five seats will be taken by Swing and others on the current U.R. board.

Currently, the organization has an annual budget of $1.8 million, raised by private donations, including substantial help from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who prefers to remain anonymous.

Swing has had trouble getting support from the Vatican, the leadership of Orthodox Christians, Muslims and the Southern Baptist Convention.

One of the ironies about the United Religions, Swing says, is that religious groups that are convinced they have the exclusive path to salvation are the hardest ones to approach -- and yet are the ones that most need to hear the U.R. message.

FUNDAMENTALISTS A TOUGH SELL

``As for the fundamentalists,'' he says, ``we're just going to stay in business long enough that we will find some organizing work together that is mutually helpful to both sides. Fundamentalists are concerned with religious persecution, and so are we. The only United Religions principle I've heard a fundamentalist object to is when we say no one will be forced to participate in a liturgy or to proselytize. When a fundamentalist sees that, they may say, `But I want to proselytize.'''

Locally, United Religions has the support of the Roman Catholic Church. Its board includes the Rev. Gerard O'Rourke, the ecumenical officer for the San Francisco Archdiocese, and the Rev. John LoSchiavo, chancellor of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.

Early in his quest, Swing visited Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and a prelate often included on lists of possible successors to Pope John Paul II.

``If this is of God, I will not be able to defeat it,'' the cardinal told Swing. ``If it is only of human beings, it is not going to amount to anything.''

Now's the time to find out.

The United Religions will be at a charter signing ceremony next Monday afternoon at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That will be the highlight of a five-day gathering that is expected to draw 375 participants from six continents.

Represented at the signing ceremony will be Hindus, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Wiccans, Baha'is, Sikhs and representatives of indigenous people around the world.


For more information on the United Religions, go to http://www.united-religions.org.


©Copyright 2000, San Francisco Chronicle
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