Growing Ecumenical Concern over AIDS Produces Landmark Document

Episcopal News Service. December 19, 1989 [89261]

A continuing concern for the AIDS crisis brought more than 100 religious leaders to Atlanta, Georgia, where they produced a document described by participants as a "landmark." The Atlanta Declaration asserts: "Across our diversity, AIDS magnifies the fact that we are also one" (see full text of the Atlanta Declaration ENS 89274).

"The tragedy of the HIV virus epidemic has confronted each of us personally, each of our religious institutions, as well as the whole society with the need for a new understanding of the interconnectedness between physical disease and social responsibility," the declaration reads.

The declaration is one of the most poignant examples of how the AIDS crisis is being confronted on an ecumenical and interfaith level. Earlier this year, the Episcopal Church's Day of Prayer for Persons Living with AIDS assumed an ecumenical dimension as scores of non-Episcopal parishes around the country joined Episcopalians in prayer. The Atlanta event, "AIDS -- the Moral Imperative: A Call to National Leadership," is believed to be the largest single gathering of ecumenical and interfaith leaders to date.

The Atlanta meeting was convened by the Carter Center of Emory University, the AIDS National Interfaith Network, and the Atlanta AIDS Interfaith Network. Their declaration calls for creative action among all institutions -- medical, social, economic, political, educational, and religious -- for the purpose of providing systematic, compassionate attention to the epidemic. Participants in Atlanta attended seminars and small-group discussions to explore the ethical questions posed by AIDS and to ferret out strategies to be used by the religious community.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church reminded the assembly of the weight of responsibility that religious leaders carry in their vocation as ethical leaders. He said "I believe that we in the religious communities have a unique ministry in that we are the popular, public and identified repositories of ethical, moral, and prophetic witness. People want to know what we think about this disease and what we see as a faithful response."

Browning admitted that "religious communities are by no means in complete agreement in their opinions or strategies about HIV/AIDS," but he suggested that an approach to public-policy decisions "must be informed by an understanding of the demands of God's justice."

Browning suggested that the mission of religious leaders "is to enable and to empower the lives of all who live with AIDS, and the lives of those who love them and care for them." He said that such a mission "is a dynamic of reciprocity" between the one who is sent and those with whom one is sent.

The day before the conference began, Atlanta's Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip was host to an interfaith service of hope and healing. The service had been planned to coincide with the Carter Center event. "It was an exciting and special event for us," said the Rev. Canon George Brandt, dean of the cathedral.

Brandt, who was master of ceremonies for the liturgy and is the recently elected president of the Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network, reported that "more than a thousand people" attended the interfaith service. "A number of people have told me that the worship service helped to set a tone and spirit for the very effective work of the conference," he said.

Brandt began planning for the interfaith liturgy back in September. His committee included Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Jewish members. "All of the committee members are on the front lines of ministry in the AIDS crisis," he said. Although Brandt admits that it "is always difficult to plan such a liturgy to respect all the diversity," he was "pleased with the results of our planning."

Brandt said that the service was particularly moving and helpful for some cathedral parishioners, "who have not been touched by the crisis. They understand more completely now that people Living with AIDS are human beings who are loved by God."

[thumbnail: The Rev. Thaddeus Bennett...]