'United Religions' is Bishop Swing's goal
by Carol Barnwell
An initial request in 1993 from the United Nations planted the seed for a global flowering of peace just five short years ago. Since then Bishop William Swing (California) has met the Pope, the Dalai Lama, sheikhs, rabbis and patriarchs to explore the formation of a group that would, in spiritual terms, parallel the United Nations and work for world peace.
United Religions (UR) seeks to bring religions and spiritual traditions to a common table in a permanent, daily global gathering. Gathering religious leaders for the celebration of the UN's 50th anniversary celebration at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco led Bishop Swing to consider the 40 wars that were currently being waged throughout the world,"most fuelled, at some level, by religion."
"For 50 years the nations of the world have met daily and struggled for the global good," but the same has not been true of the world's religions."I committed my life then to being a catalyst for the creation of a United Religions," he says. With no prior expertise in interfaith work, Bishop Swing found international interfaith groups involved in a portion of work but none that had succeeded in a global effort. Early meetings with historical religious leaders were admittedly "ambiguous," many unwilling to accept the concept of UR. "Most see their job as defending the faith, not pursuing global good on behalf of all faiths, and they don't want to be seen as giving away the store. But we didn't get disarmament because someone at the Kremlin called someone at the Pentagon," Bishop Swing notes.
Pointing out that the hero of the Good Samaritan story was someone from a different religion, Bishop Swing admonishes: "Jesus said,ŽI have other sheep that are not of this fold that I must bring also.' The question is can we stand the generosity of God in that he reveals himself to other people in the world through other symbols and through other stories?"
Nevertheless, the first buds of the United Religions initiative appeared during the summer of 1996. Representatives of different religions announced their intention to take the UR concept to other parts of the world through regional conferences and to write a global charter. Additionally, the group outlined plans for coordinating a 24hour ceasefire and peace day on December 31, 1999.
Support from odd angles
Ninety-nine percent of UR's current budget of $1.5 million is raised from private, nonreligious sources. Bishop Swing says additional support sometimes has come from surprising places. An offer from the highly respected Centre for Social Innovation in Global Management (SIGMA) in Ohio was a turning point for the group. The centre's cochair, Dr David Cooperrider, read of Bishop Swing's lofty goals in his local newspaper. Dr Cooperrider's group works in 50 countries on global initiatives that will change the next century and called UR "one of the most important initiatives" SIGMA has seen. The group sent a design team to help UR plan regional conferences and provided international introductions that made it happen, Bishop Swing says. Mr Dee Hock, who invented the Visa card and its global system for moving money, has helped to design UR's unique organisational model. "We are clear that we have to have the greatest authority in smallest unit."
"There is an emerging sense of urgency at Lambeth for the need of UR," Bishop Swing observes. "Bishop Munawar (Mano) Rumalshah, of Pakistan,is in the real world of religious persecution.
"It's not a matter of trading interesting ideas here but desperately trying to find an arena where life can be worked out."Bishop Swing says other bishops are coming to the same conclusions."There are people in areas like the Middle East and Kashmir who would welcome the knowledge that there is a UR initiative," he adds."My diocese is very supportive," Bishop Swing says of his primary position for the past 19 years. Rather than a burden, this new work allows him to grow and expand, he says, adding: "I've got a new story to tell and everyone wants to hear it."
"I get tarred and feathered by a lot of people," Bishop Swing readily admits. Some see UR as an attempt to establish one religion while others are concerned about compromising the First Commandment to have "no other gods but me.""When I spend time with Muslims and come back to the Scriptures I hear it like I've never heard it before," he says, "It isn't diminished but enhanced."
"Exposure to the proliferation of faiths brings a humility to our own spirituality in relation to the overwhelming, inexhaustible glory of God that outdistances our grasp. It only energises my faith in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit,"he says of his experiences.
Of his work on behalf of UR, Bishop Swing says humbly: "We are embarked on a mission to do something unprecedented inhuman history."
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