A Liberal Episcopal Bishop’s Dream Gains Ground 


United Religions Initiative Prospers in Global South;

Attracts Prominent Secular and Roman Catholic Donors


by Lee Penn

The Christian Challenge


October, 2007


 While most of the Anglican Communion has been occupied with the global conflict over The Episcopal Church’s acceptance of homosexual practice, an innovation spawned by a liberal Episcopal bishop – one that calls the First Commandment into question – is attracting little controversy as it spreads worldwide.


The United Religions Initiative (URI), launched in San Francisco in 1995 by former California Bishop William Swing (who retired in 2006), has put down roots in the Global South and many other places around the world, doubling its membership in the last five years.


In its charter, the URI describes itself as “a growing global community dedicated to promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, ending religiously motivated violence and creating cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings…The URI, in time, aspires to have the visibility and stature of the United Nations.”


The URI hopes to bring together on a regular basis representatives of the major and minor faith systems, including those of the New Age/pagan/occult genre, to help resolve conflicts in the world. However, some of its critics believe the interfaith initiative envisions or could lead to a one-world religion hostile to orthodox Christianity.


Bishop Swing versus orthodox Christianity


In his 1998 book The Coming United Religions, for example, Bishop Swing said that if the First Commandment – “Thou shalt have no other gods but me” – leads billions of adherents of “exclusive religions” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to “oppose the godly claims of other exclusive religions, what hope is there for peace among religions?” Swing concluded that “In order for a United Religions to come about and for religions to pursue peace among each other, there will have to be a godly cease-fire, a temporary truce where the absolute exclusive claims of each will be honored but an agreed-upon neutrality will be exercised in terms of proselytizing, condemning, murdering, or dominating.  These will not be tolerated in the United Religions zone” – which, potentially, is the whole world. (Note that Swing links “proselytizing” with “condemning, murdering, or dominating..”)


In 2003, Swing said that religions claiming to be “the true religion” are using “master race thinking.” 


Global growth for the URI; closer ties with the UN


Worldwide, the URI now has 361 chapters (which it calls Cooperation Circles) in 59 countries – double the number at the end of 2002 (though the URI provides no information on the number of participants in the Circles). Notably, however, 70 percent of URI Cooperation Circles are where one would least expect them: the largely conservative Global South – Asia, Africa, and Latin America – along with the Middle East and the non-English-speaking nations of the Pacific Rim. Donald Frew, a Wiccan elder and a former member of the URI Global Council, said in June 2007 that the Cooperation Circles worldwide are “going gangbusters” and are successfully funding themselves. The Circles are active in lobbying national and international agencies for policy changes, conducting interfaith ceremonies and dialogues, environmental activism, and projects to assist the poor. As a rule, their activities are consistent with the goals of American and West European “progressives.”


Fourteen of the 24 members of the URI Global Council, its board of directors elected in 2005, are from the Third World. Thus, the URI’s base has expanded well beyond Western liberals, who have been the usual backers of interfaith movements. 


URI allies include the United Nations (in particular, UNESCO and the UN Environmental Program), Mikhail Gorbachev’s star-studded State of the World Forum, and the Earth Charter movement, led by Maurice Strong, a wealthy Canadian advocate of world government. As of May 2007, the URI is recognized as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which gives the movement “consultative status” with the UN; in turn, the URI promotes the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.


The URI enjoys tacit support or active cooperation from most other interfaith organizations, including the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Temple of Understanding, and the North American Interfaith Network.


Anglicans: Widespread support for the URI


Anglican support for the URI is widespread; public opposition is rare among the clergy in communion with Canterbury.


Aside from Bishop Swing, a pro-gay liberal (who nonetheless claims to be a “conservative person”), 20 active and retired Anglican prelates have supported the URI. The most prominent of these are Frank Griswold, the former Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (TEC); Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno; Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations; Celso Franco de Oliveira, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Michael Ingham, Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, Canada; and Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate and retired Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. Most of the aforementioned bishops have publicly taken the liberal position in the current Anglican sexuality battle.  


None of the active U.S. bishops who have been identified as URI supporters or donors voted against the confirmation of actively gay cleric Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire at the 2003 Episcopal General Convention. Bishop Griswold was Robinson’s chief consecrator in November 2003, and Bishop Ingham traveled from Canada to the U.S. to participate in that rite.


The Mar Thoma Church in India, which broke away from Oriental Orthodoxy in the 19th Century and is now in communion with Canterbury, has supported the URI from the beginning.


Several ultra-trendy TEC priests have donated to the URI in 2004 and later: James Parks Morton, the former dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; Lauren Artress, who took the modern-day labyrinth fad worldwide from its beginnings at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; and Donald Schell, the co-rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco – a parish that is known for liturgical dance, “icons” of Charles Darwin, Rumi, and Malcolm X, and hosting a well-publicized union in April 2004 between retired Utah Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles and his male partner.


