First Gay Bishop? Give Me a Break

Love Free or Die—a documentary about Gene Robinson, whose ordination as an openly gay, partnered bishop, triggered responses still reverberating within the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion—won the Special Jury Award for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

I got to see the film at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress, at which both the bishop and the film’s director, Macky Alston, were present.

The movie is compelling storytelling, even for those familiar with the outlines of Robinson’s story: his 2003 consecration as a bishop, the backlash from conservatives within the U.S. and global church, and the Episcopal Church’s decision at its 2009 general convention to continue to ordain gay bishops and to develop blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The film follows Robinson to England in 2008, where he was the only bishop in the Anglican Communion not invited to attend. Both his isolation and his indefatigable spirit are palpable as he chats with folks outside the gate, visits an AIDS charity, and hangs out in a coffee shop, never able to get close enough to his fellow bishops to have the kind of conversations he had hoped for.

Director Alston gives plenty of time to other voices; both those allied with Robinson and those who oppose the changes he is asking the church to make.

One especially striking interview, given current events in Uganda, is with a Ugandan woman with HIV who Robinson met in England, talking about how much she and her family have been helped by gay people. Other notable voices include Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, who notes that the church has a tendency to “claw on the carpet” while being dragged from the past; retired bishop Otis Charles and his husband Felipe; and Bishop Tom Shaw, an openly gay celibate Episcopal monk.

But the crowd favorite at the DC screening I attended was Bishop Barbara Harris, whose 1989 consecration as the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion also shook up the church. Harris is memorably direct. About the idea that Robinson is the first gay bishop, Harris snorts, “Give me a break.” In response to some of the rhetoric at the bishops’ gathering, she says, “if assholes could fly, this place would be an airport.”

First Amendment Protection Must Go Both Ways

Bits of Robinson’s theology come through. Speaking to members of a New York City congregation who are preparing to distribute glasses of water to people marching by in the Gay Pride Parade, he talks about the importance of showing hospitality to those who have been hurt by the church. Talking after the screening, he says, “If Jesus is about anything, it’s that love trumps rules.”

Regarding current political struggles around marriage equality and efforts by opponents to frame the issue as one of religious liberty, Robinson told the audience at CAP that this is “an important time to reassert and champion the separation of church and state.” He says opponents of equality in civil marriage are trying to force religious views onto civil authority. First Amendment protection, he says, “has to go both ways.” He recommends that churches separate the legal union and religious blessing by having a congregant who is a Justice of the Peace perform the legal union as something distinct from the ceremony of religious blessing.

Robinson, Alston, and producer Sandra Itkoff hope Love Free or Die will motivate people to talk to friends and relatives, and will be a resource for getting more “conflicted Christians” to not only open their hearts but also to change their behavior—including voting. The son and grandson of ministers, Alston says religion is his family business: “My life is tied up in that culture.” Alston is the director of Auburn Media, a project of New York’s Auburn Seminary, which will be promoting the documentary this year along with a “Friends and Family Plan” campaign. Alston said he hopes to organize 500 community screenings between now and the film’s official release in the fall.

Robinson says he has found that nothing works better to change hearts and minds than LGBT people telling their own stories—or allies telling the story of someone they love, such as a child, aunt or uncle, or friend. He recalls making a too-flippant comment at some event asking how straight white men could “get it” in spite of all their privilege, and having a young man wait to speak to him afterward and tell him, “I have the answer to your question. We listen to you, and we believe you.”

“If you get down to arguing over individual verses of scripture, you have already lost,” says Robinson. But “if I tell you what is truest for me, what is in my heart, that is very disarming.”

But reaching hearts does not always change votes. The film captures the voice of one woman at the General Convention choking with emotion as she explained how she simply could not overcome her understanding of scripture to support the moves toward full inclusion that were eventually adopted with a bigger margin of victory than supporters anticipated.

Robinson believes full inclusion for LGBT people in religious institutions and society is an inevitability. “All we’re arguing about now is time.” He calls it an “amazingly hopeful notion” that the Episcopal Church, “an old, complex, somewhat lethargic institution,” could change so dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. The church, he says, in a significant way “risked its life for us.”

The film also makes clear that Robinson and those around him risked their lives in very literal ways. Robinson was asked to give an invocation opening inaugural weekend festivities for Barack Obama in 2009; that weekend, police stopped a man with a sawed-off shotgun, pictures of Robinson and his husband, and plans to kill them. Alston says that while making the movie he was impressed with the willingness of other people—like Robinson’s husband and daughters—to “cooperate in the vulnerability” of their loved ones. Says Robinson, “Death is not the worst thing. Not living your life is the worst thing.”

No one can accuse Robinson of not living his life. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. On Valentine’s Day he appeared at a press conference in New York City with other members of the group Faithful America and delivered petitions calling on MSNBC to stop using the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins as a commentator given FRC’s record of “dishonest, incendiary rhetoric about gay and lesbian Americans.”

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