A sense of common cause that unites faith traditions was central during Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold's January 13-16 visit to Los Angeles, where some 30 interfaith leaders were among honored guests for a diocesan ordination service and an evening panel discussion.
"A fundamental unity transcends our traditions," Griswold told the panel gathering of some 250 people hosted by the Los Angeles Baha'i Center at its headquarters near L.A.'s Crenshaw district. "We are enriched as we seek ways in which to make common cause for the good of our communities and this nation."
The Presiding Bishop's visit, hosted by Diocesan Bishop Jon Bruno, ushered in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed January 18-25 with the theme "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," from Matthew 18:20. The annual observance is an outreach of the World Council of Churches, which represents 347 churches in 120 countries.
"Society is longing for direction and searching for answers," said Randolph Dobbs, Baha'i Center administrator and coordinator for the panel gathering. "Much of what people seek can be found within the walls of neighborhood churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship."
Other panelists included Dr. Muzzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America; the Venerable Wolpola Piyananda, of the Darma Vijaya Buddhist Temple and the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California; Rabbi Harold Schulweiss of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California; Swami Atmavidyananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California; the Hon. James Nelson and the Hon. Dorothy Nelson, both leaders in the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States. A judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Dorothy Nelson is also a former dean of the University of Southern California's law school.
Addressing the gathering, Griswold recalled an experience in Jerusalem some years ago when he prayed at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron and noticed Muslim men studying the Koran to his left and Jewish women praying to his right. "I thought, here we are, the three children of Abraham," he said. "We exist with a common Parent to make sure none of us feels we have the absolute corner on God's truth."
The panel's topic was "Religion as the Dynamic Force in a Changing World." The theme was also echoed in meditations led by area clergy, including Episcopal priests Susan Klein of St. Alban's Church, Westwood/UCLA, and Glenn Libby, chaplain at the University of Southern California.
"Religion is already a dynamic force in a changing society," said panelist James Nelson, a retired L.A. County Superior Court judge. "Unfortunately, the dynamic tends to be of division, separation, exclusivity. We have to change that dynamic."
"Each of us has a particular language, narrative, memories," said Schulweiss, a rabbi well known for his popular talks and writings. "But one thing is clear to me. God didn't create Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, any religion. God created all of us and gave us wisdom and heart to discover godliness. We are choosers to go beyond the rhetoric of oneness. We have to do away with sibling rivalry, the notion that 'God loves me more.' We have to relinquish the notion that there are certain people who are elect, certain people who are chosen, that certain people have absolute truth. That kind of absolutism is deleterious to everything we talk about. Can we say, you are not chosen and another rejected, we are all choosers?"
The role of women in various faith traditions is just one example of the way religions adapt to a changing social context, said Atmavidyananda. "The caste system has been outmoded, it is being abolished," he said. "We have promoted the rights of women, and updated the idea of what karma yoga is."
Schulweiss agreed: "Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. The text may be the same. The truth of the matter is, what's important is interpretation. There was a time when a woman couldn't ascend the religious platform, be counted in a quorum, could not serve as a rabbi or cantor. Now we are much more liberal and accepting of the role of women. The only thing constant in religion is change.
"This also means acceptance of the gay community," he said. "Much of the treatment and rhetoric has been harmful, callous, cruel. We are glad to see within the Jewish community more and more appreciation of gay life. If you want to be inclusive you have to include everyone, including the person who doesn't believe in God-the atheist, the agnostic."
From the Buddhist tradition, Piyananda said the spiritual journey is an ongoing process of continual enlightenment about oneself and one's surroundings.
Griswold pointed to life's constant process of discovery, noting that "the unfolding of the Spirit of Truth doesn't work solely within religious construct. It works within the world.
"Views of the cosmos once sent people to prison at the hands of the clergy," he added. "Things in the Scripture described as demonic we now know were epilepsy. We are always learning more . . . We are all under construction, and my prayer is that we be faithful to that process."
Siddiqi agreed that religious texts should be interpreted within the context of society, along with reasoning and thinking. "Various groups of Muslims are very conservative and don't want anything to change; some are very liberal and they want everything to change. Some are in-between; being in-between is the most difficult," he said.
