Changes and Consequences

by Dr. Judit Gellerd, PCC Honorary President


Budapest, Hungary, was the site for the much anticipated 31st World Congress of International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) in late July 2002.  Representatives of liberal religious traditions from around the world gathered in my beloved Budapest.  My Hungarian pride, however, soon faded into embarrassment.  This congress seemed to be a cheap version of its previous peers, as if Hungary were still a communist country.  There was hardly any beauty or elevating moments there.  Instead of taking advantage of Budapest’s many famous palaces, the IARF congress was held in a dull university building of social sciences--whose only virtue was its location beside the Danube.  In the lack of a festive hall, the traditionally spectacular opening and closing ceremonies were held in the hot and noisy entrance hall, where Karl Marx’s huge statue presided over our liberal religious celebration.  His right hand, ironically, was in a pose of blessing--with a mysterious smile. 

The congress fit into this prosaic setting.  It lacked the grandeur of the anticipated celebration of our illustrious past, the worshipping together as a world family of many religions.  Religious experience, so essential in a shared spirituality, was replaced by demonstrations of worship. 

It is inexcusable that Hungary’s great cultural heritage was absent.  Evenings, filled with lectures instead of cultural events, discouraged many.  The lavish Transylvanian dance evening of the village of Szentgerice coincided with a boat ride and dinner.  So only a half dozen foreigners attended the evening--what a missed opportunity!

Beyond what we missed, this congress has surfaced the presence of a deep crisis within IARF. 

The oldest multifaith organization of the world came into being in 1900, as the result of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  Its main mission has always been to nurture religious dialogue between, and a sense of connectedness among liberal and liberating religious movements worldwide.  Originally, it was the brainchild of Unitarians and liberal Christians.  Illustrious personalities, such as Dana Greely came to include the Japanese Unitarian Shinichiro Imaoka, High Priest Yukitaka Yamamoto and Rissho Kosei-kai founder, Nikkyo Niwano.  This complex mixture has shaped IARF’s vision to reflect the highest ideals of a liberating spirituality and “free religion.”  We inherited a grand vision that has guided the lives of many of us as groups and individuals, from many countries. 

Not any more, it seems.  The new leadership introduced a new agenda.  The new leaders have attempted to transform this liberal religious organization into a narrow political agency for religious freedom.  New religious groups and sects appeared in the congress--the Hare Krishnas, the Scientologists, the Moonies among them.  The original inviting hosts, the Transylvanian Unitarians, and the Unitarian Church of Hungary, and other historic groups, such as the Brahmo Samaj in India and Great Britain, have lost representation in the new Council, for the first time in a century.  Instead, small and not so liberal groups gained representation.  Our institutional memory is fading away.  The fiery last-minute business meeting, where the members were expected to rubber-stamp the proposed fundamental transformation of the organization, culminated in a plea, by half of the delegates, for a more democratic process and for preservation of IARF’s spiritual values.  The drama of the struggle was heightened by a tragic event: the sudden death of a former President, Yukitaka Yamamoto, High Priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine.  His last plea spoke to us: “Keep the beauty of IARF alive!” 

Organizations change, hopefully with a memory of their past ideals and according to democratic processes. What is going on in IARF, can be taken as a lesson for us, the Partner Church Council.

The ideals of our past were founded on partner to partner relationships, in a spirit of democracy.  We, leaders, have pledged to always facilitate those peer-relationships, to enable the partners to best connect and work together--but never to dictate, never to interfere with their commitments.

Like IARF, we go through change as we institutionalize.  We, however, hope that the new changes will fully honor the autonomy of the partner church pairings, and their ways of living out their commitments.  Several UU ministers have expressed concerns about a “moratorium on giving” proposed idea of our President, David Keyes. (An idea that was passionately opposed by PCC executives).   The Transylvanian Church is even more anxious about it.  It has created confusion and it seems inconsistent with honoring our institutional history. 

Giving has never been compulsory.  Giving develops out of the relationship and its needs--spiritual and economical.  A unilateral moratorium has the danger of causing great harm, and reversing years of trust and mutual communications.  A study can be done alongside the current practices that have been so successful.  But pulling up the plant to study its roots can easily kill the plant.

Several economical experiments--such as Harvest Hope--are being developed outside of the processes of the Partner Church program.  Stopping the money from going to individual partner churches in order to finance such economic experiments, however, is against our commitment to facilitate partner church relationships.