World AIDS Day: Christian teaching still needs to be heard

1st December is “World AIDS Day”, when this terrible disease and its continuing devastating effects, especially in sub Saharan Africa, can be highlighted again. There have been tremendous advances in the development of anti Retroviral medication over the past few years, which has wonderfully lengthened the lives of many of the estimated 35 million HIV positive people, so for example women previously with very short life expectancy can now look after their children who in the past would have been orphaned. However, serious issues still remain: HIV continues to spread, and many get sick and die without access to the medicines, especially in the poorest countries. The church can help as it always has done in contexts of poverty, with prayer, loving presence and practical assistance. But it needs to continue in its role of teaching Christian sexual morality, especially today when financial assistance from Western countries is increasingly tied to a condition: the recipients must embrace our “enlightened” values such as LGBT rights.

As this site has regularly reported, such secular humanist views now have their apologists within the Church. Here is a letter published in the Church Times, October 24 urging the church to “get with the programme”:

Sir – After Mr Gavin Turner’s letter (10 October), I would like to draw attention to another matter that seems to be missing from the Pilling debate. This is that the official guidance is similarly “almost certainly a serious obstacle” to reducing the number of deaths from AIDS in parts of the Communion.

Lord Fowler, in ‘AIDS: Don’t die of prejudice (2014), reminds us that 1.5 million people die every year from AIDS, although “we have the means to at least contain the virus”. The reason, in a word, is “prejudice”. “The penalty for disclosure in many parts of the world is to be thrown out of the family house and out of work”. Sufferers in some communities in Britain experience similar impediments to seeking help.

In some countries, legislation is cruel, and government PR against homosexuality is appalling. Here “the churches have generally played a discreditable part” including two successive Anglican Archbishops in Uganda. “Meanwhile the Church of England fumbles for a position on gay people”, and “even in Britain you find Bishops deciding that the civil right of equal marriage should not be available for their own clergy. They should beware, “lest their reputation for intolerance spread”.

The final chapter is headed “the shame of the world”, and it is clear that the Anglican Communion does not escape responsibility here. In view of the number of deaths and of orphans, perhaps this issue should also be incorporated into the Pilling debate.

April Alexander, General Synod member, (address supplied).

My response, published the following week, was as follows:

Sir,

Mrs April Alexander (“The Pilling Report and AIDS prevention”, 24 October) advocates a much more positive attitude towards homosexual practice from Anglicans in order to reduce the number of deaths from AIDS in Africa. Quoting a report from Lord Fowler, she implies that the current church teachings on sexuality are actually responsible for the high AIDS death rates, because “prejudice” prevents people from seeking treatment.

I worked for more than twelve years in South Africa during the worst time of the AIDS epidemic in some of the communities most directly affected, and it is certainly true that education about the disease is important in helping communities to encourage safe disclosure, enabling people to come forward for testing and to receive the ever improving treatments without fear of being shunned. The church, although not perfect, has been an important source of psychosocial support and other key elements in the combination of interventions needed to fight the epidemic.

However, Mrs Alexander must surely realize that  HIV/AIDS in Africa is not spread by stigma and prejudice towards gay people, but by promiscuous and often coercive sexual practices, almost all of which are heterosexual.  Campaigns designed in places like London and New York to promote “safe sex”, ie condom use, and a more ‘open’ (ie Western style) attitude to sex among young people, do not address critical contextual issues and beliefs.  In a case with which I am personally familiar,  data showed that, tragically,  such a campaign resulted in a significant drop in the age at which school children who were exposed to the information, reported becoming sexually active. In other words, well meaning but ideologically driven and culturally inappropriate Western intervention can increase risk of HIV rather than reduce it.

Moral guidance from the Church plays a very important part in protecting young people in contexts where poverty, violence and disease are endemic, health care is poor, and condoms are unreliable in supply and quality.  I suggest Mrs Alexander thinks very carefully about the potential cost of advocating the ‘social experiment’ of relaxation of traditional boundaries around sex and relationships by the church in an African context.

The Christian faith balances clear moral guidelines (eg sex for within marriage and abstinence outside it; loving rather than  coercive and abusive relationships) with realistic pastoral awareness of the sinful nature in all people, the availability of forgiveness, and particular compassion for the many millions infected through no fault of their own. Anglicans in Africa have not always lived up to this, but they must be encouraged to continue to preach sexual self control within biblical boundaries and compassion for the sick, rather than seeing these as mutually exclusive. The best hope for the suffering in Africa is for the Church to be the Church.

Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream

Mrs Alexander’s concern about the HIV/AIDS epidemic is sincere and commendable. But what does it tell us when members of General Synod hold Lord Fowler (who has intervened again on the subject) in higher esteem as a source of godly wisdom and example of compassion for the people of Africa than the Archbishops of Uganda? (For more on Henry Orombi, former Archbishop of Uganda, see here and here  ).

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