From the Archives: Aids, the Church and Homosexuality

Please note that the articles published in Movement Magazine some decades ago do not necessarily reflect the views of SCM now, its staff, its trustees, or members. These articles are provided to demonstrate the history of SCM in relation to LGBTQ+ history. This article has been edited for length and clarity, and is from Movement Magazine Issue 67 - Autumn 1987.

Content Warning: This blog post contains some views that are no longer widely accepted regarding disability, illness, and race, as well as some terms that are now offensive. This post also contains descriptions of sex.

Aids, The Church And Homosexuality

The outcome of the General Election held on June 11 may not have pleased us all, but several changes in the composition of the House of Commons resulted from it. 47 of those 650 people interest me particularly. More women were elected than ever before (41 – 52% of the voters, 6% of MPs) and the following were elected or re-elected ) – Diane Abbott, Jack Ashley, David Blunkett, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Chris Smith and Keith Vaz.

But, you might ask, surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But it has.

It is funademental to the Gospel that all human beings are created equal in the sight of God. During his ministry, Jesus treated all around him equally. That meant not discriminating against or condemning groups or types of people, helping to ensure that all could live a full and caring life, and treating everyone without condescension. He did not spend time or effort showing pity to the young woman whose father was Jairus, he did not blame the leper for contracting leprousy, nor check out the sexual habits of Mary and Martha before becoming their friend. He requires us to love others as we love ourselves – as ourselves, not instead of ourselves; not as an exercise in romantic idealism, not at one remove through giving to a charity dealing with the starving millions thousands of miles away and then forgetting the causes of their hunger, and it was love, not patronage or condescension. His death and continued life showed that he was for all and that we must follow his example. ‘We’ includes even those to whom the rest condescend.

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But it has.

We all have experiences of being condemned or patronised, of having opportunities reduced by society’s labels. We have experiences of being treated as less than equal – as less than human. For some these experiences are only fleeting moments, and for others they govern their lives. Perhaps women, black and Asian people, people who are disabled, gay and lesbian people, and those from social backgrounds without money or hope, know best how being unequal feels – but even white, middle-class, able-bodied heterosexual men have often had experiences of being treated as less than equal.

For me, this was real when I was a child. Going to school, I was frequently accosted by elderly people who kept on telling me that I had just fallen and hurt myself – then giving me sweets for being such a brave boy because I wasn’t crying. I decided to accept their sweets and money because it was easier than trying to convince them otherwise. Only when I was older did I realise why there were doing it. Through having had polio as a baby I walked with a limp. I knew from then on that I was a subject of pity and couldn’t do anything about it. My disabilities are trivial compared with many, and I have many advantages in the world. But I still know what it is to be patronised, to be condemned and labelled.

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But it has.

Has the presence of a woman in 10, Downing Street increased women’s self-confidence? Have the policies adopted by Thatcher's government altered women’s view of themselves as condemned to home duties, tied to a husband for economic and social well-being? Have male Church leaders grasped the relevance of the Gospel to this matter? Many seemingly progressive men pat themselves on the back for allowing a few women to become part in their preserve, and use the presence of these women as an excuse for doing nothing more.

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But it has.

The presence in the House of Commons of 4 MPs out of 650 who identify with the black and Asian communities is seen by some as a triumph for democracy. White, middle class people are able to point out how tolerant our society is in allowing four such people to succeed in our democratic process. But has their election raised the confidence of black and Asian people?

Or does parliament’s failure to enact adequate race equality legislation, or government’s inability to enforce existing legislation, merely convince them that they will remain second class citizens, condemned for being black by some conservatives and patronised by white liberals who like patting ‘black babies’ on the head?

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But it has.

The re-election of Jack Ashley, who has been profoundly hearing impaired for many years, and the re-election of David Blunkett (who was born without sight) are presented as a sign that even the deaf and blind can participate in our society. But at what cost and how easily? How brave they are, we all say. Yes, brave in fighting against heavy odds to achieve what they have achieved. But do we stop to think why those odds are there in the first place?

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? But is has.

The MP Chris Smith has been re-elected in Islington South and Finsbury, a highly marginal constituency with an increased majority. Unusual in London where Labour MP’s majorities were often reduced. Keith Vaz’s election to Leicester East was worthy of comment because he was the first Asian person elected since before the last war.

But surely this has nothing to do with AIDS? It shouldn’t have.