The panelists also agreed during the question-and-answer session that more tolerance and dialogue are needed.
"We all have different catechisms, liturgies, creeds. What we have in common are not doctrines, but fears," Schulweiss said. "Before you were a Christian or a Jew or whatever you were, you were a human being. It's what touches all of us, what brings us together. We are all frightened to death of death, we are frightened of injury or destruction-there is so much mendacity in the world, as well as hopes for peace and tranquility. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize who we are before ever joining the synagogue, mosque or temple," he said.
"Religion has a tremendous amount to contribute to the transformation and healing of the world," Griswold told the gathering. "Love by nature has to give itself away. The more we root and ground ourselves and our inner energies of our tradition, we become people of compassion and the world is healed to that extent."
Siddiqi said that isolationist and separatist attitudes create pitfalls for religious tolerance. "We have to work for economic justice, promote ethical values, remove the things that are breaking families apart and finally, we have to work together to take away the culture of violence. If we can solve problems peacefully, there is a great future for humanity."
Nelson added that the golden rule, common to all faiths, has been extended by the Baha'i to mean: Love your neighbor more than yourself. We are still having difficulty defining who our neighbor is. The disciples asked Jesus who is my neighbor and he answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. He created a new dynamic. Our neighbor is every human being on the planet."
Interfaith, ecumenical colleagues attend ordination
Earlier that day, Griswold also presided at the ordinations of 14 priests within the L.A. diocese. Some 1,400 people attended the Saturday-morning rites at Immanuel Presbyterian Church. Located in L.A.'s Wilshire Center district, Immanuel Church offered its sanctuary after it was determined that no local Episcopal church was physically large enough to accommodate the
Guest preacher was Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Armenian Church, Western Diocese. Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i and members of other Christian traditions were also present among the invited guests of honor.
These representatives were assembled by the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, who serves the Diocese of Los Angeles as its officer of ecumenical and interreligious concerns. She is also a consultant to the Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Bishop C. Christopher Epting, in service to the wider Episcopal Church.
Griswold said these were the first priestly ordinations in which he has participated since becoming Presiding Bishop. "It was wonderful to be a part of today's service. It was wonderful that it was an ecumenical celebration, there was so much applause and joy and appreciation for the presence of our ecumenical and interfaith partners."
Ordained were Charles Asher, Robert Fisher, Thomas Hallahan, Abel Lopez, Melissa McCarthy, Richard Miles, Patricia Millard, Ruth Monette, Liz Munoz, Sarah Nichols, Andrew O'Connor, Neil Tadken, Richard Tiff II and Mary Trainor.
L.A.'s bishops, led by Bruno, and including Suffragan Chester Talton and assistants Robert Anderson and Sergio Carranza, shared in leading the rites.
In his sermon, Derderian called the gathering "an historic action" and expressed "thanks to Jon Bruno, an outstanding member of the ecumenical community." He called the relationship between the Armenian and Episcopal churches "strong and cordial. Today is a reflection of longstanding fellowship between the two churches."
Derderian congratulated the 14 ordinands "who responded to God's call. The spirit rests upon them and they will prophesy. This marks the beginning of the Spirit life, the miracle of change. Today, the Holy Spirit rests upon them and enriches them with divine wisdom."
Bruno thanked Derderian for his ministry and participation, and, at a luncheon following the ordination, presented the Archbishop with an icon specially "written" as a gift. "We treasure the gifts of unity we share in ministry, reaching out with Jesus' hands in healing to all who need his touch."
Bruno also applauded the new ordinands, calling them to growth and faithfulness in their ministries. On behalf of the diocese, Bruno also thanked the Presiding Bishop for his visit, and for his ministry throughout his nine-year term of office.
The week of Prayer for Christian Unity was initiated in 1908 by the Rev. Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Society of the Atonement, and although a world observance, is an important expression of ecumenical activity at local levels.
While in Los Angeles, the Presiding Bishop also participated in services honoring the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. (Please see related ENS stories available online.)