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The Parliament of the World's Religions,
Barcelona 2004.

The first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago in 1893, the second, which I attended, was also held in Chicago a hundred years later in 1993. the third Parliament was held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, and the fourth, which I also attended, was held in Barcelona few weeks a few weeks ago, from 7th to 13th July.

The first Parliament is famous as the occasion when the eastern religions were introduced to the West. In 1993 the religions that took their place in inter-religious dialogue were those of various indigenous peoples and various neo-Pagan paths. The Native Americans made a great impact on the 1993 Parliament, with valuable work resolving conflicts among other faith traditions, but also with the Lakota busy producing their Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality. While the Pagans held several workshops and were accepted by many present, there was also opposition to them—I think it was a Greek Orthodox group who refused to take part in an event involving Pagans.

I am told that the indigenous peoples were also actively present at Cape Town. On that occasion a discussion between the distinguished scholar of religion Huston Smith and various Native Americans regarding issues of importance to them (such as opportunities to practice their religion in prison, and the peyote rituals of the Native American Church) were filmed. Smith said that when he first studied religion, indigenous beliefs were regarded as ‘primitive’ and he did not mention them in the first edition of his important book on The World’s Religions. But after taking up a post at the University of Syracuse, in the heart of Iroquois territory, he came into contact with Native Americans, and the second edition of his book has a chapter on “Primal Religions”.

At Barcelona there were one or two programs each day on Native American issues, described as “part of a series highlighting the beliefs and practices of Native Americans”. These covered both teachings that they wanted to share with others, and problems that they face. There was a particular input from Iroquois speakers, including the singer Joanne Shenandoah and Chief Jake Swamp. There were participants and speakers from all over the Americas, though, but there did not seem to be any effort to include other indigenous peoples (unless one counts one workshop on Gypsies).

There were three Pagan events on the program, showing the multiplicity of Pagan paths and the presence of Paganism in many countries (I think fourteen countries had Pagans represented). These had a large attendance, about half Pagan and half interested others. I was pleased to make contact again with Selena Fox, of Circle Sanctuary in the USA. Michael York, from England, talked about Pagan theologies, and Fred Lamond also spoke. Paganism in England was described by John Belham-Payne, who seemed to me to be more negative about the position of Pagans in the wider community than is justified, particularly after the recent census. Because I had other things on, I missed the Pagan ritual for peace one evening, and also the meeting with Barcelona Pagans (part of a get-together of each individual faith community).

There is one Native American representative on the Board of Trustees of the Parliament, and also one Pagan representative. At the gathering of “spiritual leaders” in Monserrat before the main Parliament, ten Pagans were present among a total of three hundred people of various faiths.

There were talks by representatives of various faiths, as well as interfaith talks and discussions. These can do a great deal to improve understanding of other faiths. A large contingent of Sikhs came from Birmingham, and followed their spiritual practice of serving food to other participants who joined them.

In addition to the formal program and informal get-togethers, there were four assemblies on topics of world importance. These were on supporting refugees, access to clean water, eliminating the burden of international debt, and on overcoming religiously motivated violence. I suspect that these assemblies did important work, but it was not practical to attend just part of their sessions. I wonder if some of the people whose names I recognised who were listed in just one presentation were in the assemblies. For instance, the eco-feminist writer and activist Vandana Shiva was in one panel, and the panel on Christian-Buddhist relations had six participants, including the feminist theologians Rita Gross and Rosemary Reuther. The Catholic liberation theologian Hans Kung gave one of the main presentations. The Dalai Lama, who gave the closing keynote at the 1993 Parliament, had planned to give the opening keynote this time, but was not well enough to attend.

The assemblies were, of course, focussed on justice issues. the main theme of the Parliament was on Pathways to Peace. Though some speakers mentioned justice in relation to this, I was unhappy at the uncritical praise of peace. On occasions when we were called on to say “Let peace prevail on earth”, I found myself refusing to say that, and saying instead “May justice and mercy prevail”—it seemed important to mention mercy and not justice alone.

It was because of this that I attended a talk on Judaism and Justice. The speaker gave some very good material about justice in the Torah. He did, of course, discuss justice in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but though he was critical of Israeli policy in many ways, I felt he was not critical enough.

I went to an interesting talk on Wisdom Stories, and the speaker made some valuable points about storytelling. He began with a Coyote story from the Paiute people. I was very uneasy about this, partly because that particular story was a close parallel to Christian stories about the Fall. I was not on this occasion concerned about issues of “cultural theft”, there is enough indication that the stories like to be told, and that traditional tellers are happy to have others tell the stories if they are told correctly (which can include telling at the right time of year—even in English Pagan culture, I feel very upset when a mummer’s play is performed in the summer). But Coyote is a very strange character, there is no equivalent to his tricksterishness in European culture (not Reynard the Fox or Loki), he can be a buffoon, a tricker of others and even of himself, but also a creator. One Native American story-teller I know says that “We are all Coyote’s children”. Consequently, I feel that telling just one Coyote story without any context is a gross distortion (not that Coyote would ever object to being gross).

Despite the gathering being held in Barcelona, and participants from many countries, it felt a very American gathering. For example, of the volunteers who helped organise the assemblies, fifteen came from Europe and forty from the USA. Also, though there were of course many participants from Asia, there were extremely few black people present.

A concert of “sacred music” was held outside the Sagrada Familia cathedral, the famous building designed by Gaudi. Though interesting, this was a little awkward. There were musicians from about ten different traditions, each given about ten minutes. This meant that there was not enough time to get used to an unfamiliar tradition. Also, some of the works were clearly performance, and others were as clearly prayers, and these mixed uneasily, especially when the prayers were applauded. The whirling dervishes were moving, but, surprisingly, the group that most affected me were some Theravada Buddhists from Los Angeles. After a very short time of their chanting, I found myself in a trance, and the friend I was with had the same experience.

On one of the days we skipped the sessions, and went with a friend who lives in Barcelona to Montserrat. The mountains here are very dramatic, but Montserrat is most famous for its Black Madonna. She lives in a glass case, which may be why I was not greatly affected by her. Certainly when I visited the Black Madonna in Rocamadour in France, I was very moved, and went part of the way on my knees. I liked the stairway towards the Montserrat Madonna, with the walls covered with mosaics of many women saints, and also the path away from her, with majolica plaques to various aspects of Mary put up by locals (for instance, the Hockey Club of Catalonia) and also with metal lettering spelling out the various phrases of praise to Mary.

Did you know that there is a Black Madonna in Willesden in London? The original statue was burned in 1538. In 1972, a new Black Madonna was dedicated at the Anglican St. Mary’s Church, Neasden Lane, London NW10 and a dark, but not black, image made of oak was dedicated by the Catholic Our Lady of Willesden Church in 1892.

While I enjoyed the Parliament, I did not find it as exciting as the 1993 Chicago one. I think this was because much of the material that interested me I already knew about (and I attended some of the events, such as the pagan ones, more in a spirit of giving support than to learn things), and the large amount of interfaith work, although extremely valuable, wasn’t directly relevant to me. The friend I went with, who is involved in interfaith issues, made some valuable contacts. She also reported with enthusiasm on the exhibition From Stardust to Us, a scientific history of the universe with a strong spiritual element.

Pentacle 11, Samhain 2004

© Daniel Cohen

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