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Sexual health talking point for Pacific church leaders

By Paul Titus

Sexual health is always a prickly topic, especially so when people have very different views about sexuality.

When the leaders of Methodist and Methodist-affiliated churches from around the South Pacific gathered in Auckland last month, they were well aware of their cultural and theological differences. They were also aware of their common Wesleyan heritage, and so found ways to forge some common understandings.

The Methodist Consultative Council of the Pacific (MCCP) is an annual gathering of church leaders from the seven large South Pacific countries: Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Tonga.

This year the theme of their meeting was ‘Theological ethics in the context of HIV-AIDS and other sexual health issues’. Over two days, the church leaders explained the theological and practical approaches they use to address these problems in their communities, broke into small groups for discussions, and heard from Kiwi sexual health advocates about what is being done in NZ.

AIDS has had a devastating impact in Africa and is becoming a serious problem in parts of Asia as well as the Pacific, notably Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

All the churches represented at MCCP are already involved in some way in the fight against AIDS. Their efforts include education and advocacy campaigns, collaboration with government health agencies, and pastoral care for those who have been infected or affected by AIDS.

In his welcome to the visiting leaders Methodist Church of NZ president Rev John Salmon laid out some theological issues the AIDS epidemic raises. These include Jesus’ compassion and hospitality for those who suffer disease. Also critical is the need to end poverty and gender inequality, which contribute to the spread and inadequate treatment of AIDS.

NZ representative Rev Mary Caygill later echoed these themes in her presentation and described the silence, denial and horrendous stigma that surround the disease. Because of the social inequality that drives the disease, HIV-AIDS is an affliction of the body politic as well as the body.

Different theological emphases were readily apparent in the churches’ presentations.

Representatives of the Uniting Church of Australia focused on the dignity of all human beings,

AIDS in the spotlight: (from left) Rev David Havea, Uniting Church in the Solomon Islands, Fili Fai'esea Lilo,Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, and Lynne Scott, Methodist Church of New Zealand.
including those with HIV-AIDS, given we are created in the image of God. They said Jesus of the cross is the redeemer of those who suffer with the disease, and they encouraged open discussion of life-giving practices and sexuality.

By contrast, sexual permissiveness and homosexuality were major concerns of the representatives from Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and the Methodist Church of Samoa. Both described HIV-AIDS as divine judgement in response to sin. Nevertheless, they advocated compassion and support for those suffering from the disease and their families.

The churches in both Fiji and Papua New Guinea are focusing on young people to address the AIDS epidemic. The Methodist Church of Fiji has created a programme funded by UNICEF to train young people to help others to make good lifestyle choices. The Uniting Church of PNG is using dance and poetry performance by young to people to get the message out.

Health promoters Silipa Take and Eriata Peri from the NZ Aids Foundation and Fuailelagi Samoa Saleupolu from NZ Family Planning Association made important contributions to the MCCP discussions.

Silipa and Eriata talked openly of their homosexuality in their presentation about sexual health. Their presentation about safe sex made the topic seem natural. “If you love life, love yourself. If you love yourself, you will protect yourself, protect your community, and protect your nation,” Eriata said at the conclusion of his presentation.

After a day and a half of discussions, the delegations from each of the countries met on their own to discuss how they would respond the AIDS epidemic as a church.

The Methodist Church of NZ said it would strive to create a way for all sections of the church to constructively address the issue of HIV-AIDS. World AIDS Day, marked in December each year, could serve as a mobilising point for the churches.

Better education, mobilizing young people, and cooperation with health officials were common themes on several of the delegations’ agendas.

In addition to the individual initiatives to address HIV-AIDS, the MCCP churches drafted a joint statement that acknowledges their differences but commits themselves to mutual support.

Pacific Methodists on HIV-AIDS

The members of the Methodist Consultative Council in the Pacific, meeting in Auckland in April 2007, notwithstanding our theological and cultural differences, affirm:

  • we are deeply concerned by the human predicament of the HIV and AIDS crisis, and by the ongoing issues of world poverty and gender inequity that are major factors in the spread of HIV and AIDS;
  • we are committed to addressing and actively responding to the multilayered issues surrounding the spread of HIV and AIDS, and we seek to do so with the compassion of Christ;
  • because we are bound together by our faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ and by our common Methodist heritage, we shall continue to co-operate with each other in our further response to HIV and AIDS throughout the Pacific;
  • and we pray God’s blessings of healing and peace upon all who suffer from HIV and AIDS and upon all who work in HIV and AIDS prevention, education, and treatment.