World’s Religions’ parliament draws thousands, including Episcopalians, to its Chicago gathering

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Aug 22, 2023

Jonor Lama, right, demonstrates the vibrations of singing bowls for Diane Maltester, left, in the exhibit hall of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago on Aug. 15. Maltester, a classical clarinetist, said she was interested in incorporating singing bowls into her music. Photo: Lauren Pond for Religion News Service

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church didn’t send an official delegation to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which took place Aug. 14-18 in Chicago, Illinois, but the Rev. Margaret Rose, the church’s deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations, said one wouldn’t know it, given the number of Episcopalians she encountered during the event.

Rose and Lynnaia Main, the church’s representative to the United Nations, were the two Episcopal Church staff members in attendance. Throughout the event they encountered  Episcopalians from across the church, including House of Deputies Vice-President the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, members of Executive Council, and bishops, priests and church members who are connected to ecumenical or interfaith groups, Rose told Episcopal News Service.

In total, over 6,500 people registered for the parliament, according to Religion New Service, representing 212 spiritual traditions and 95 countries. The parliament describes itself as “the world’s premier interfaith convening of civic, spiritual and grassroots changemakers,”  and this was the first time it had gathered in person since 2018. It is an international nonprofit, non-governmental organization affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information.

Its origins are rooted in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the first convening of the World Parliament of Religions created a global platform for east-west religious engagement.

The parliament offered hundreds of plenary sessions, panels and workshops, which Rose said were dedicated to teaching and learning. She served as moderator for a panel on accommodation of religion in the workplace sponsored by Religions for Peace USA. She is a member of the group’s steering committee.

Participants on a panel on accommodation of religion in the workplace were the Rev. Mark Fowler (interfaith perspective), the Rev. Paul Kottke (Christian), moderator the Rev. Margaret Rose (The Episcopal Church), Brian Grim (Jewish), Arshia Ali-Khan (Muslim) and Supreet Singh Manchanda (Sikh). Photo: Margaret Rose

But alongside that, in the vast McCormick Center exhibit hall that housed the event, she said “worship was happening in every corner,” reflecting “everything from Wiccan to United Methodist.”

She declared the event “the most diverse gathering of religious organizations that I have ever experienced.” It was a place where thousands of people were able to engage “with those not like us in worship or belief but who have an amazing view of God and a commitment to the Earth and peace with one another, she said.”

The freedom to talk about religion and human rights drew Episcopalian Diane Frankle of Palo Alto, California. Along with her husband, she is co-founder of Building Bridges Together, a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue. She was on two panels, one on human right and one that looked at how to bring interfaith dialogue programs, like those of her organization, to faith communities. When talking about human rights, she told ENS she was proud to tie the teachings on respecting human dignity in the church’s baptismal covenant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “We have a prophetic voice, and we should be using it,” she said.

Rebecca Cooper participated on a panel on how to help educators teach students about religion. Cooper has 22 years of experience in that field, as the chair of the religion department at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, an Episcopal college prep school in Alexandria, Virginia. She told ENS that a key experience was hearing from a panel of high school students about their interfaith experiences. They confirmed her belief that “we can’t wait until high school to start talking [with students] about religious diversity,” not in a devotional way but one in which educators and students “are all learners together.”

Living just north of Chicago in Waukesha, Wisconsin, made it easy for the Rev. David Simmons to attend the event that resonated with his long involvement with ecumenical and interfaith work, both locally and at the churchwide level – he is president of Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers and vice-chair of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.  The event was “overwhelming and fascinating,” he told ENS, since participants were “bombarded by everything from ancient religions that have existed for 5,000 years to people who have formed new religions in the past 10 years.”

It’s critical for Episcopalians to be involved in ecumenical and interfaith efforts, each of which come from commands Jesus gave his followers, he said. Ecumenical work, or engaging with other Christian denominations, “comes from the command that we all may be one,” Simmons said. Interfaith, or interreligious, efforts are the interactions between Christians and other faith groups. “The impetus for interfaith work is that Jesus tells us to love our neighbor.”

Rose hopes to gather together some of the Episcopalians who attended to talk about what it means to engage in interreligious work. “It’s important to learn from those who are not in our own bubble,” she said.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.