Africa’s Anglican church has come a long way from the days it preached AIDS was God’s punishment for the promiscuous. The church now holds bible studies about safe sex, openly HIV-positive priests, and sermons against stigmatising victims.
But activists and top clergy say Anglicans must do more to right past wrongs, and urged members to take their lead from a Kenyan archbishop, who last week issued a public confession over the church’s failure to address one of Africa’s top killers.
“This is really a major breakthrough,” said Millicent Obaso, an HIV/AIDS coordinator for Care International, referring to an apology by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi in Nairobi last week for the church’s “misplaced” approach to fighting AIDS.
“But we have work to do to get clergy and churches to change their attitudes, roll up their sleeves and get rid of stigma.”
As one of Africa’s biggest Christian groups, the Anglican church is influential on the deeply religious continent, which is home to some 60 percent of the world’s infected people and where stigma and taboo are fueling the pandemic.
Anglicans and other churches have been accused of hindering the fight against HIV in the past, as priests railed from the pulpit about the plague striking down sinners, and some church members living with HIV were banned from taking Holy Communion.
After 20 years of official silence, the Anglican church confessed in 2002 it was complicit in stigmatising those with HIV and launched a campaign of support and education.
Now the church in South Africa runs HIV testing centres and has special prayers about AIDS, Swazi Sunday School teachers teach young people about incest and saying no to sex and Nigerian churches provide free life-prolonging drugs.
“We are sorry for our past behaviour. We are engaged in creating awareness ... ,” Nzimbi said. “The church needs to take leadership, it is the conscience of society.”
The Catholic church has also stepped up its fight against AIDS and says it is now the world’s biggest provider of care for those infected. But unlike Anglicans, it has stuck to a blanket ban on condoms which it says foster immoral behaviour.
But while the Anglican leadership in Africa is largely on board with the softer approach, it concedes there are still pockets of conservatism, and says the new policy needs to filter down to rank-and-file clergy across the continent.
“There are some parishes that are still in denial, as though HIV doesn’t affect their communities,” said Bishop David Beetge, who chairs the HIV/AIDS board for the church in southern Africa.
“There are churches that still see this as a judgement from God, rather than part of the brokenness of our world.”
The conservative Nigerian church, which has declared homosexuality an “abomination” and “un-African”, has officially vowed to fight stigma, according to church secretary general Oluranti Odubogun.
But attitudes do not change overnight. Just over a year ago, the Bishop of Gombe Diocese, Rt Rev. Henry Ndukuba, was quoted as saying God had sent AIDS as a judgement upon homosexuals.
Care’s Obaso said many churches in Africa offer prayer for people with HIV then tell them: “Go in peace - you are healed”. Believing they are disease-free, many fail to seek treatment and go on to infect others. Other churches refuse to marry infected people.
And while activists welcome the church’s involvement, some are concerned that promoting condoms could be a touchy subject for a church that allows contraception, but teaches sex outside marriage is wrong.
Nigeria’s Odubogun said condoms should be “pragmatically embraced” but his Director of Social Welfare, Christian Ebisike, was quoted on the church’s website recently as saying they had “disappointed many people”.
South Africa’s Beetge said condoms were necessary to save lives. He said that as one of the only organisations in Africa that has a chance every week to speak directly to its members, the church could play a much bigger role in fighting HIV.
“We can do a lot more. I wouldn’t want to give us top marks yet. AIDS is a call to the church to really look at our humanity in a very deep and positive way,” Beetge said.
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD