A NEW book that suggests that Christians and the Church have fostered “abusive attitudes” to people living with HIV has been hailed as “a proclamation of the gospel” and a “call to judgement” by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams.
The book, Who Cares About HIV? Challenging attitudes and pastoral practices that do more harm than good (SPCK), released on Thursday of last week, includes stories from people living with HIV that catalogue examples of rejection, abuse, isolation, and harassment.
It was written by the Revd Stephen Penrose, Joseph Kyusho-Ford, and Paul Kybird. Mr Penrose founded the HIV chaplaincy in 2003, and chairs the trustees. The charity helps more than 350 people living with HIV to talk about their experience, and challenges the Church’s response to people who have felt marginalised.
“The book exposes and challenges attitudes of institutional blindness and abuse,” Mr Penrose explained, “and suggests some positive means of remedy, all of which have been formed and tested with the help of clients of the London HIV chaplaincy.”
In his foreword to the book, Lord Williams writes: “The chaplaincy experience that is here described and reflected on is one that lays bare the inadequacy of trying to be ‘good’. It deals with various ways in which this becomes poisonous. . .
“We are shown how compassion, even ‘inclusion’, can be instrumentalised, again and again, taking agency and dignity back into ourselves, our self-descriptions as moral and caring people or communities.
“The challenge posed by the experience of those living with HIV is, in other words, not just a problem with abusive, reactionary fundamentalists; it is to do with self-consciously sensitive and would-be compassionate people, too, whose reactions may be as abusive in effect as many more obvious instances.”
He was writing in the wake of the first hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). “I and my Church have been shown to have failed dramatically in anything that could have been called ‘attunement’ to those most affected by abusive behaviour and power patterns. It is impossible not to recognise the things said here as testimony to the same failings.”
He continues: “This book is a proclaiming of the gospel as well as a call to judgement. It is necessary material for the self-examination and self-awareness of any Christian minister or community, if the Church’s claim to be what it is supposed to be is not to go on being hollow for so many who need to hear that their agency and dignity are understood and honoured.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the book made for “challenging but vital reading” for the Church. “There is much to be learnt from the stark tales of those who have sought care as they live with HIV. By listening to their stories, we, with others across our faith communities, can be reshaped by the learning.”
The Speaker in the House of Lords, Lord Fowler, praised the “strength and courage” of the people who had told their stories.
“When I was Health Secretary in the 1980s, HIV was a virtual death sentence. We mounted a major public-education campaign — ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ — to explain the dangers, and we also promoted clean needles for drug users.
“Since then, the position has improved throughout much of the West, but HIV remains a dark cloud over the world, and a challenge for us all. The testimonies in this book help us break down the barriers that people living with HIV too often face.”
An official book launch is due to take place on 15 May at Methodist Central Hall, London.