Bishop Swing's Crusade

The Rt. Rev. Bill Swing has a global mission: The United States Religions Initiative

W hen Ferdinand Magellan set out in the summer of 1519 to circumnavigate the globe, he had few accurate tools of navigation. While it was rumored he possessed a secret chart of passage to the Southern or Pacific Ocean, in fact he relied on little more than celestial navigation, a primitive compass, and faith in the experience of his crew.

The Rt. Rev. William E. Swing '58 H'80 is drawn to this story. Almost five centuries later, Swing himself set out on a journey similarly uncharted, possessed only of a vision of a cease-fire among religions and their coming together for cooperation and dialogue. Three months, thirty-five thousand miles, and hundreds of conversations later, the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of California returned home more convinced than ever of the true north of his dream--and with the conviction that he will see the United Religions Initiative realized in his lifetime.

At sixty-one, Swing has the physique of an ascetic golfer: trim verging on thin, shoulders hunched forward, just slightly, and a perpetual gaze into the distance. In fact, as a young man he considered a career teaching and playing golf, as his father had done. (In 1994, the younger Swing made the championship cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tourney.) But when "crunch time" came at the end of his senior year at Kenyon, he opted for the priesthood. It wasn't a decision characterized by great illumination, he admits. Like many of his peers, he was stumped about what to do with his life, so he just ambled in a direction that seemed hospitable. It was in the last week of classes that he went to the chaplain and said, "I think I'd like to go to seminary and be a priest."

"Great," replied the vicar. "In the next three years I hope to get to know you when you come to church."

After a bit of hemming and hawing and querying of the young man's faith and knowledge of the scriptures, the chaplain agreed to write Swing the necessary recommendation on "sheer faith."

Unlike college--where, as a country boy from Huntington, West Virginia, he had been introduced to the world and the world of ideas--seminary wasn't really a time of revelation for him, Swing says. Kenyon had proven to be the "enormous conversion time" in his life, while seminary simply prepared him for what he wanted to be: vicar of Moorefield and Petersburg, two beautiful rural outposts in northeastern West Virginia. But his first assignments found him closer to home, on the western border of the state and up the Ohio River in Weirton, Chester, and Wheeling. After eight years, Swing moved to St. Columba's Parish in Washington, D.C., where he stayed until he was called to San Francisco.

"I've never ended up in any place that I ever expected to be," he muses. Like Magellan, Swing sets his sights on a point on the horizon, acquires basic provisions, and then navigates by the light of the stars.

S wing first conceived of a permanent forum for the world's religions when he was asked to plan an interfaith service for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1993. After contrasting the search for global harmony among nations at U.N. headquarters in New York City with the relative tone-deafness of religions to one another, Swing awoke one morning to dedicate the rest of his life to creating something like a United Nations of religions.

In the past four years, he has presented his idea to every group and individual who will listen. His three-month odyssey in the winter of 1996 took him to the doorsteps of some of the world's most respected religious leaders, thinkers, and philosophers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Coptic Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Grand Mufti, the German philosopher Hans Kung, Mother Theresa, and the Shankaracharya of Kancheepuram. Most were wholeheartedly in favor of his proposition, but not all. Catholic leaders in Rome, Unitarians, and fundamentalist Christians particularly were edgy, citing fears of an appearance of syncretism among traditions, a disinclination to include spiritual movements, and a disavowal of any faith other than Christianity as the stairway to heaven.

Swing is undaunted by skepticism or outright negativity. He has managed to secure $1.4 million in pledges. This past summer he hosted a week-long conference at Stanford University for two hundred delegates selected from one hundred historic religions and spiritual movements, many of whom he had met on his travels. Participants included a Buddhist peace and justice activist from Bangkok, a Hindu convert from Brooklyn working with abandoned children and AIDS sufferers, Sikh and Zoroastrian leaders from India, and the Anglican Church's observer at the United Nations.

Assisting in the conference organization was David Cooperrider, an associate professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Cooperrider runs the school's Social Innovations in Global Management Program (SIGMA), which has worked with dozens of groups with global concerns, such as the Nature Conservancy and Save the Children, that want to cross national borders and cultural boundaries in new ways. Cooperrider specializes in large group facilitation and keeps his eyes open for organizations pioneering new forms of human cooperation. When he read about Swing's proposal in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he called and offered his services.

"The great spiritual traditions have an incredible contribution to make in understanding the world's fragile interdependency," Cooperrider says. "If they can provide an image, if we can achieve a simple commitment to be at the table and to learn from one another, that imagery changes everything in our imagination."

At the end of the Stanford conference, twenty task forces were formed to investigate possible funding, locations, and organization for United Religions. Coordinating committees were formed to begin the work of the initiative in Africa, Europe, India, Latin America, and New Zealand. At week's end, there was a pledge by delegates to return to their communities to discuss how they might help to hasten the charge of the group: to bring about peace in a violent world and help religions make peace among themselves. Participants will reconvene in 1998 to begin writing a charter. The goal is a charter signing in the summer of 2000, followed by a global foot pilgrimage for peace.

