Silver and red

The house in which I have the real privilege to live whilst Dean of Southwark is lovely but nowhere near as historic or photographed as the house the other side of Cardinal Cap Alley.  That house, 49 Bankside, even has a book written about it, ‘The House by the Thames’ by Gillian Tindall.  The book is a real social history of Bankside and whilst the author debunks some of the myths around the property, principally the story that Wren lodged there during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral, nevertheless the real stories of the house are even more interesting.

One famous resident was Guy Munthe, from my understanding an exotic and rather wonderful socialite. He came to mind on 1 December as I returned to the Cathedral following my sabbatical and presided at the early morning Eucharist.  It was World AIDS Day and so the Mass that morning was in St Andrew’s Chapel which is in the retrochoir of the Cathedral.

aids-ribbon-e1414547907227

I arrived in the chapel, kissed the altar and went to the ligilium to begin the liturgy.  As I did I looked to my right and quickly read the plaque on the wall commemorating the dedication of this chapel as the ‘AIDS Chapel’, the place which provides a focus for our prayers and witness on behalf of those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.  I immediately noticed that the dedication took place in 1991 and as this was 2016 it was the 25th anniversary, the silver anniversary, of the chapel.  I mentioned that in my introduction to the Mass; it was something to give thanks for.

And my former neighbour? Well, he died in 1992, one of those caught up in the horror that at that time was sweeping through the gay community in London and beyond.  He is commemorated alongside that chapel in a simple and non-ostentatious plaque.

I remember that when I arrived at the Cathedral in 1999 as the Precentor, one of my responsibilities was to organise the AIDS Day Service which took place on the first Sunday in December.  It was a large service, ecumenical and inter-faith.  We had Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Zoroastrians all taking part with a large and broad Christian group.  The London Gay Mens Chorus once provided the music, we sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ (of course), candles were lit and processed, a quilt was brought  in, we all cried and remembered those who had died since the last service and prayed for them.  It felt like a vignette of the world of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ with a few Mrs Madrigals amongst the crowds of men.

Seventeen years later there is no service. The energy ran out of it. It no longer seemed necessary and our partners who helped with the service all faded away. The issue had changed, people now lived with a positive status, they didn’t die.  It was no longer a male, white, gay issue, it had changed.  One of the things that had changed in south London was that the community now facing up to the challenge of HIV/AIDS was made up of a great many more recently arrived black migrants and they weren’t as organised or cohesive as the gay community and we had no easy way of making contact with them. It is a sad story for me to write and one in which I have no pride.  The ‘big’ event drifted away from us, though we still offer the Mass every Saturday in the AIDS Chapel for those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS and we still wear our red ribbons.

But things have changed again. The numbers of those being infected and living with HIV has increased. Over the decade 2006 to 2015, there has been a 73% increase in the number of people in the country accessing HIV care. 46% of these people live in London, and almost 96% of infection is as a result of sex, split almost equally between heterosexual and homosexual sexual encounters. The Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark now account for almost 25% of HIV cases in England.

The other changes are, of course, around the success of drug and other regimes that mean that people can live with the infection and not see a positive diagnosis as a death sentence.  The debate on whether Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, should be paid for by the local authority or by the NHS is a side-show compared with what could be the effect of this drug being made available.

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew's Chapel

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew’s Chapel

Over the years we have wondered from time to time whether it was right to keep St Andrew’s Chapel as an AIDS Chapel.  But each time we talked about it we decided it was.  To our knowledge it is the only one in this country.  It still makes people stop, think, ask questions and, I hope, pray.  It still serves as a focus for our prayer and concern as a Cathedral community.  In fact, when in response to our new vision statement we were working out what our priorities should be renewing this ministry and looking at ways to live out in action what we proclaim in prayer as far as the HIV+ community is concerned became one of our priorities.  Given the changes that I have already mentioned and the extreme needs in Lambeth and Southwark it feels as if the chapel is a relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

The most important thing, of course, is to continue to witness to the unfailing, hospitable and transforming love of God through all of this.  It is right that we do the praying in St Andrew’s Chapel for it is Andrew who we remember ‘first found his brother’ (John 1.41) and brought him to Jesus.  We do the same with all our sisters and brothers.

Lord Jesus,
you love us
just as we are.
May we love
as you love.
Amen.

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