Macky Alston’s “Love Free Or Die” (which won the Special Jury Prizewinner Sundance 2012) is an engaging portrait of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom. “Live Free or Die” is New Hampshire’s state motto.
Robinson, the author of “In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God” and the focus of the 2007 documentary, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” became the unwilling poster boy in the battle for LGBT people to receive full acceptance in the faith. Bishop Robinson envisions the Episcopal Church as an evolutionary catalyst to “bring us into a new place.”
When the Anglican Church held it’s once a decade Lambeth Conference (2008) Rowen Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury requested Robinson not to attend. He was the only Bishop not invited to the doctrinal conference.
Robinson decided to go to England and make himself available to the other ordained church leaders. Instead he was barred form the general meeting rooms or lunch spots. The Archbishop forbade local priests to allow him to preach. Dr. Giles Fraser of St Marks, broke ranks. Despite hate mail sent to Fraser and Robinson, Fraser was determined to make Robinson’s sermon as ordinary as possible.
Robinson, with his gentle, engaging southern personality and humanist touch, welcomes the congregation and jokes with the photographers in the brief 90 seconds promised to them. “Give us courage may we glorify your holy name”. While many applaud, a couple heckles him, calling him a heretic before being escorted out. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear,” continues Bishop Robinson.
Afterwards, shaken Robinson explains “When evil comes your way the only thing to do is stop right there and absorb it.” Crying, he continues, “I was a poor Kentucky boy when I heard God’s’ voice. “You are my beloved son. In you I am pleased. Whatever comes my way I’ve got that and nobody can take that away from me.”
Barbara Harris Bishop, the Anglican Church’s first woman (who happens to be black) dismisses Lambeth. ” If assholes could fly this would be an airport. It’s a small group of males, always in control, who feel their power slipping away.”
Robinson’s two daughters from an earlier marriage, Jamee and Ella, applaud his twenty-year relationship with Mark Andrew. “Dad and Mark have an amazing balance, says youngest daughter Ella. “Dad’s the ultimate extrovert, comfortable in any situation. Mark would have preferred a quiet life. This was nothing he sought out. He’s the rock for my dad.” Their warm civil union is featured in the film.
The unlikely lightening rod was invited to give the first invocation (at the Lincoln memorial) to kick off Obama’s weeklong inaugural celebration, in contrast to evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren—an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights—who gave the opening prayer at Obama’s inauguration.
Humble Robinson asked himself. “What am I doing here? Oh God of our many understandings, how did I get there to this moment?”
The film is full of great quotes. On the Daily Show, John Stewart quips that it must have been difficult maneuvering the crowds, since as a bishop, he could only make diagonal moves.” Robinson replies, eyes a twinkle, ” John, you have to understand, there’s a queen on the board as well.” bringing down the house.
We meet other bishops, friends of his from their school days, who wish him well but find themselves on the other side of the scriptural barricades. Others, like gay celbate monk Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts explains,” I can’t be out the same way that Gene is out. The mystique of celibate monk makes people question their sexuality.” Shaw was barred from inviting another member of his monesterial community because only spouses are invited to the conference.
When time comes for the Episcopal tri-annual convention Bob Duncan led a breakaway movement (now known as the ACNA) and invited gay bashing Bishop Rick Warren to give inspiration.
Bishop Barbara Harris mouths off. “Now that it’s no longer fashionable to beat up on women move on to the next soft target, gays, LGBTs, transsexuals.”
Robinson attends. On the table were two resolutions: whether to ordain gay bishops, and whether to officiate in gay weddings in states that allowed it. Gay monks and bishops came forward and spoke. Twenty minutes of table talk were dedicating to studying the most radical move in church history.
Bishop Tom Shaw called all LGBT clergy to join him on the dais, and it was soon filled with clergy. Perhaps the most moving moment was a woman who confessed, engulfed in tears, ‘pastorally it’s given but biblically I struggle with what is prophetic what apostasy is? I can’t discern it now. I have to be me. I have to vote against this. I can’t celebrate. I can’t apologize.”
Surprisingly DO25 passes with a 3/1 vote and 2 abstentions. After the historic vote, people prayed in silence for 10 minutes.
“For a long time I agonized over not wanting to be the ‘Gay Bishop”. Don’t let it be me. It’s just an accident of history that it turned out to be me, but if it turned out to be me, I want to be the best steward of this opportunity” explains Robinson. By the end of the film we are sure no one could have done a better job.