Last weekend I watched Channel 4’s new five-part drama It’s a Sin and was incredibly moved by it – the emotion has really stayed with me throughout the week. The fact that the national response to AIDS was happening in my childhood was not lost on me, and I found myself looking on YouTube for the infamous advert which encouraged the nation not to ‘die of ignorance’, as an information pamphlet was thrown on a gravestone followed by a bunch of flowers. I have remembered how much this advert scared me when I saw it as a six or seven year old child. Watching this as an adult, seeing the pamphlet and flowers thrown unceremoniously, showed just how much the government of the time seemed to wash their hands of all those who contracted HIV and went on to develop AIDS: those people were supposedly ignorant and had made life choices which inevitably led to their illness, and in many cases, death.
Yet, they weren’t ignorant. The very many who died were a whole host of people, some who were educated, some less so, some middle class, others working class, some successful, some still dreaming of that success. What they had in common was more about who, or how, they loved.
The drama begins just fourteen years after homosexuality was decriminalised. Despite this change in law, the gay community portrayed continued to live in the shadows in an unequal equality which discriminated against gay men with mortgage lending and employment. On the occasions when they moved out of those shadows, they were met with prejudice and abuse. A further 40 years on and the theological discourse around sexuality and gender continues to be complex within the Church of England, divided by lines of tradition and conservative interpretations of scripture. Sometimes the shadows continue to be the places of safety and sanctuary.
There are parallels with It’s a Sin and the pandemic which we currently find ourselves in – not least the fear which seems to engender actions and reactions which would rarely occur in other circumstances. We seem to be suspicious of others, dashing further away if they cough, making sure we are a significant distance apart as we pass people on the street, ever aware of what we might catch if we are irresponsible. The unequal ‘equality’ within our society also continues to rein through COVID – this seems particularly apparent as The Observer reports that the rate cases are falling in poorer areas is dramatically slower compared with wealthier areas.
Leaving aside the fear of contracting the coronavirus, or HIV in It’s a Sin, for a moment there are also similarities our responses to one another, to disagreements or differences of opinion. In a scene where the lesbian and gay community of London embarked on a peaceful protest imploring the government that ‘AIDS needs aid’ they were verbally and physically abused. I have witnessed so many different opinions around so many aspects of the government response to COVID, lockdown, furlough schemes, churches being closed, churches choosing to close or remain open…so many people have such deep-seated beliefs that what they are doing is right. I wish I knew that the decisions I had made, along with church wardens and PCCs, were right. What I do know is that all of us felt that there would be significant risk to remain meeting in person. My heart sinks a little, though, every time I read articles or comments in social media stating with certainty that we should be doing this or that. These remain unprecedented times and in each of our corners of the world we continue to tentatively put one foot in front of another…and may be doing so for some time to come.
The aspect of It’s a Sin which had the most profound impact on me, which has stuck with me, is the way people died…alone, away from families, ashamed because the world told them they should be. There are real stories behind each person who lost their life to AIDS. Each person was someone’s son, grandson, or brother. Whilst shame has hopefully not been part of the experience of those who have lost their lives to COVID, many have died alone, away from families. Many were someone’s child, grandchild, parent, grandparent, wife, husband or partner. Then there are the aftershocks of COVID…those who haven’t been able to see their loved ones in care homes, those in care homes who have forgotten their loved ones because their condition has deteriorated over the last twelve months, those who need treatment for non-urgent health conditions…. There are real people behind each story or situation.
This Sunday, the second before lent, the lectionary reminds us of how we all came into being, into life, through God’s light…a light which shines in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome. I have called this passage to mind so many times over the last few months. There has been, and continues to be, much darkness through viruses and death, through the way we treat one another, through fear and anxiety…and yet none of this will overcome the light through which God brought so much into existence. Keep the faith!
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”John 1:5