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Love Free Or Die

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 9, 2012
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"Love Free or Die," Macky Alston and Sandy Itkoff’s documentary about the 2003 ordination of openly gay Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson and the global schism that has threatened the Anglican communion ever since, riffs on the state motto of New Hampshire, where Robinson and his husband Mark live. The theme of gay equality in the face of religious persecution is near timeless, but the happy coincidence of Robinson’s state of residence resonates with recent headlines: New Hampshire lawmakers recently warded off a Proposition 8-like attack on marriage equality there.

The film follows Robinson to London for the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a great convention of Anglican bishops from around the world. The Lambeth Conference takes place every ten years. The head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Rowan Williams, is seen in the documentary explaining the purpose of the once-per-decade event: It’s a chance for bishops to gather together and "speak to each other in a safe place... respectfully and prayerfully." It’s especially telling, in that light, that Robinson was the one and only bishop in the global Anglican community to be barred from the event, and not only barred from the conference but also from preaching in any London church in the days leading up to it.

But one church defied that edict and invited Robinson to appear, in full vestments, during a service, where he was asked to address the congregants. The church’s priest, the Rev. Dr. Giles Frasier, cheerfully notes that he had received hate mail for issuing the invitation. "What’s genuinely disgusting," he notes on camera, "is people’s twisted imaginations" as they dream up all sorts of sexual practices that they insist gays engage in. Laughing, Frasier offers the observation that he, or any heterosexual man, could engage in any of the laundry list of sexual practices people assume gays get up to, and indeed plenty of husbands and wives do get it on using just those methods.

Frasier offers another piquant point, lamenting that "the Lambeth Conference... is supposed to be a conference for listening, [and] the only openly gay bishop in the Anglican community won’t be there to speak."

Indeed, it was hard enough for Robinson simply to deliver his thoughts to the congregants at Frasier’s church: hardly does he begin his address when a long-haired man clutching a motorcycle helmet leaps to his feet and shouts that Robinson is a heretic. The man is ushered out of the church in short order as the congregation drowns him out with a hymn; "Repent! Repent! Repent!" he screams.

That message--repent, ye sinners of the Western world, with your modern ways and your blessings for same-sex couples--has been the cry of anti-gay elements within the Anglican Church. For years, the church imposed a moratorium on the ordination of openly gay and lesbian bishops and denied same-sex families the blessing of their faith. As is usual of such religious fervor, and fevers, no such restrictions have been placed on divorced heterosexuals, even though the Bible explicitly, and frequently, condemns the dissolution of heterosexual marriage, while never even mentioning same-sex nuptials. (The closest the Old Testament comes is to declare men "lying" with men to be a taboo, which it was for Jewish people in antiquity as a means of differentiating the Jewish faith from pagan worship involving sex rites with male prostitutes. Unfortunately, the word for "taboo," used in the Book of Leviticus, has been persistently mistranslated as "abomination." Much of the rest of what Leviticus has to say, including injunctions against wearing blended fabrics, or eating shellfish, or serving meat and dairy together--hello, polyester, lobster dinners, and fast food cheeseburgers! We’re a nation of sinners!--has been ignored by the anti-gay religious community, much as have the good book’s edicts against divorce.)

But the film takes a longer look at Robinson and his role in unfolding church history, moving past the Lambeth Conference and entering the Episcopalian General Convention, in Anaheim, California, in 2009, right along with the bishop, who was not barred from attending the event. At the convention, the church members voted with a near two-to-one margin to allow not only the consecration of gay and lesbian bishops, but also to permit the blessing of same-sex couples in states where marriage equality is legal. One striking moment at the Convention comes when Robinson invites gay and lesbian clerics to accompany him at the altar. Though Robinson notes that a few years ago almost no one was willing to stand up and be counted as a GLBT person in vestments, the times have changed. True to his words, a small pastoral crowd joins Robinson.

The fact that the so-called "schism" in the church (including breakaway factions in which parishioners, desperate to cling to their prejudices, formed their own parallel faith tradition) has its roots in the church allowing women to serve as clerics, a controversy that long predates Robinson’s consecration, is never alluded to directly. But as one woman bishop notes, "It’s no longer fashionable to beat up on women, so you go to the next easy target--gays and lesbians.... Who knows what it’ll be ten years from now? But it’ll be something else."

As in so many other stories of GLBT advancement, visibility in the church has been key. "Where love is, there is God," Robinson says, paraphrasing the Bible. "Growing numbers of people have seen God’s love exhibited in our relationships in a way that is undeniable."

That’s not quite true; there are still plenty who deny us our families, our equality, and the validity of our own experiences. But the truth of our community’s (and our families’) stories is powerfully persuasive. This documentary stands proudly among our most urgent and compelling stories.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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