Bishop Beetge Calls for Action. 02/10/08

Part of speech delivered at the Diocesan Synod by Bishop David Beetge of the Diocese of the High Veldt in South Africa:

Members of Synod may well know that over the past few years I have been the Liaison Bishop for the Anglican Church in Southern Africa’s HIV and AIDS programmes and, of course I have been closely involved in this work in our Diocese since our inauguration as a Diocese. Recently, with two members of the Provincial Office, I attended the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. I do not want to reflect on the Conference here but I do want to make an appeal. From figures presented to the Conference and from figures available here, the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa has reached alarming proportions. I want to express my gratitude to our Archbishop for his leadership in this area and for the support he has given the Provincial Office and Dioceses as we have built a capacity at Diocesan and Parish level to address this issue. I want tonight, in all earnestness, to make one appeal.

This pandemic has, as I have said, reached alarming proportions. No-one can tackle this one single handedly. We need a sustained and united effort to work towards a generation without AIDS. In a statement last week I called on the Government, and by Government I mean all levels of Government, National, Provincial and Local, to commit themselves to working with Faith Based Organizations and NGO’s in a creative partnership that will pool the capacity each one has, together with the resources available in this country and through the international community, in order to address this pandemic in the most holistic way possible. I am urging the Government and NGO’s, including the Treatment Action Campaign, for the sake of those who are suffering and for the sake of those whom we want to protect from this virus, to put behind them the conflict and differences between them and to seek a new multi – sector partnership that will address this pandemic urgently. I am convinced that the only way forward is by Government (at all levels), Academics, the Medical profession, Pharmaceutical industry, NGO’s, Faith Based Organizations and others coming together and working together to address this pandemic. I also called for a national consultation, which will include all sectors, to address this pandemic. In addition SANAC needs to include all sectors and to meet on a regular basis so that this pandemic can be addressed by a united response within the country. I renew this call tonight.

HIV and AIDS is not just a medical problem or an individual problem – it’s a social problem too. It’s a social problem because the whole community, including the church, is affected in high-prevalence areas. It’s a social problem, because social factors like stigma, denial, gender inequality, and poverty help HIV to spread in our communities and exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. HIV and AIDS stigma exists because many people see HIV infection as a mark of shame, associating it with immorality and death. Actually, HIV is just a virus, and AIDS can now be treated as a chronic disease. People sometimes justify putting distance between themselves and people they know with HIV because they are worried about infection. But as you know, it’s luckily extremely difficult to catch HIV except by unprotected sex, sharing dirty needles or blood transfusions.

Contracting a chronic illness is a very high price to pay for love, and no-one deserves it. But because HIV is mainly sexually transmitted, and has been associated with adultery and premarital sex, some people feel that it is shameful, that it must be some kind of punishment or consequence of immoral sex. In fact, people can contract HIV through any unprotected sex, including rape, or sex within in a faithful relationship, if their partner happens to be HIV-positive. We should promote responsible, loving relationships within the Christian ethos, but we need to recognize that HIV does not have morals, and it’s not only transmitted by certain kinds of sexual activity. Tackling HIV requires talking openly about the importance of having safer sex and knowing one’s status, even in faithful, Christian relationships.

Stigma is unfair, it feeds on ignorance, and it has bad consequences. It makes us think that if we are good and faithful Christians we are immune to HIV: ‘HIV happens to someone else, not me’. In fact, this is mainly why we stigmatise: to feel safer ourselves, we push others away. Stigma sometimes makes us feel ashamed and judged for having HIV/AIDS, and forced to hide our status from loved ones, at a time we most need their love and support for being sick. Fear of stigma and discrimination is almost as bad: it can make us avoid doing things because we are worried about other people’s reactions.

AIDS is a call to the church to really look at our humanity in a very deep and positive way. It is a call to love: to embrace and support each other, whether we ourselves have HIV or are affected by HIV and AIDS in our families and communities. It is a call to lament: to mourn and challenge the inequalities and prejudices that make it difficult for us to deal with this pandemic. And it is a call to act: to challenge all forms of stigma and prejudice, as we did in the Apartheid years.

