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
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
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
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
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
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.''
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
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
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
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
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