"We are children of one God. We are citizens of one planet. I have just been informed that there are some 3,200 sparks of the divine flame in this auditorium tonight. Welcome!" So spoke an elderly Sikh leader who was one of the opening speakers at the Parliament of the World's Religions as it convened in Barcelona, Spain, July 7-13.
Attendance surpassed the 7,000 mark as the Parliament unfolded, and the workshops numbered more than 400.
Exploring the theme "Pathways to Peace: The Wisdom of Listening, the Power of Commitment," the fourth Parliament built on work begun in the first convened in Chicago in 1893, the second also in Chicago in 1993, and the third meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999.
Representatives from virtually all of the world's religions took part in sessions featuring keynote speakers, workshops, prayers and blessings, and video presentations, as well as musical and performance events. A typical day for a participant began with opportunities to engage in spiritual observances from one's own tradition or to observe worship and the sacred practices of another tradition.
Intrareligious sessions provided the opportunity to explore the particularities and complexities of each religious and spiritual tradition, such as Jain teachings on non-violence; the art of war, the Tao of peace; and exploring Christian motivations for dialogue. Later in the morning, interreligious sessions involved presentations on such topics as Buddhist and Hindu approaches to dialogue, building peace in the Middle East, and reaching out to the religious "other."
An extended lunch break was highlighted by opportunities to enjoy delicious food from around the world. In particular, the Sikh community<in accordance with their tradition<provided a free, vegetarian lunch for hundreds of participants each day in a simple venue set up by the Mediterranean Sea. Various symposia throughout the day included such topics as religion and conflict resolution, a dialogue of civilization, and interfaith education. Late afternoon sessions provided for engagement with others to address critical issues that confront the world<global responsibility, spirituality and the arts, peace building for women, among many others.
There were "open space" opportunities each day to connect with other participants in a variety of ways on topics of special interest or to design one's own topic-centered group. And finally, evening sessions included opening and closing plenaries, sessions focusing on Barcelona's interreligious movement, gatherings by specific religious or spiritual traditions around the city, a sacred music concert, and gatherings by regions of the world for encounter and networking.
Reactions to the Parliament from Episcopalians present were varied. Richard Parkins of Episcopal Migration Ministries, who attended a pre-event at Montserrat, was concerned that participants arrived with various levels of experience and involvement in such topics as refugee resettlement and therefore found it difficult to connect. Nonetheless, Parkins said, he found the experience worthwhile.
Sonia Omulepu, Interfaith Education Coordinator for the Episcopal Church, said that "the World Parliament of Religions has been a marketplace of ideas on inter-religious dialogue, some useful and some not so useful. The conference confirmed my strong belief that interfaith dialogue must be anchored in respect, equality and justice for the 'other'."
The Rev. Dan Appleyard, a member of General Convention's Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, added, "It was a wonderfully eclectic gathering of people from every imaginable place, spiritual and regional - a bizarre bazaar of religious wares. As such, I can say that I met new people and encountered new ideas and web sites to research."
Other Episcopalians playing an active part in the Parliament included Bishop William Swing, founder of United Religions Initiative; the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, ecumenical-interfaith officer in the Diocese of Los Angeles and President of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Alliance; and the Rev. Lyndon Harris, formerly priest-in-charge of St. Paul's Chapel in New York City,which had such an important role in relief efforts following the events of September 11, 2001.