As Swing imagines it thus far, United Religions would be a place where conflicts and disagreements could be discussed and mediated. It might feature both a supreme court of sages, who would interpret an agreed upon statement of common values, and assemblies meeting around the world on myriad subjects such as religious persecution, proselytizing, spirituality, and the environment. Accountability of the member groups would be stressed.

"If somebody in Algeria says, I've just killed all these children and women in the name of God,' the sages would have to say, Let's go back to what Islam is really teaching and the common values that we as a global resource hold in common,'" Swing explains. "If the action in question doesn't measure p, then United Religions has to say, That's in contradiction,' which would be a big step forward."

What distinguishes the initiative from the dozen or so other proposals for an international interfaith body this century is its timing, says Swing. Recalling the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene, he relates how, after the Old Testament carnage of the Egyptians and the Canaanites and the Philistines, Jesus says, "enough." He stops the violence of his own followers as they try to protect him and heals the ear of a soldier who has been attacked. The importance of that moment in history, Swing says, is that it shows we must stop seeing God as a divine excuse for exterminating large numbers of people.

"Faith in God is not a matter of control of people or conquest or dominance or estates, lands, money, or privilege," says Swing. "It's about healing. Somehow or other, we're going to have to learn how to deal in a therapeutic relationship with each other, rather than a hostile relationship, with the accent on hospitality."

If the world is on the threshold of the first global civilization, everyone must come to the table--including the world's religions. In the wake of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Algerian slaughters, the ongoing crises in the Middle East, Christian persecution in the Sudan, and the continuing brutality in Northern Ireland, the world is frustrated that religion is not doing what it's cut out to do--to struggle for global good, Swing says. If peace is going to be a central value in the life of the planet and religions are out of the loop of peacemaking, "we're going to be operating with one hand tied behind us--if not two."

I n tiny St. Matthias Church in San Ramon, California, congregants are excited on this Feast of All Saints, a day when they will not only welcome five candidates for confirmation and an infant to baptism but the bishop for his biennial visitation. This mission church meets in an office suite in one of the countless business parks that hug the dry hills of Contra Costa County, one of five counties comprised by the diocese, about an hour east and south of San Francisco. The extravagance of his gold miter and cape in the midst of jeans-clad parishioners does not escape Swing--"I've got threads that just won't quit," he later jokes--and he emerges from what appears to be the office secretarial pool to welcome and to bless.

Ministering to believers in makeshift churches is nothing new for Swing. When he returned to the hills of Appalachia after seminary, he brought people together to worship in such atypical places as a race-track and a plumbing shop. Listening to him preach today--personal, funny, and inspiring, all without notes--it's hard to believe that as a young priest he was sentenced to a sort of clerical boot camp devised by his superiors, "tough German burghers" who threatened to fire him unless he improved his then less-than-riveting delivery.

For eighteen months, Swing was made to write his sermon on Wednesday, present it to a judge, lawyer, priest, and rector on Thursday, rewrite it on Friday, present it again to the priest and rector on Saturday, then deliver it from the pulpit on Sunday. It was one of those experiences you look back on as being torturous but educational, and it no doubt helped make Swing the kind of preacher who today draws enormous crowds and garners high praise for his ability to move each listener individually while at the same time uniting the group.

As a flailing novice, it was to an "anthropomorphic thinker" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that Swing finally turned for authenticity in his presentation. The tutorials in imaginative thinking enabled him to communicate better about human situations, which caused his stock, Swing says, to soar "from D to A."

The Rt. Rev. Richard Shimpfky, now bishop of the California Central Coast, concurs. He has admired Swing's style for years. A young parish priest in Virginia when Swing was a rector in Washington, D.C., Shimpfky frequently traveled to hear him speak and tried to absorb everything he did. Swing, Shimpfky says, is "simply the best."

Before the rites of confirmation and baptism, Swing brings the San Ramon congregation up to date on work in the rest of the diocese. He runs through a respectable list of outreach projects: housing for seven hundred fifty homeless a night in four facilities; two successful alcohol and drug rehabilitation units with a fundraising campaign to start a third; four lifecare homes for the elderly and a fifth set to start up this month; two homes for modest-income people, those "somewhere between homelessness and affluence"; St. Luke's Hospital; the Community Bank of the Bay, a capital-development bank he helped found in the inner city that now boasts seven hundred depositors and assets of $21 million; and two centers for recent Hispanic immigrants.

In conversation the next day, Swing says that his mandate is to "maintain what you've inherited, listen to the dreams of the people, and deal with the calamities that just fall on your head." He's nearly gotten a concussion on three occasions. The Oakland Hills fire several years ago left seventy parishioners homeless. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake tumbled houses and caused untold psychological damage. And there is the AIDS epidemic. It's epicenter in the early 1980s was San Francisco's large gay community. In some parishes, more lives have been lost to the virus than were sacrificed in World War II.

While the diversity of his diocese--eighty-seven churches; thirteen translators on call each Sunday morning--made discussion of homosexual concerns difficult in some communities, Swing nevertheless has been an active participant and vocal contributor in the AIDS dialogue. He currently sits on the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and he has served as chair of the House of Bishops Task Force on AIDS.

