NORTHAMPTON, Mass — When the Parliament of the World’s Religions was staged in Salt Lake City last year, thousands of people gathered for this interfaith event. Being first held in 1893, the parliament is the oldest event of its kind, and others, which have emerged since, have not yet stripped it of its unique characteristics. One way the parliament stands out is in the fact that minority religions, including indigenous and Pagan ones, are given a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion.
Among his several responsibilities, Corban-Arthen is chair of the site selection committee, which is responsible for assessing potential sites for the next session. “It’s a big deal,” he said, and a job he takes quite seriously. The official invitation to submit proposals has not even been released, and already there has been interest expressed on behalf of several cities.
He said. “People think it’s a great idea to bring it to their town,” but not every city can handle the sheer number of people who show up, such as the near 10,000 which attended in Salt Lake City. That pressure depends in part on location: when it’s in the United States, where the parliament held its first and second sessions (in Chicago, 1893 and 1993), many more people attend than when it’s elsewhere in the world. However, there’s a clear desire to maintain the international scope of the organization by not restricting host cities to just one country.
It’s understandable why it’s appealing to bring the Parliament of the World’s Religions to town. The event translates into $15-20 million dollars spent by those visitors. That could offset any infrastructure improvements made to accommodate the crowds.
Corban-Arthen is also part of the nominating committee, which is arguably even more important. “It shapes the direction of the board,” he said, which impacts the overall tenor of the organization. It is because of the makeup of the board that such efforts as its indigenous task force even exist; he’s been part of that since 2008. That might be enough to keep him busy, but Corban-Arthen also is a delegate to the United Nations, representing the parliament as a non-governmental organization in the interfaith field.
“One thing that distinguishes the parliament is that minorities play a big role,” he said. “People ask where the Christians are,” he added, despite the fact that in Salt Lake City they were indeed the majority of those present. “It didn’t feel like it,” he explained, even though they are also a majority on the board, because they are “respectful and conscious, and let us be out in front. It’s a very healthy thing.”
An area that Corban-Arthen has worked in since long before the parliament was reinvigorated in 1993 is that of indigenous European religions. With the parliament now holding sessions regularly, skepticism that there might be survivals of those traditions has fallen away, as members of those traditions have come forth to participate. Indeed, the 2009 parliament in Melbourne generated a small controversy about how that might affect the very definition of Paganism. While Corban-Arthen believes it proved to be a hot topic among Pagans largely due to misunderstandings, at the same time he feels that 2009 represented a seminal moment when the larger interfaith community recognized indigenous European traditions into the fold.
The very concept has sent ripples throughout Paganism and the interfaith community, he said. “I was told that Paganism has nothing to do with indigenous traditions,” he recalled, while some tried to expand the definition of “indigenous” to include religions like Wicca, which while it did emerge in Europe, is generally considered newer than what’s referred to as indigenous. At the same time, he remembers a Presbyterian minister who was excited at the idea of indigenous European survivals, but “it bothered him that they turned out to be Pagan.”
Representatives of those indigenous traditions were included in the plenary session, he recalled, and “people had a huge, positive reaction” to the idea that Christianity didn’t wipe those traditions from the face of the Earth, as has been widely believed. “It felt like a vindication for them.” That’s a key role for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in his view: to support minority and indigenous traditions.
The parliament is where the modern interfaith movement started, and it continues to hold the largest events of that kind in the world. “Other groups may feel it’s not what it should be,” he said. “One major organization has criticized the parliament because it has Pagan members on its board.” That’s part of why it has such a large impact, he believes: minority voices being given the chance to be heard.
The Pagans sitting at that table didn’t get there by chance, though. “They didn’t really invite us” in 1993, he recalled, and he characterized the organizers at that time as being “reticent” to include them. His own Earthspirit Community, together with Circle Sanctuary and Covenant of the Goddess, combined their efforts into what he called a “three-pronged approach” to convince those organizers to grant them admission. Then, they set up one joint information table in the area reserved for that kind of educational outreach, and disabused many attendees of the notion that Paganism was a thing of the past.One interesting effect of having a parliament in a city, Corban-Arthen noted, is that the local Pagan community tends to thrive in its wake. That was true in Cape Town, Barcelona, and Melbourne, where local Pagans got a seat at the table and it opened doors for them into interfaith work. He said that new Pagan groups formed in those cities, and new leaders emerged. Time will tell if the “parliament bump” helps the Salt Lake City Pagan community find its footing.
Big names at the parliament typically include figures such as the Dalai Lama. However, a Roman Catholic Pope has never attended. That might well change with the next session, although Corban-Arthen isn’t sure it would be a benefit. He noted that among the potential sites is a city in Europe where the erstwhile organizers hope to extend an invitation to Pope Francis, who has proven himself to be more popular — among Catholics and people not of that faith alike — than any of his predecessors in recent memory. “That might be counterproductive,” Corban-Arthen said, because Francis has a following of his own that could distort the character of the parliament. “It might be all about the Pope,” he said. “We might not want that.”
Despite the fact that Vatican City is there, as well as members of those aforementioned indigenous traditions, Europe is a tough place to sell the parliament as an attraction, because “so much of the society is secularized.” That, more than other factors, could be why attendance is higher in the United States: there are more religious people here, despite recent downward trends.
What Corban-Arthen finds gratifying about the parliament is that “people don’t spend time arguing theology. They present their beliefs and observances, but we focus on social issues and trying to solve them, especially when religion is the cause.” That’s why he believes it’s so important for Pagan voices to be part of that conversation, as they have much to say about issues such as the environment and women in the priesthood. They can also be an important part of any dialogue about money, much of which is dominated by the Christian model that presumes it’s the root of all evil(and, seemingly at the same time, an earthly reward for living a good life.
Money is something he’s often found himself at odds with other Pagans about. He recalled a disagreement he had with Judy Harrow in the 1980s on that topic. “She felt that Christians put their model on us, but that small community-based Pagan groups couldn’t build mega-churches,” he said. “I told her that if a thousand people contributed five dollars a week for a year, that would be $260,000, which would be a good start” toward any goal that they established, including paying for staff, programs, schools, films, legal defense, and buying land. “We need to create infrastructure,” he added, echoing his side of an argument which is as old as the modern Pagan movement. “Until we do, we won’t be real to ourselves.” That’s a perspective other parliament members have shared with him: Pagans don’t take themselves seriously enough.
One thing that Corban-Arthen has learned in working with the Parliament of the World’s Religions especially is that his words are sometimes interpreted by members of his own community as speaking for them. “I don’t speak for all Pagans,” he said. “I’m just expressing my opinion. I represent the community that supports me,” not those who see things differently. That’s true for all board members of the parliament: they do not serve as formal representatives of their traditions. If other Pagans were to “step up,” they might also get elected to the parliament’s board. But with the ground work that he and others have helped to lay, perhaps it won’t take as many years of consistent effort to make that happen.