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The Parliament of the World's Religions,
Chicago 1993.

The first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. That gathering is regarded as the origin of the major interest in Eastern religions in the West. The conference was particularly impressed with Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the great Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, and the Vedanta movement was started after his visit.

At that Parliament two groups notable by their absence were Native Americans and Anglicans. The first were not invited, while the Archbishop of Canterbury refused his support on the grounds that Christianity was the only valid religion.

This summer, to celebrate the centenary of the first Parliament, a second Parliament of the World’s Religions was again held in Chicago, attended by more than 6000 people. Native Americans were present and gave many presentations, which were the high points of the gathering to many participants. This time pagan groups were represented, including the Fellowship of Isis, the Covenant of the Goddess, Circle Sanctuary, and Earthspirit. There were about twenty or more events in each time slot, so that even if one concentrated on one religious grouping or an area of discussion, there were always clashes in the programme.

Although Anglicans were there, the main Christian presence came from Catholics and Orthodox groups. The latter, though originally planning to give several talks, withdrew because they did not want to associate with groups who did not accept the existence of a Supreme Being. It is not clear if they were referring to pagans or to Buddhists; the latter put out an open letter stating that Buddhism is not a God-based religion and objecting to the frequent use of the term “God” in presentations.

Catholic participation included Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and a representative from the Vatican. One of the surprises of the conference for me was a talk by a Benedictine on the Easter liturgy (in a workshop on liturgy in which the other participants were a Native American and a Wiccan). He told us how parts of the service were based on the four elements, others came from the Eleusinian Mysteries or from other early agricultural festivals.

By contrast with the Christian participation, Buddhists and Hindus were there in large numbers, and there were also many Jains and Moslems. Unless one attended the events, it was impossible to tell if such presenters were American converts or came directly from these traditions.

There were quite a number of presentations by women, and sessions on various aspects of women and religion or women and spirituality. But there was no explicit feminist presentation anywhere (though feminist theologians took part in some discussions), and a general lack of concern about such issues. Apart from the Pagans, very few people in the major sessions found it natural to refer to God as She; I was pleased to find that those who did were Jewish.

The opening ceremony contained blessings and invocations from many groups, including one by Olivia Robertson, co founder of the Fellowship of Isis, and a special blessing by Native Americans. The closing session was addressed by the Dalai Lama, who said that there is a need for many religions because people differ in their psychological and spiritual make ups. This session concluded with blessings from speakers representing many groups; once again the Native American speaker was particularly well received. During this closing session a group of Pagans unfurled a banner which read “The Goddess; you can’t ignore Her any longer.”

Apart from Olivia Robertson’s opening blessing, various Fellowship of Isis groups held events, including a mystery play. Other pagan groups also held several events, the workshop “What is Wicca?” was held twice, each time with fifty or more people present; the question most frequently asked was “What place is there for men in a Goddess based religion?” Both the Fellowship of Isis and the Covenant of the Goddess had hospitality suites, where people could go to ask questions. I was very pleased to be able to meet American pagans whose names I had known of for many years, such as Selena Fox of Circle, and Isaac Bonewits the Druid (and writer of many parodies of serious pagan songs).

The Covenant of the Goddess held an open air full moon ritual with about two hundred people present, both pagans and interested outsiders, most of whom found the ceremony moving. (This was held the day after the full moon, because of difficulties with getting a permit from the Parks Department; these were only solved with the intervention of the American Civil Liberties Union.) I have seen discussions in British pagan magazines about whether public rituals are a good idea or whether they put off outsiders who may be watching. What I learned from this event is how much more skilled the Americans are than us in putting on such rituals; also, it became clear that this is a skill of its own, probably needing theatre training, and that someone who is excellent at planning and leading a ritual for a small group who are already used to rituals may be hopeless at holding large public rituals.

Pagan groups were represented at the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, a group of about 150 representatives of various faiths which met during the Parliament. They put together a Declaration of a Global Ethic which it was intended that the Assembly should adopt. This made commitments to a culture of non-violence and respect for life, solidarity and a just economic order, tolerance and a life of truthfulness, equal rights and partnership between men and women. This proved controversial, perhaps because “God” was not mentioned, and was not accepted by the Assembly as a whole, although many participants signed it. By contrast, a Declaration of Vision was put to the Assembly by the Native Americans, and received its support.

I attended a Native American Pow-wow, outside the Parliament. I was delighted by the presence of a large number of children, from tiny babies to teenagers — a great contrast with the very few children present at the Parliament. People of all ages took part in the ceremonial dance at the pow-wow, from five to seventy five. Pagans could learn from this about including children in their events, whether formal rituals or informal gatherings.

The workshops by Native Americans covered both spirituality (for instance, creation stories) and politics, although they would not separate the two, but would regard both as aspects of their way of life. They spoke of the many treaties broken by the US government, and the mistreatment received by children who were put in Christian schools and forbidden to speak their own language. They called for the return of their artefacts and the bones of their ancestors from the museums (and private collectors) of the world.

They were particularly keen to put a stop to the proliferation of “urban shamans” and “plastic medicine men”. There was private discussion between Native American and Pagan representatives on this issue; although Pagans have more awareness of the problems than most New Age people, we still have much to learn about this. The women leading a workshop I attended gave some criteria for telling whether an alleged medicine person was genuine. To begin with, if anyone says they are a medicine person, question the claim (some of the holy people have kept themselves so secret that it took one woman several years to learn that her husband was a pipekeeper). Those who are genuine will know their own language, and will have a connection with their reservation; so try to find out their links with the area they claim to come from. A claim to have studied under a particular medicine man is suspect, as this is not the way true medicine people gain their knowledge and powers. And, of course, no one charges for ceremonies.

As some of these criteria are much harder to check over here than in the USA, I would add two that the women did not mention. First, there is no such thing as “the teachings of Native American spirituality”; though different nations have spiritual views that are closer to each other than to European spirituality, there are considerable differences. A true teacher will talk about the Lakota way, the Iroquois way, or similar expressions, and they are not likely to talk about the ways of a nation to which they do not belong. Also, ask what the people are doing to give something back to those from whom they claim to have learned; are they taking part in tribal activities, or supporting the political struggles for control of the sacred lands, or any such activities.

All in all, an exciting event, with much material on ecology and spirituality, ethics in business, religion and violence, and other aspects of dialogue between religious groups. I felt it was symbolic of the possibilities for a better world that information about the moves for peace between Israel and the Palestinians first became public while the Parliament was being held.

Wood and Water
44, Autumn 1993

© Daniel Cohen

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