Parliament 4–The People You Meet

Sometimes what happens in the hallways between seminars at the Parliament of the World’s Religions is as valuable as what happens in the seminars themselves.  The very first day, I had delightful conversations with a few people in the convention centre lobby while we were looking over the 380-page program guide.  One couple from Washington State told me that they were from the Unity tradition, among other interfaith groups.  I asked them how their church was doing.  “If by ‘church’ you mean what is tied to a building, that might be a question; but if you mean ‘church’ as a movement, I’d say it’s doing wonderfully well.”  Already, I’d learned something.  From my own tradition, I thought about what Swedenborg calls the New Church.  Swedenborgians understand the New Church, described in Revelation 21 as a bride coming down from heaven, to be a world-wide movement.  An end time when the whole earth will be spiritually enlightened.  So when I heard my new acquaintance talking about religion as a movement, and that it is going wonderfully well, I felt relief and encouragement.  We were joined by another couple who were interfaith ministers.  They said that their outlook on religion is “not ‘instead-of,’ but rather, ‘in addition to.’”  By that I understood varieties of religion to supplement each other, rather than compete with each other for who’s right is righter than who’s.  One of the impromptu group that had gathered noticed that I had “Rev.” on my nametag.  She asked me what faith tradition I came from.  This afforded me the opportunity to once again, as with so many other religion conferences, introduce Swedenborg to people who hadn’t heard of him.

On another occasion, I had a delightful conversation with the former Episcopalian Bishop of the State of California.  His title, which I noticed from the business card he handed me, is “Right Reverend.”  He began our chat with the words, “I used to be important!”  We then launched into a side-splitting conversation about ecclesiastical titles.  I mentioned that I had attended a service at Westminster Abbey which was led by a “Very Reverend.”  The Right Reverend said that that meant he was Dean of the Cathedral.  We talked about how one addresses personages like the Very Reverend.  One calls them titles like, Excellency, Your Grace, or in the Orthodox Tradition, Metropolitan.  The conversation drifted to “high church” and “low church.”  One Anglican church was using candles inappropriately.  They were directed to stop using candles because they were not high church.  I asked, “You mean that the Church tells you whether you are high church or low church?!”  The Right Reverend said, “It isn’t mentioned.  It’s something you just know without being told.”  Then he wanted to get back to the subject of titles.  He said that he was in Istanbul meeting high churchmen of the Orthodox tradition.  He told me that he had someone whispering in his ear, telling him how to address the distinguished priests he was meeting.  One was, “Your excellency.”  Another was, “Metropolitan.”  Then a priest came up with a beard and mustache and The Right Reverend was told he was to be addressed as, “Bad Attitude.”  I laughed, but not sufficiently, so the Right Reverend had to explain, “He meant, ‘Beatitude, not Bad Attitude.”  Now I really laughed.  The Right Reverend went on, “I couldn’t even look at him with a straight face after that.”  I asked, “You mean that really happened!?  It wasn’t just a joke?”  “Yes, it really happened.”  The Right Reverend said he was good friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The very Archbishop who had performed the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Dianna Spenser.  Later, on a visit to the US, the Archbishop wanted to see the Liberty Bell.  Dressed in a suit and tie, not in his clerics, the Archbishop was waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell, and an American struck up a conversation with him.  “I can tell y’all are from England.  Great country.  I watched the royal wedding on TV.  I had a great view with the cameras and all.  Did you get a good look at them?”  “It was as if I was standing right in front of them.”

Asked what denomination I was with, I said Swedenborgian.  The Right Reverend told me that he lived just a few blocks from the Swedenborgian Church at Pacific Heights, California.  I didn’t lose a minute before I informed the Right Reverend that Robert Frost had been baptized in that very church.  No one at the table had any idea.

I couldn’t believe that I was having this conversation about titles in such a light, funny way with one who actually has one of them.  I think of Episcopalians as being staid and formal.  And I especially think of Episcopalian bishops as being even more so.  I had no idea I would meet such a hilarious, personable guy as I found the Right Reverend to be.

Meeting people can be better than reading books, if one has an interest in different religions.  Experiences like the above only happen at interfaith gathering such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, or another organization I like to attend called North American Interfaith Network.  Reflecting back, just meeting so many interesting, inspiring, delightful people in seminars or informally in hallways or exhibit spaces is something special about interfaith events.  The Parliament is not only seminars, lectures, and guided meditations.  It’s engaging personal encounters, too.  Like the Right Reverend, or my acquaintances from Washington, to mention just a few of many.

Back home, at a casino of all places, I was wearing the Tibetan prayer beads I bought in the exhibit hall where I met the Right Reverend.  A casino employee we had gotten to know over time asked my girlfriend about the necklace, since she hadn’t seen me wear them before (and they are unusual and striking).  This afforded me the opportunity to talk about the Parliament.  When I mentioned guided meditation, which I experienced there, our friend said that she would be interested in that.  She added some remarks about a drumming circle she goes to led by an Indigenous woman I hadn’t met, nor was even aware of.  There are also courses by donation in Indigenous Medicine offered by a Shaman, and guided journeys (which I took to be what I understand the Vision Quest to be), our friend added.  I had been trying to learn about Indigenous spirituality, and meeting with only moderate success.  Was this Shaman a way in?  In any event, a new experience opened up to me, in the drumming circle and Shaman course here in my own town!  This, just by meeting and talking at a public venue about the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  One just never knows about people, does one?