Only two Anglican bishops recognized by Canterbury have spoken publicly against the URI, and both are retired: Archbishop Harry Goodhew of Australia, and Bishop FitzSimons Alison of South Carolina. The current and former Archbishops of Canterbury have not spoken publicly about the movement since its founding in 1995, and TEC General Conventions from 1997 through 2006 have likewise refrained from either praising or criticizing the URI.


The Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant churches do not support the URI. The Presbyterian Church USA has donated to the URI, an indicator of support for the movement among some mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.


Roman Catholics: The hierarchy moves toward the URI


Roman Catholic support for the URI, previously concentrated among dissidents (such as theologian Hans Küng, retired auxiliary Bishop of Detroit Thomas Gumbleton, and liberal orders of nuns), is becoming mainstream. Since 2004, the URI has received donations from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington DC.


During his tenure as Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada had backed the URI – and within a few weeks of the election of Benedict XVI, the new Pope selected Levada to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that guards against heresy in the Church. Levada became the highest ranked American prelate in Catholic history, and is now a member of the College of Cardinals – with a vote in the next Papal Conclave. Levada invited a group of URI leaders to accompany him to Rome for his March 2006 installation, and the URI delegation said that they were the first interfaith delegation ever to attend a consistory of Cardinals.


Secular supporters: From the European Union to the Bank of America


Since 2004, the URI has gained some additional, prominent supporters. 


Among them is the European Union (EU).  In 2005, the European Commission (EC) had funded a meeting of URI-Europe in Brussels to discuss “overcoming irritations and prejudices between people of different cultures, religions and convictions in the EU enlargement process.” The EC thought so highly of the URI event that they have given the URI a “Golden Star Award,” honoring the ten best projects funded in 2005 by the Active European Citizenship program of the European Union.  The prize will be awarded in a ceremony in early November in Brussels, by Jan Figel, the EU Commissioner for Education and Culture.


Other noteworthy donors in recent years show the appeal of URI to Muslim lobbyists, advocates of globalism, and mainstream American institutions alike: the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, United Muslims of America, the Turner Foundation, Dr. Steven C. Rockefeller (who assisted in drafting the Earth Charter), United Way of the Bay Area, the Bank of America, and World Vision.


Bush 43, William J. Clinton extend friendship to URI and its leaders


The URI also has bipartisan appeal. 


In a November 6, 2001 letter, President Bush praised Bishop Swing and the URI for receiving a Citizen Diplomacy Award from the International Diplomacy Council (IDC), a private group that works with high-level State Department officials to assist overseas dignitaries who visit the U.S. George Shultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, is one of the advisers for the IDC. In 2002. The federally-funded United States Institute of Peace (USIP) also has supported the URI with a $30,000 training grant and with an article favorable to the interfaith venture in 2001 and 2002.


In his 2005 inauguration speech, President Bush said that the “edifice of character” in America “is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people.”  In an October 4, 2007, interview with Al Arabiya, the President said, “I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God.” This interfaith civil religion now being officially purveyed in America meshes with the URI worldview of religious unity.


On the other side of the aisle, former President Clinton invited Charles Gibbs, the executive director of the URI, to attend the September 2005 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Gibbs, who was among 1,000 invited “world leaders,” was asked to propose a project that would be funded and completed within a year. Gibbs proposed to expand the URI in India. His project succeeded; there were 31 URI Cooperation Circles there in September 2004, and there are 72 chapters in India now.


URI: links with Theosophy; keeping a distance from gay rights


Before 2003, several Theosophical groups had donated to the URI: the Lucis Trust World Service Fund and the Rudolf Steiner Foundation.  New Age groups and New Age authors have continued this support since then. They include Pathways to Peace, the Fetzer Institute, the authors of Spiritual Politics (a popularization of the Theosophical teachings of Alice Bailey), and two clergy from the Wittenberg Center for Alternative Resources, a New Age seminary. 


For the most part, the URI toes the Western “politically correct” line on such issues as feminism, multiculturalism, global governance, the environment, and the like. There is one exception: homosexual activism. Unlike most churches in the West, the URI does not have a “gay caucus” akin to Integrity in The Episcopal Church or Dignity in the Roman Catholic Church. The homosexual issue has not appeared in URI documents or in reports of their global meetings since 1998. The URI’s Annual Report lists donors to the organization’s headquarters – and same-sex couples are very rarely seen on this roster of URI supporters. It may be that the URI’s silence on the gay issue is intended to garner backers from traditional religions, e.g. Muslims, who generally condemn homosexual practice.



* United Religions Initiative, Annual Reports for 2004-2006, and other documents from
* False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion, Sophia Perennis, 2005, available at
*  President Bush, inaugural speech for 2005 and interview with Al-Arabiya TV in 2007



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