THIS book made me very angry. It ignores the work that so many religious people did in the HIV/AIDS holocaust years of the 1980s and 1990s: Rabbi Lionel Blue holding weekend retreats for young men, mainly gay, who had received a death sentence; Christopher Spence and Andrew Henderson building The Lighthouse Hospital as a place of safety; David Randall founding the Cara Trust; Bill Kirkpatrick meeting men on the streets and setting up a “hearing through listening” service in Earls Court, and the Ministers’ Group, which supported HIV counsellors.
The book focuses instead on the present London HIV Chaplaincy, which is funded by the Methodist Church and by both the Tudor Trust and the Joseph Rank Foundation. It began in 2003, when patients of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital living at home asked Steve Penrose to meet them. Within four years, he was talking with more than 150 people, and a full-time chaplain was appointed by the main Churches. No mention is made of the splendid publicity that was given to HIV/AIDS by the Government under Margaret Thatcher.
The testimony of the chaplaincy begins with nine stories that “lead us into deep shadows”. They describe HIV sufferers’ rejection by families and by faith communities; they raise issues of governmental policies concerning the young, the poor, migrants, and the homeless; now older people need help. At every point, faith communities are challenged. “The stories tell of abuse, and we need to know the causes of that abuse.”
The author suggests that the handling of the clients’ material risks the grave danger of being a misuse of power, and “a near attempt to pervert the meaning of that material. We risk setting up the moral suffering of the client in such a way that faith communities can benefit from it. It is seen as part of a metaphor of redemption or original sin. It is not. It is abuse; abuse that is perpetrated by avoidable ignorance and well-meaning stupidity.”
Today the clients number about 350, and, as well as gay and bisexual men, there are heterosexual women, often from minority-ethnic backgrounds, who have been infected by promiscuous husbands.
“Attunement” is a key word in the book — the labour of adjusting one’s own preconceptions (and the agendas and anxieties that they conceal) to the actuality of what is being presented by clients. They have to be given space and confidence to speak without editing, without judgement, and without premature consolation.
The book requires the reader to work hard at what is being said, and to act on it. HIV is a pressing issue for faith communities, and the stories presented are fed into a wider forum of theological reflection, training, preaching, care, and witness in the lives of churches.
The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson is Master Emeritus of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine.
Who Cares About HIV? Challenging attitudes and pastoral practices that do more harm than good
Stephen Penrose, Joseph Kyusho-Ford and Paul Kybird
Church Times Bookshop £11.70