AIDS may yet ‘spread into the heterosexual community,’ AIDS may yet become a major health epidemic for everyone. Perhaps the government advertising campaign will work. It cost a mere £20 million, a drop in the ocean compared with the money spent by the government to buy British Gas shares.

At the moment, AIDS is largely confined to:

Those with a blood-related disorder called haemophilia; Those who inject themselves with unsterilised needles; Gay men.

Without seriously stopping to consider what haemophilia involves for the people for whom it is a fact of life, we declare that they are ‘innocent victims.’ We patronise them by feeling sorry for them – or even feeling angry that they have become caught up in a deadly disease ‘not of their own making.’ But where is the conviction that persons with this blood-related disorder should be enabled to take their full, un-commented-upon part in society? Where are the demands for appropriate medical and nursing treatment? Where is society’s commitment to those people in a fully funded programme of research into this and similar disorders?

Too often our opinion about drug addicts who have AIDS is ‘serves them right.’ We don’t stop to think why people use addictive drugs, what has happened to our world and its values to make addictive drugs appealing to either drug-takers or drug suppliers. We don’t stop to think what the difference is between the addiction of tobacco, alcohol or even unhealthy eating and the so-called addictive drugs.

Without going any further in considering ADS, we have an awful mixture of ‘innocent victims’ and ‘serves them right.’

All this is before we consider the real issue surrounding the Church’s response to AIDS, sex, and in particular, sex between men.

In Movement 65 (published in Spring 1987) Geoffrey Thompson argued that sex was the Church’s greatest hang-up. He concluded the article saying:

‘The Church is fascinated by sex. In its fascination, it is discredited both by its own activity, the contempt which the world rightly shows for it, and the flouting of Church law by the faithful. We are all the losers for it.’

In the mind of the Church, the real issue surrounding AIDS is the gay issue. Reactions to men loving other men govern reactions to AIDS. The Church seems to have two ways of dealing with those gay men who contract the disease AIDS: either condemning them with ‘serves them right’ or by patronising them as sufferers from an unfortunate handicap.

Both of these attitudes are fundamentally anti-Chrisitian.

‘Aids is a moral issue’ claim the conservatives in the Church. ‘No it’s not,’ claim the liberals. Both lots have it wrong – one lot because they have picked the wrong moral issue, the other lot because they are scared of the real moral issue.

The conservatives urge church leaders to lead a crusade for a ‘return’ to ‘the moral value of celibacy outside marriage and fidelity within marriage.’ They claim that if this were to happen, ‘the sexual transmission of AIDS would be prevented.’ This view is coupled with the demand that all male homosexual acts be made illegal.

This must be resisted for three reasons:

                It is contrary to the Gospel;

                It is simple-minded;

                It will bring the Church into further ridicule.

It is contrary to the Gospel in that it takes a Victorian view of sex and the family, setting up the family as the be-all-and-end-all rather than the Christian values of love and commitment. The Gospel is for all people, whether they live in western-style families or in extended networks of what ever sort, and whether the focus of their love and commitment is someone of their own sex or of the opposite sex.

It is simple-minded to claim that if the churches adopt these teachings and if homosexual acts were outlawed AIDS would not be spread. Law changes might salve the consciences of conservative Christians, but they would not eliminate the physical expression of men’s love for other men, and such changes would merely reduce the credibility of law.

It will be bring the Church further into ridicule by showing that Church teaching on compassion for those who are sick is conditional – conditional on their illness being acceptable. This is exhibiting itself in something which is scandalous to Christ. That is offering of what is delightfully called ‘Christian care’ for persons with AIDS who are ill. In the 1840s, during the great potato famine in Ireland, soup kitchens were set up by Protestant missionaries from England. Starving Roman Catholics were given soup if they converted from Catholicism. The 1980s version is ‘we will look after you when you are dying from AIDS as long as we can tell you how evil your homosexual ways have been’ Both forms of so-called ‘care’ must be condemned. Already one private ‘Christian care' organisaiton has been given public funding, and its parent body adopts this approach towards AIDS patients.

The election of Keith Vaz to parliament as a member for Leicester East not only sent to Westminster the first Asian for 50 years, and another member representing a party committed to equality for gay men and lesians, but also removed from Parliament one of the leading figures among those who hold extreme views on AIDS and homosexuality. We can only hope that such an electoral set-back will reduce the impact of the moralisers on government thinking.

