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Church teaching and the spread of HIV/AIDS

31 October 2014


From the Revd Andrew Symes
Sir, - Mrs April Alexander (Letters, 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 12 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.

Mrs Alexander must surely realise, however, 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 such as London and New York to promote "safe sex", i.e. condom use, and a more "open", i.e. 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 schoolchildren 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 that Mrs Alexander thinks very carefully about the potential cost of advocating the "social experiment" of relaxation of traditional bound- aries around sex and relationships by the Church in an African context.

The Christian faith balances clear moral guidelines (e.g. sex within marriage and abstinence outside it; and loving rather than coercive and abusive relation- ships) 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 see these as mutually exclusive. The best hope for the suffering in Africa is for the Church to be the Church.

Anglican Mainstream
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Oxfordshire OX29 4HE

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