Gene Robinson made history in 2003 when he was the first openly gay man to be elected a bishop in the Anglican Church. In March 2004, at his ordination as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church, he wore a bulletproof vest because of death threats received from Christians who opposed him. Robinson has worked fearlessly to promote the acceptance of LGBT people by the Church, and he is one of the only Christians making a real noise right now who sounds like a Christian. At the BFI 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival last month I watched an astounding documentary about Robinson, Love Free or Die, and it changed the way I understood contemporary Christianity. It also changed the way I saw the place of LGBT Christians within the Church. That was down to the eloquence and the persuasiveness of Robinson.
The Christians who are making the greatest amount of noise in the US, and have been since the 1980s, are the ones on the Right. They have hijacked the debate, and are so driven by anger that there is hardly any identifiable Christianity left in them. The message that Robinson preaches is consequently not one I am used to hearing. He does not use the Bible as a club to hit people over the head with. He uses it as the beginning of understanding, not a rulebook.
Before watching Love Free or Die, and listening to Robinson speak, I found it almost impossible to understand how LGBT people can reconcile their faith with the teachings in the Bible. That is because the Bible is so often used as a weapon. “It’s time that religious institutions took responsibility for what their speech empowers people to do,” Robinson reasons. The liberal view in the Church is that the principles of justice and inclusion that underpin Christianity take precedence over the literal teachings. That is what Robinson preaches.
This is not an easy proposition to understand for Christians and atheists alike. In her outstanding book The Bible: A Biography, Karen Armstrong explores such avenues of thought, and “the ways in which Jews and Christians have tried to cultivate a receptive, intuitive approach to scripture”.
This is difficult for us today. We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening. The discourse of politics, media and academe is essentially adversarial. While this is undoubtedly important in a democracy it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint.
As a result, there is a “habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings” that is not in keeping with biblical tradition. The Christians who use whatever lines from either the New or the Old Testament they can find to support their prejudices are ignoring the essential Christian message.
What Robinson preaches is that contemporary Christianity has to catch up with the forces of historical change, that the Church needs to lead the debate and not be dragged kicking and screaming behind it. In talking about how the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, handled the question of homosexuality within the Anglican Church, Robinson said that he merely managed the debate but did not lead it. He then added Moses led the people out the Egypt, he did not manage the situation.
The documentary Love Free or Die starts in 2008, when Robinson was the only bishop not to be invited to the Lambeth Conferences, the decennial assemblies of bishops of the Anglican Communion, convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. From there it follows through to the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention, at which leaders voted to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships, and to allow gay men and women to become bishops. It is remarkable to watch how Robinson changes hearts and minds within the Church, and the tremendous impact of his activism. His sermon at the First Presbyterian Church in New York on Gay Pride 2009, for one, is a revelation.
Love Free or Die premiered at Sundance, January 2012, where it was awarded ‘US Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change’. It is expertly put together. Its flow is effortless, and the editing is so precise that the framework is all but invisible. It shows the commitment of a remarkable and inspiring man, one of the greatest activists of our time. For me, personally, Gene Robinson opened my mind to a more inclusive way of thinking, and he showed me a side to Christianity I did not understand, or even believed existed. I am still an atheist, but I believe in Bishop Gene Robinson.