Liberal and willing to work for those issues he believes in, Swing nevertheless respects a wide spectrum of opinions on controversial issues. At the Episcopal Church's General Convention in July 1996, he said he was not in favor of requiring his conservative colleagues to ordain women--a move he himself applauded early on. "We've always allowed some bishops to be royal peculiars," he said. "Some say we should be uniform, but I'm not sure we need 100-percent uniformity in anything."

That kind of conciliatory approach and disinclination for sweeping judgment is characteristic of Swing, says literary collaborator Bonnie Menes Kahn. Kahn, a sociologist, worked with Swing on Building Wisdom's House, published this fall by Addison-Wesley (look for a review in the next issue of the Bulletin). Based on a year of intense conversation that also included a rabbi and a Catholic priest, the book is a series of anecdotes followed by commentary on the possibility of peace and joy if only religions would abandon their long histories of divisiveness. Kahn says Swing showed tremendous compassion in their meetings. "He was on the side of case-by-case analysis and not trying to force people into boxes or make generalizations."

In his seventeen years as bishop of California, Swing has had to recreate himself every year to match the challenges of his sometimes terrifying territory. But he has loved doing it. The more impossible the task, the greater the appeal, he says. "I'm always ready for a little bit of the exotic, the challenge. That makes you grow; that makes you be a learner rather than an expert. I've never hung around a place long enough to be an expert. I've always moved on to become a neophyte in the next dimension."

The bells of Grace Cathedral reverberate in the bishop's office. There is nothing on his desk save a box of brownies from a friendly parishioner. These days he divides his time between this office and one dedicated to United Religions, which now has a World Wide Web site ( He is not wavering from his dream. On Good Friday of 1997, in England where he gave the keynote address at the Oxford Interfaith Conference, he received a letter informing him that he was a candidate for presiding bishop, the American Episcopal Church's highest office. After two nights of what he descibes as "very bad dinner conversation" with his wife, Mary, he wrote back to decline the nomination. While there are a lot of people who could do the job of presiding bishop well, Swing says, he also says that he absolutely believes he has been called by God to lead United Religions--no matter the obstacles he may encounter along the way.

"When we started out on the journey, we had an appointment with one man in Calcutta, and he forgot I was coming," Swing recalls. Nevertheless, a schedule seemed to materialize out of thin air. "The most amazing thing to me was that the right person showed up at the right time," he goes on. "I would say something like, I would like to see Mother Theresa,' and a car would arrive and take me down an alley and, boom, there was Mother Theresa."

Dumb luck? The bishop grimaces. "I would say that it was as if I were supposed to meet somebody. I would say it's enormous consequence and, as somebody else said, consequence is a miracle in which God chooses to be anonymous."

Like the bishop, Magellan saw amazing things on his journey. But that's where the analogy ends. Intent on demonstrating the superiority of a small band of Christians over a much larger native group in the Philippines, Magellan attacked Mactan in 1521, and he was dead before the sun cleared the horizon. Everything about United Religions rejects the navigator's reasoning and tactics on that fateful day.

In his trip diary, Swing writes that, while every faith must speak from its heart and soul, "one can get to God by many ways." Not with the sword, and not to the derision of those who believe in different things, but with a joyful heart and a sense of the possibilities of common action in the face of urgent human need.

"Once upon a time, human beings thought they ought to fly. And a lot of people glued feathers to their arms and stood on top of the barn and flapped. Enough people did that until we flew.

"I don't mind being someone on the barn with feathers glued to my arms," says Swing. "I don't care if I fall off the barn. I sure am gonna flap--and I know we're going to fly."

Mieke Bomann is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group. She lives in Seattle, Washington, where she attends graduate school and works as a freelance writer.

Timeline for the United Religions Initiative

* February 1993: Rt. Rev. William E. Swing '58 H'80, Episcopal bishop of Northern California, plans interfaith service for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations. Dedicates himself to establishing United Religions, modeled on the United Nations.

* June 1993: Swing meets with interfaith leaders in New York City.

* June 1995: Swing sponsors interfaith youth conference and announces United Religions Initiative at U.N. service in San Francisco, California.

* September 1995: Swing presents idea of the initiative to U.N. nongovernmental organizations in New York City.

* October 1995: Swing travels to China, Hong Kong, and Japan to drum up support for the initiative.

* February 1996: Swing meets with religious leaders in Egypt, England, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Switzerland, and the Vatican.

* June 1996: Representatives of world's religions meet to begin talks on the initiative.

* July 1996 to May 1997: Discussions held around the world and over the Internet to build support for the initiative.

* June 1997: Delegates from one hundred religions and spiritual traditions meet at Stanford University in California to begin work on a United Religions charter.

* July 1997 to May 1998: Conference participants discuss their roles in United Religions with respective religious communities.

* June 1998: Conference opens to draw up charter.

* July 1998 to May 2000: Work proceeds on charter while participation in initiative is broadened.

* June 26, 2000: Charter is signed, and pilgrims for peace walk around the world.

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