We recently commissioned a study on the nature and extent of HIV and AIDS-related stigma in the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa. Some of you may be aware of the study, and some of you may even have participated. The Human Sciences Research Council is busy preparing the report as we speak. Over 850 questionnaires were completed anonymously in five countries of the ACSA, 130 of them by people living with HIV and AIDS, nearly two thirds of whom were Anglicans and the rest were members of support groups in our church. Two questionnaires - a general one, and one specifically for people living with HIV and AIDS - were prepared by the research team, with the help of the Anglican AIDS Office, an Anglican reference group and stigma researchers internationally. This is the first time we know of that such a survey has been done in a faith-based organization like a church.

Preliminary data from the survey suggests that regular church members and clergy know about the efficacy of condom use in HIV prevention. The church has taken a strong anti-stigma position at the highest level, and survey respondents were not highly judgemental. Only ten percent of respondents to the general questionnaire agreed or partly agreed to the proposition that people living with HIV or AIDS were not good Christians. Around ten percent of respondents also agreed or partly agreed that people living with HIV or AIDS were being punished by God. This can be contrasted to much higher levels of agreement on this question in a study across different denominations in Tanzania, around 44%. In spite of low levels of blame directed at others, we found relatively high levels of self-shame (internalised stigma) expressed by the general sample when asked how they would feel if they or a family member were HIV-positive.

What is more worrying is that people report others in their congregation holding more judgemental views than themselves. For example, as much as twenty percent of respondents to the general questionnaire reported that others in their congregation were likely to agree or partly agree to the proposition that people living with HIV or AIDS were not good Christians. Around 25 percent of respondents said that others in their congregation were likely to agree or partly agree that people living with HIV or AIDS were being punished by God. The level of discriminatory and exclusionary practice was low, but nevertheless of some concern. Thirteen percent had observed others in the congregation insulting or humiliating people living with HIV or AIDS because of their status, and ten percent of people living with HIV or AIDS sampled reported experiencing this personally in the last year. The effects of stigmatisation are felt by family members too. Sixteen percent of respondents to the general questionnaire reported that they knew of children or family members of someone living with HIV and AIDS who had been humiliated and insulted because of it in the last year, although not necessarily within the church. Respondents reported observing or experiencing relatively low but nevertheless worrying rates of total exclusion from the church: 4% of people living with HIV or AIDS reported being told to stop attending church because of their status – remember, not all of the people responding to this questionnaire were Anglicans.

In our church, the shared communion cup represents both a spiritual engagement with God and a statement of inclusion in the church community. Some people living with HIV and AIDS are missing out on this ritual at a time when they most need it, and this is happening in our own Diocese. Over all, about 14% of people living with HIV or AIDS reported that they had attended church less often since their diagnosis because they felt judged and criticized and about the same number reported others refusing to share the communion cup with them. Incidents of refusal to share the communion cup with people living with HIV or AIDS in the last year were reported by about a third of the HIV and AIDS coordinators and Bishops sampled. Regional variations suggest that in some areas the problem is more serious than others.

There is some completely unnecessary but very real concern within congregations about casual transmission of HIV. Knowledge about HIV and AIDS transmission is not very strong in certain areas (e.g. casual transmission through kissing). Ignorance and doubt about modes of HIV transmission can be linked to fear of sharing the communion cup with HIV-positive people. Belief in transmission by sharing cups and plates also seems to be correlated with other beliefs, such as the belief that PLWHA are being punished by God and that PLWHA are not good Christians.

In a social environment that is not always welcoming, and faced with personal crisis, we turn to God and our church for support. A PACSA study found that even where people did not disclose their status to the priest or church members, they found great strength through their relationship with God. In our study, over half of the PLWHA sampled (about two thirds of whom were Anglican) had discussed their status with God, while just over a third had discussed it with a religious leader. Over half had attended church more often since their diagnosis.

