Tuesday 23 March 2010

Summit of High Level Religious Leaders on the Response to HIV

Note: This address was given on 22 March 2010.

Dear friends, I bring greetings to you all from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. I also want to express my thanks to the organisers of this Summit, for arranging such a valuable programme – and therefore I’d particularly like to mention Revd Jape Heath from the Steering Group who was instrumental in arranging my invitation.

I have recently returned from a pastoral visit to Haiti, where I found myself deeply stirred, in heart and mind and soul and body, as I saw the pervasive devastation and heard the deeply painful accounts of those who had lived through it and were now facing its aftermath.

As if that were not enough, the personal stories and testimonies that we have heard here today have been similarly soul-stirring. I am deeply grateful to those who have had the courage to share in this way. It makes me feel I am standing on holy ground – and respond with great care and sensitivity, responding not only to what was said, but also the breadth of sacred traditions that we represent here.

In this context, I will first paint a picture from the perspective of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, using broad strokes. Then I will end with a more detailed story from the windswept township of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town.

When responding to HIV and AIDS, the question of stigma has been at the forefront of our minds within the Anglican Church of Southern Africa for some time. Many of you will remember my predecessor as Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, speaking forcefully on the matter at least a decade ago.

Before the end of the last century, we were realising that far too often the churches were, frankly, at least as much part of the problem as we were part of the solution. Yes, we were committed to caring for the sick. But when it came to stopping the spread of HIV, much of our stance was, I fear, unhelpful – fuelling stigma, with all its negative consequences.

Because of our disapproval of sex outside marriage, and because a small vocal minority have described AIDS as a judgement from God, not surprisingly, many have said that a cleric is the last person to whom they would disclose their status or go to for help. Further, Churches have fuelled society’s negative responses to HIV and AIDS. We all know the horror stories, which I won’t bother repeating.

Therefore, within Southern Africa, the Anglican Church has worked hard to change the way we speak about sex and sexuality, and HIV and AIDS. Since 2002 we have had a comprehensive strategy, within which major resources have been devoted to educating clergy and lay leadership around all aspects of the virus; and to producing age-appropriate and culturally sensitive material for sexual education within the church.

Tackling stigma has been a particular goal. An independent survey conducted in 2006 shows we have been making progress. People in our churches, by and large, have grasped that discourse around ‘God’s judgement’ is entirely inappropriate. However, in a minority of places, social judgement is still communicated – explicitly or implicitly – from our pulpits and, perhaps more frequently, our pews. The message coming across is that people have received their just deserts for immoral behaviour – whether sex or drugs – they have only themselves to blame and should be ashamed of themselves.

Let’s be honest. It is not easy for the church to get it right – especially when our spiritual teaching does indeed uphold faithfulness within marriage, and sexual abstinence outside of marriage, as the ideal. But at the same time, we should not appear to preach that only perfection is acceptable, nor that sexual sin is worse than any other. The true gospel of Jesus Christ addresses the real world: of fallible humanity, often falling short on all manner of moral issues; and of a God, who – though holy himself and sitting in judgement on all that is evil – is nonetheless a God of compassion and forgiveness. More than this, as it says in the letter of St James, ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’ (Jas 2:14). This is the message we must communicate effectively.

Churches have never had a good track record when it comes to speaking about sex. To address constructively what is largely a sexually transmitted disease has been a challenge – especially when some of our cultures have significant taboos around speaking openly on matters of sex. Teaching clergy and a widening circle of lay leaders remains key in changing the attitudes within congregations and communities.

Alongside this, we are finding it is important to develop ‘grass roots’ leaders who are role models within the wider community and among their peers, particularly among young people. An additional priority to which we have become conscious is the deliberate, active and open inclusion of those who are HIV positive in leadership around the disease; and indeed in church leadership more generally. Too often in the past, others have acted ‘on behalf of’ those infected or affected by HIV, which has reinforced the message of second-class citizenry and exclusion.

There is still work to be done to ensure and maintain good levels of accurate knowledge around the disease. We are also looking at why some clergy find it harder than others to address the issues. Gender equality – or rather, prevailing inequality – is another target area – and again one in which Churches have long been part of the problem. Churches must not be afraid to develop effective collaborative partnerships with other bodies, so that comprehensive programmes can be pursued in changing both attitudes and behaviours.

Let me end with a good news story from the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

When church-based support groups were set up a few years ago, we found that people attended the one farthest from their home. That has since changed. Attitudes have altered in both the churches and the wider community.

The main engine of change has been this: through collaborative working of clinics, NGOs and others, nearly all women with children under 5 know their status. This has proved to be a critical mass within the community, and it has become accepted for people to be open about their status, without stigma. Knowledge is fundamental in overcoming stigma and ignorance.

Or as Jesus said ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’ (Jn 8:32). This is our goal.

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