So much for Christian version of ‘it serves them right.’

But what of the Christian version of ‘suffers from an unfortunate handicap?’

It has become standard for liberal Christians when considering AIDS to insist that AIDS is not a moralising issue. Organisations like Chrisitian Action on AIDS (CAA) try to mobilise liberal opinion in the churches against the moralisers. They argue that the issue is about caring for people with dignity and without preaching at them. There is a long history of morally neutral service among some Christians caring for those who society shuns. I am not denying that history, nor am I being cynical about it. (Christian Actions on AIDS needs our support, but that support must be used to help people in CAA to sort out their view on the gay issue.)

However, it fails to take the real issue behind AIDS seriously. It fails to sort out Christian attitudes to homosexuality. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, often considered more liberal than conservative, have used such terms as ‘handicapped’ and ‘deserving our sympathy’ when talking about homosexual people. This is unacceptable not only because it is a patronising insult both to gay people and to the sensorily impaired, but also because it is a denial of the love of others are oneself which Christ requires of us.

Conservatives at least condemn directly. Liberals do their condemning through a smoke-screen of condescension. It is often more difficult to decide which is worse.

The failure of liberal Christians, when considering AIDS to deal properly with the gay issue is drive by fear (on the part of some) of it being discovered that they themselves are gay, and a fear (on the part of others) of the work of caring being ‘destroyed’ by it being made known that they adopt a non-patronising attitude to their own and other people’s sexuality and sexual expression.

Both of these approaches demean the Church, and deny Christ’s love – a love which was and is non-condescending, unpatronizing and uncondemning. A love which seeks to free people so that they may offer themselves, their love, to others, and through others, to God.

But what about gay men and AIDS?

All the time, more people are coping with knowing that they, or their lover, or a friend, are HIV antibody positive – of have been diagnosed as having AIDS or AIDS-related complex. How can we Christians genuinely, without loss of dignity to all those concerned, help with the situation of AIDS?

We can recognise the problem for what it is – a frightening and (so far) incurable deadly illness. We can recognise its scale for what it is – a total of just under 800 cases in the UK (June 1987). We can recognise that life with such illnesses can be – and for many has been – a living death exacerbated by other people’s attitudes. Examples of horrors occur frequently: sacking a woman from her job because a scandal-monger put it about that her husband may be gay and ‘therefore’ was bound to have AIDS; illegally evicting a man diagnosed as having AIDS who was in good health; forcing someone to commit suicide through fear of AIDS. These horrors are commonplace – I pick only three of those published recently. We can also recognise that life with such an illness can be fulfilling and exciting, a time of joy and peace, of discovery of self, of others and of God.

How can we help create an environment where: fewer and fewer people become HIV antibody positive; fewer and fewer people contract AIDS; more and more of those who have AIDS find fulfilment, joy and peace in their lives?

While the General Election returned to power the only majority party which did not include a full commitment to full equality for gay men and lesbians, it did see the election of Chris Smith as member for Islington South and Finsbury. Hitherto it has been widely believed that for a gay MP to ‘come out’ was political suicide. Chris Smith’s majority increased. Now young gay men know, just as young black and Asian people know, that Parliament contains someone with whom they can identify. Whether this means that society cares for them or not is a different question.

What about gay men and the Church?

Rather than condemn or condescend, rather than be frightended or off-hand, we should face up to the reality concerning what the old fashioned call ‘homosexuality,’ and that is encapsulated in this:

Chris and Pat are of the same sex, and are both mature adults. Both of them have had girl-friends and both have had boy-friends – both feel capable of relationships with either sex. They meet and gradually come to know and trust one another – developing their friendship into a love bond, which meets the general approval of their families and friends; both believe that together, rather than alone, they can more effectively express their love for God and for their fellow human beings.

Until the Church can handle Chris and Pat as ordinary human beings who are trying to follow Christ, the Church cannot handle sex of anything (such as AIDS) which is connected with it. Please think hard about your own sexual practices if you are sexually active – ensure you are practising safer sex. But don’t leave it there – consider how you can help the Church respond in a Christian way to the challenge which AIDS has brought to our attention. This concerns the place of women, of black and Asian people, of the sensorily or mobility impaired persons, and of people who love others of their own sex.

Malcolm Macourt teaches social research at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic. He was a founder of the committee member of the Gay Christian Movement (now Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement), and was editor of Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation (SCM Press, 1977).