About half of the respondents to both questionnaires said their congregation was very welcoming and caring towards people living with HIV and AIDS, and another quarter said their congregation was quite welcoming and caring. Over half of the respondents to both questionnaires reported that people in their congregation thought it was good to discuss HIV and AIDS. People living with HIV and AIDS tended to report very slightly lower agreement on these questions.

In general, our preliminary results suggest that the Anglican church is probably an environment in which people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS receive considerable support, but also experience some stigma and discrimination. The moral power of the church does give extra weight to stigmatising or anti-stigma statements from the pulpit. We are fortunate to have an Archbishop who has led the way in tackling the problem of stigma. But we still need to support priests and bishops in developing AIDS-friendly parishes on the ground.

Stigma has its roots in fear. We are afraid of contracting HIV, we are afraid of speaking about the problem in case we are identified with the illness, and we are afraid of disclosing our HIV status in case we are judged, criticized or discriminated against. In order to move towards a more inclusive relationship with our fellow Christians, we need to create safe environments in which we can all speak openly of our fears, and share information and experiences. We have the resources to deal with fear: an ethics of hospitality and compassionate care, a recognition that we have all sinned but strive to be better, and the capacity to provide each other with trustworthy and relevant information.

Even after Apartheid, the church continues to have a major role to play in terms of social cohesion and social justice, in southern Africa. Both social cohesion and social justice are built on love and trust, and love and trust in turn are built on a secure environment. In this time of need where statistics show that in South Africa the total number of children under the age of 18 who have lost one or both parents is expected to peak at 5.6 million in 2014 and where abuse of children continues to be rife, the church needs to be a place of safety and nurture. We need to make sure that our church offers the sanctuary of safety and the security of trust to those who practice their humanity within our community, as well as those with whose care we are charged. The church as with all public institutions provides space for encouraging certain cultural values. The culture and community that the church desires to build is one of love and compassion, tolerance and forgiveness, a community that lives the good news of Jesus Christ. The attainment of such a culture is severely hindered by stigmatizing practices and other destructive behaviour that break trust and social cohesion. I am calling on all of our congregations to ensure that the space they occupy is a “safe space” for all especially the most vulnerable in our society.

Love, compassion and trust are all products of a cohesive community rich in social justice and what some call social capital. ‘Social capital cannot be found in a treasury or a bank. Its currency is culture. Culture stores the life practices and assumptions of a people. Culture circulates between individuals, families, groups, institutions and throughout the society as a whole. Culture forms and regulates the ways people live together. Its most powerful form of regulation is informal, silent and taken for granted. Social capital is first minted in the family, where adult parents, generally without realising it, transmit their own history and the culture of their life world to their children. The child inherits a framework for making sense of life, building an identity and realising the boundaries of difference’ (HSRC Morphet et al 2004.)

We are likewise powerfully influenced, each one of us, by our participation in the family of the church. The ‘church’ is at one time a building, an institution and a community, a structure ideal for taking in those with needs and ministering to them with love. Our Church can take the lead by openly disavowing the practices of stigmatisation and rejection that make poor people desperate, and by using our resources to support the needy. By doing so we will redirect fear into compassionate and appropriate action.

The Highveld Anglican Board of Social Responsibility (HABSR) is presently being constituted as a Section 21 Company. This process, when it is completed, will enable us to embark upon a fund-raising campaign for this ministry and for our projects. I will ask the Board to consider the services of a professional fund raising organization but we also need to commit ourselves to this work. If we could have 1 000 people contributing an average of R100-00 per month (for some might only be able to manage a lesser amount but many can manage more) what a difference we could make to those in need in this area. This is a challenge I present to Synod tonight – to enlist 1 000 people (or parishes) to commit a monthly amount towards our Social Responsibility work. We live in an area where people are in great need. As the Anglican Church in these parts we must play our part. Carol and I will gladly be the first to subscribe and will pledge R100-00 per month as from October. Will you do the same? And will you make this known in your parish and see if we can raise 1 000 people by Easter 2007? In the words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of any family, you did it to me”. (Matthew 25:40).


Share this