“Get real. Gene Robinson is certainly not the first gay bishop in the church,” says Bishop Barbara Harris. “He may be the first one who’s openly gay, but you know, give me a break. If the election of a gay bishop in a little corner of the Anglican communion like New Hampshire threatens to split the Church, that’s telling me that the times, they are a changing.”
Reflecting on the Anglican Church’s opposition to Robinson’s election by his Episcopalian diocese in 2003, Harris is at once practical-minded and refreshingly frank. And her appeal to common sense Love Free or Die, premiering on on Independent Lens 29 October, frames Robinson’s own. Macky Alston’s film follows Robinson’s response to the decision by Archbishop Rowan Williams not to invite him to the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England (a once-a-decade conference of the world’s bishops), a very public effort to push back against both him and his loyal congregation. Robinson makes his own case public when he heads to Canterbury anyway and meets with media outside the conference. As he puts it, “I will be making myself available to anyone who wants to have this new experience that many people in the Anglican Communion have never had, which is to talk to an unashamedly gay, unashamedly Christian person.”
Robinson’s sense of humor, as well as the warmth and maturity visible in his 20-year relationship with Mark Andrew, as well as his daughters and parishioners, serve here as something of a foil for the recalcitrant Williams. In turn, Williams—helped by the famously reactionary Rick Warren—embarks on his own campaign, first publicly condemning Robinson (“Homosexual activity is not compatible with scripture”) and then arguing that the Anglican Church should break apart rather than allow the Episcopalians to have their way.
As the film presents it, the struggle is partly a matter of civil rights, partly a matter of congregational freedom: during the Lambeth Conference, Robinson is invited to preach at St Mary’s Putney, whose Reverend Dr. Giles Fraser observes, “These hate-filled nasty letters, they really do show it’s all about prejudice. Because for me, it’s a huge, big justice issue.” The struggle expands, too: Robinson is invited to speak at First Presbyterian Church in New York on Gay Pride Day, specifically the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, and also at the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim. Here, the Church is voting not only on whether to accept gay bishops, but also on whether to support gay marriage.
Love Free or Die does include interviews with opponents of Robinson’s consecration. Bishop Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh protests, “It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the church lifting up a leader that’s contrary to what the tradition has taught can be done and contrary to what the scripture says can be done. It’s really about scriptural authority.” But such complaints are repeatedly countered by support for a church that looks forward rather than backward: thus, Bishop Jon Bruno of LA seems almost to build and turn around on Duncan’s argument: “Sexuality isn’t the issue. Humanity is the issue. The only thing Gene Robinson did different is, he didn’t pretend to be a straight man with a roommate.”
That sort of honesty is a hallmark for Robinson’s life and career, and it leads to a number of opportunities and risks. In 2009, Robinson is selected to deliver the invocation at the kickoff event of President Obama’s inaugural weekend, where he urges listeners to cast off prejudice: “Bless us with discomfort,” he prays to God, “At the easy, simplistic ‘answers’ we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.”
Such challenges shape the film’s portrait of Robinson, as he remains resilient, hopeful, and generous in the face of intolerance. Bishop Jon Bruno observes, “The Church always has the tendency to claw on the carpet as it’s being dragged out of the past.” That clawing is ugly in Love Free or Die, as Robinson receives hate mail and death threats. But he embraces the chance to make such “clawing” visible, taking it as an opportunity to invite for the Church to act against fear and ignorance. “It’s time religious institutions took responsibility for what their speech empowers people to do,” the bishop says. He’s taken a first step.