World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC general secretary / Speeches / Religious Leadership in Response to HIV

Religious Leadership in Response to HIV

Speech by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at a Summit of High Level Religious Leaders on Religious Leadership in Response to HIV.

23 March 2010

People and Communities of Faith Living with HIV

Religious Leadership in Response to HIV
A Summit of High Level Religious Leaders
Amsterdam, 22-23 March 2010

Speech by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

Dear fellow travellers on the journey of faith,

I would like to thank the organizers of this summit for their work and for the invitation to this very important gathering. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has been giving an accountable response to HIV since 1986, calling already then the churches "to repent of inactivity and of rigid moralism"… to be "a healing community". If I am correctly informed, the WCC is one of the international organizations which have worked longest in this field. The work we have carried out has steadfastly been supported by our member churches, the governing bodies and many represented here today. I am humble as I represent here this legacy and since January this year give leadership for the future to this work, together with two of our presidents, His Holiness Abune Paulos and the Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega, and other leaders of our member churches.

I believe that this core attitude of accountability is appropriate when we talk about the past, bus also what shall bring us forward together; to give quality to formation of cultures and our relationships. If anything, what we are here to discuss and improve are human relationships – in so many dimensions.

One of my theological fathers was one of the most significant theological leaders in the anti-apartheid movement in South-Africa, Dr Wolfram Kistner, "Dr. K". In his last years, the place of being theologian became his weekly preaching in the eucharistic worship with a group of women living with AIDS. He knew nobody so close to the reality of life and death, to real joy and real disappointment, as these women. And therefore, to be an accountable theologian, he had to listen to what God had to say to him through them, not only what he should say to them.

To be mutually accountable means that I listen to the other to get insight and wisdom, gained from life given by God. Therefore, encounters like this are absolutely necessary. As religious leaders we need to understand how we use or not use our power. It has been our privilege to listen and learn from those among us who are affected by HIV. It is not only a disease, but an issue about quality of relationships and about faith.

The UNAIDS framework for collaboration with faith based organizations, signed by the ten co-sponsors, is an important document and actions need to be taken to respond to its findings. The World Council of Churches is taking part in the implementation of the recommendations participating in the mutually accountable inter-religious work here. Let me here particularly mention our own Ecumenical HIV Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) and the United Bible Societies’ project "Good Samaritan", both of which report extensive interfaith collaboration in the field of HIV.  We are dealing in these two initiatives with Scriptures, the holy texts of authority for people of faith addressing them at a deep and personal level, giving formation to their lives and communities.  Important in this context is what it means to be accountable as we read and use these sacred texts, for the benefit of one another, and not just our own circles and communities.

In our reflection on interpretation, we have to ask what are the consequences of our use of texts of scripture. We cannot erase or change historical texts, but we have to decide - and be accountable for - how we are using them.

This leads me to emphasize the concept of sound theology. I think - as a Christian theologian - that exactly the question of what is "sound", what brings health and healing, communion and justice, are criteria relevant for theology – the talk of God, the creator, saviour and healer. And I believe that here we have common, important criteria for many of us for interpretation and use of religious texts: What brings healing, what saves life? Where there is deep respect for one another's wellbeing and willingness to be mutually accountable, I am convinced that we can reach common understandings on very basic questions for life and faith. We are called to use the holy texts for the future life together in this world, not for the past. We must discern values of sound theology from sometimes unhelpful or even inhuman cultural norms and values, in all parts of the world, in any culture, in every generation. I have particularly appreciated the contributions from the younger participants here. I find these giving much insight and power to our reflection.

Thus, we need both an intercultural and an intergenerational interpretation of our traditions. We need to be both accountable and courageous in our theological reflections exactly for the sake of the true and costly values in our traditions and religions. Teachers and prophets in our different religions have been honest and daring. We have clear examples in many religious texts that they had the courage to challenge even religious leaders and communities – when needed - in order to create proper quality of relationships and even to save lives. Most issues in the field of HIV are about saving lives – physical and spiritual lives; and HIV is an issue of human relationships, an issue of accountability.  HIV is about what we do to each other and how we relate to each other in this life. Opening ourselves up more for the realities of those in our communities who are affected by HIV, we provide better leadership for the future, saving lives.

Scanning the horizons, so to speak, together with my colleagues in the WCC we see that there are two groups to whom  we probably should pay more attention: couples in which one is living with HIV and the other is not yet infected or in which both partners are living with HIV; the other group is those young people, born with HIV, who are now coming to sexual maturity. We have discussed how we in our work can carefully look into these issues and see if we can assist our churches in providing guidelines for proper pastoral care for these groups. We will gladly collaborate with others on this.

We know that the vast majority of people who are HIV positive are members of faith communities. The stigmatization is in itself dangerous and a cause of physical, mental and social illness. We should, together, see it in a broader perspective of stigmatization of the other – whether it be a person from another religion, a woman, someone from another ethnic group or caste, a homosexual, you name it. When we stigmatize another person we deny his or her inherent human dignity. I see here that one of the most important contributions from religious leaders to overcome stigma is practicing openness and providing an open space. Again, I remember the wisdom of Dr. K: listen to those who are vulnerable, even stigmatized, to learn what accountability to the creator of all human beings means. Therefore, I will ask WCC representatives and staff that we continue to meet with those among us who are affected by HIV as we visit member churches.

As religious leaders we have confidential discussions with people in our flocks, and we are aware of their problems, at least some of them. As religious leaders we must provide leadership that nurtures the ability to live in the closest and most vulnerable dimension of relationships between us as human beings, caring for both health and justice.

In the last years many have spent time, energy and prestige on discussing some issues of sexuality related to religion. These discussions have been varied – from very relevant to very painful and even stigmatizing for particular groups. I wonder, however, if all this time and energy sometimes is preventing us from addressing a great challenge – in all cultures in the world: How do we nurture the attitudes required – particularly among younger people - to develop and nurture sustainable, respectable, just, caring and faithful relationships?

I have learned a lot from you all here, you have been my teachers. May God bless us all.

I thank you.