This data was last updated on 17 December 2018.
Overview: The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was founded in 1988 as a non-profit organization rooted in a legacy of the first Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago nearly a century before. Held in tandem with the Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, the World’s Congress of Religion—also known as the World’s Parliament of Religion—has been recognized as the commencement of formal interreligious dialogue and often credited with introducing Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism to the United States. In 1988, the Council was brought to life by the vision of two monks from the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago and by support from religious leaders, academics, and local interfaith organizers in Chicago. Their goal was to establish an organization that would host a centennial celebration of the historic gathering. This goal was realized with the 1993 Parliaments of the World’s Religions, also convened in Chicago. Subsequent Parliaments have been held in Cape Town, South Africa (1999), Barcelona, Spain (2004), Melbourne, Australia (2009) and Salt Lake City, Utah (2015). The Council for a Parliament of World Religions is comprised of a board of trustees, fifteen honorary international advisors, and five to eight staff members (a number that goes up when the Parliament is being planned). Volunteers are also an important part of the organization. During the 2015 Parliament in Salt Lake City over 1,000 people volunteered to make the event possible. Among the staff is the Council’s Executive Director Rev. Larry Greenfield, who also holds leadership positions with the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago and the Community Renewal Society and is former dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and of the University of Rochester. Dr. Robert P. Sellers, a professor of theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, became chair of the Board of Trustees in 2016. In addition to hosting the Parliament, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions initiates “dialogues and nurtures relationships among people of difference” through five program areas: the Women’s Task Force, the Ambassador Program, Educating Religious Leaders, Sharing Sacred Spaces, and Faiths Against Hate. In all of its outreach, however, the Council is careful to emphasizes that it “seeks to promote interreligious harmony, rather than unity,” desiring to maintain the uniqueness of each faith that may be threatened by assimilation in a campaign for unity. The Ambassador’s Program, Women’s Task Force, and Educating Religious Leaders program areas are intimately linked with Parliament events. The Ambassador program invites leaders within the interfaith movement globally to aid in the vision and development of the Parliament. The Women’s Task Force is composed of female Trustees members of the Council, and was created “to support women’s leadership and programming at and between Parliaments and at critical institutions including the United Nations, and to assure that women’s voices are heard at the vital nexus of women’s dignity, human rights, religion and spirituality.” At the 2015 Parliament in Salt Lake City, the Task Force was instrumental in hosting the first inaugural Women’s Assembly. For the 2009 Parliament, the Council developed a Task Force of U.S. Seminaries to explore the role of interfaith understanding in theological education. The results include a report, an online catalogue of syllabi, and sessions during the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne. In 2012, in response to hate crimes that persist in the United States, the Council created a multi-tiered national campaign called “Faiths Against Hate,” which endeavors to “transform fear and anger into peace, love and interreligious harmony.” In service of this goal, the campaign hosts dialogue sessions with local and international interfaith organizations to assess new trends and discuss strategies to ameliorate religious hatred. In addition, the campaign has created a library of webinars that can be used by interfaith activists and educators, hosted workshops, and fostered an online interfaith community to serve as a support network. Over 40,000 activists have participated in Faiths Against Hate conversations on Parliament-run social media platforms. The Council for a Parliament of World’s Religions is funded by foundation grants and contributions from individuals. Since its inception, the Council has received significant funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Hardin Generativity Trust, the Rockfeller Foundation, the Luce Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, among others, as well as from over 1,500 individual supporters.
National Changes, Local Impact: The United States’ own religious landscape has played an influential role in shaping the identity and evolution of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In 1993, organizers planning the centennial Parliament event realized that, thanks to patterns of immigration post-1965, the religious diversity the Parliament aimed to bring to Chicago already existed there. Included among the fourteen committees planning the 1993 event were Hindu and Buddhist Host Committees. While the Council strives to engage in conversations about interreligious harmony at both national and international levels, the organization is also sensitive to—and active in—the local interfaith landscape of its hometown, Chicago. The Sharing Sacred Spaces program represents one of the Council’s efforts to build relationships between communities and individuals of faith in the Windy City. The program first ran from October 2011 until May 2012 and eight religious communities opened their doors to invite their Chicago neighbors to learn about their texts, practices, and traditions.
Challenges: Throughout its over two decades long history, the Council has weathered several challenges, including funding and disagreement amidst different groups as to whether to participate in the Parliament’s programming. Exacerbating existing funding challenges that are common to many interfaith organizations, the Council was ordered by a U.S. court in 2013 to pay $276,00 in expenses related to the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain incurred by an unexpected drop in attendees, which was precipitated by a deadly Madrid train bombing months earlier. The court decision also came in the wake of the European financial crisis that had already led the Council to announce in 2012 that it was struggling to raise the necessary funds to host the 2014 Parliament in Brussels. The funds to cover the Barcelona expenses were primarily gathered through a crowd-sourcing campaign and, ultimately, the Brussels event was cancelled in hopes that the decision would place future Parliaments on a more solid financial foundation. The Council has also faced the challenge of navigating diverse religious perspectives in planning each Parliament event. In 1993, for instance, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Chicago withdrew as a co-sponsor of the Parliament because of “the distinctive participation of certain quasi-religious groups with which Orthodox Christians share no common ground.” The letter outlining the rationale for the Church’s decision went on to state that “[i]t would be inconceivable for Orthodox Christians to establish a perceived relationship with groups which profess no belief in God or a Supreme Being. The presence of such groups seems to compromise the integrity of the Parliament’s intended purpose.” Later that year, multiple members of the Buddhist community also issued their own open letter expressing dismay at hearing “leaders of different religious traditions define all religions as religions of God and unwittingly rank Buddha with God.” Further, when the Council selected Melbourne, Australia for 2009 Parliament, some Australians argued that it was a poor choice for a religious conference, given Australia’s significant atheist population. “Australia is one of the least religious countries in the world, with less than 10 per cent [sic] of adults attending regular religious services,” wrote one atheist in a 2009 op-ed published in The Age newspaper. “The fastest growing demographic in this country are those claiming not to be affiliated with any religion,” he reminded readers.
Looking Ahead: Despite these hurdles, the Council continues to look forward. In October 2015, over 10,000 people from 80 countries gathered at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City for the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, themed: “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity.” Then-Board Chair Imam Malik Mujahid announced during the 2015 Parliament that an ambitious vision would guide the future of the organization: a Parliament will be hosted every two years.Bloch, Jon P. “A Whisper Toward Peace: A Theoretical Analysis of the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 47, No. 4 2008; 612-627. The Community of religions: voices and images of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, edited by Teasdale, Wayne and George F. Cairns. (New York: Continuum), 1996. Seager, Richard Hughes and Diana L. Eck. The dawn of religious pluralism: voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893. (La Salle, IL: Open Court), 1994.