Last night’s Belfast Pride Festival/Faith and Pride screening of the film Love Free or Die at the Parish Church of St George in Belfast showed the bishop travelling to the UK to loiter around the fringes of the 2008 Lambeth Conference to which the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had not issued him with an invitation to attend.
Openly gay, Gene was elected as an Episcopal (Anglican) bishop for the New Hampshire diocese in 2003. While Rowan Williams described the decennial Lambeth conference of worldwide Anglican bishops as “bishops speaking to each other in a safe place, respectfully and prayerfully”, listening to the first openly gay bishop wasn’t on his agenda. The documentary’s film crew followed Gene Robinson during the conference as he made himself available “in case any bishop wanted to take the opportunity to talk to him”. Ultimately Robinson was disappointed at how few bishops he was able to meet.
Preaching engagements in the UK were few and far between too, since the Archbishop of Canterbury had also instructed that Gene Robinson wasn’t to be invited to participate in Church of England services. Rev Giles Fraser ignored that request and invited Robinson along to his church in Putney. The film shows an angry and sustained heckler who interrupted Robinson right at the point he was explaining:
“Fear is a terrible thing. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite is fear.”
[Last October, Giles Fraser resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral when his approval that the Occupy protesters “exercise their right to protest peacefully” outside the cathedral ran contrary to the chapter’s attempts to remove them. He’s now ministering in the Elephant and Castle.]
Gene Robinson is revealed in the film as a reluctant figurehead for gay rights in the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican communion. He’s extrovert, yet still hurt by criticism and attack. He enjoys a good relationship with his daughters who are seen alongside his friends celebrating his civil union with his long-standing partner Mark. Robinson is not without his vices. While there’s no mention of his alcoholism, he explains:
“Of all the things that people find objectionable about me, they don’t notice my smoking!”
Rowan Williams comes out of this film badly. While there may be another side to this story, the film’s editing portrays him as excluding, and more worried that the Episcopal Church will take “decisions that push us [the Anglican communion] further apart” than prepared to deal with the church’s acceptance of gay members and clergy in what Robinson describes as “an issue of justice”. While he may be an Archbishop of Canterbury trying to walk a tightrope as slowly as possible while avoiding the conservative crocodiles snapping at his feet, he seems to lack pastoral concern. (Gene Robinson plans to retire in 2013, mere months after Rowan Williams vacates Lambeth Palace!)
During the film Robinson is seen in humdrum domestic situations as well as observing formal denominational duties, flicking from decorating his Christmas tree to visiting groups in his diocese to attending the 2009 Episcopalian Convention (which voted overwhelmingly to consecrate gay bishops and to allow church marriages in states which have legalised gay marriage) to giving the invocation (ie, praying) to open the first Obama inaugural event.
While the film manages to open up the issues of prejudice and inequality, it’s not a great documentary.
Love Free or Die never quite decides whether it’s a personal portrait or a campaigning documentary. Too many other intriguing figures pop up throughout the narrative, leaving the audience wanting to know more about the first female Episcopal bishop Barbara Harris, or the Episcopalian bishop who wants to stay in the denomination but wishes that “God would lift the scales off my eyes” and show him how scripture accepts homosexuality.
While Robinson is seen interacting with groups of parishioners in his diocese and preaching to the First Presbyterian New York congregation (where he exhorts them to join him in the "dangerous" act of handing out water to Gay Pride marchers), the film contains few direct encounters showing Robinson in discussion with members of the public or clergy about the issue of LGBT inclusion/exclusion within the church. And the theological arguments are completely ignored. It’s a moral issue of justice. Period.
By the end of the eighty minute documentary, the US Episcopal church is seen moving forward at the expense of leaving some of its brethren behind. It’s a stance that is in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the Anglican empire. A situation that looks certain to repeat itself across other denominations, with elements of the Church of Scotland and PC(USA) already putting pressure on wider Presbyterian relationships.
(Several other faith-based events - many organised by the Faith and Pride group) are running during the rest of Belfast Pride Festival.)