New film chronicles gay Episcopal bishop
by Michael K. Lavers
It was a sultry late June afternoon in 2009 when New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson walked along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and handed cups of water to those who marched in New York City's annual Pride Parade. He stressed the biblical importance of giving water to the poor during a sermon he delivered at the First Presbyterian Church of New York's annual Pride service a couple of hours earlier. While the congregation traditionally hands out water to Pride revelers each year, Robinson's participation in this annual tradition that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots made this simple act even more symbolic.
"This is the oppressor offering a cup of water to those we have oppressed," said Robinson, referring to religious-based homophobia. "There's power in that and there is repentance in that so I was trying to get the congregation to understand what an important symbol it was and how important it was that they do it."
This scene is one of several contained within Love Free or Die , a documentary directed by Macky Alston and produced by Sandra Itkoff that chronicles three years of Robinson's life as the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, but Robinson sat down with the Bay Area Reporter shortly before the Center for American Progress screened it in Washington, D.C., on February 13.
"This movie kind of chronicles not just my journey, but the journey of the Episcopal Church toward a more inclusive stance," said Robinson.
Robinson's 2003 election sparked a firestorm of controversy among Episcopalians and the broader Anglican Church. He wore a bulletproof vest during his consecration on the campus of the University of New Hampshire because he had received death threats. Anti-gay protesters gathered outside the hockey arena in which the ceremony took place. Sharpshooters were positioned on surrounding rooftops.
Robinson's consecration threatened to tear the Anglican Church apart. A handful of parishes cut ties with the Episcopal Church; but his partner of nearly 25 years, Mark Andrew, quietly stood by his side as the debate continued to rage around them.
"He's just been great," said Robinson, reflecting upon the impact his consecration has had on their relationship. Andrew constantly scanned the crowds who came to see Robinson in the years immediately after his election because of the death threats the couple received. Robinson said the majority of New Hampshire Episcopalians have accepted him and his partner with open arms.
"He's liked being the bishop's spouse more than he thought he would and more than I thought he would," he said.
The reception that Robinson has received from church hierarchy has proven far less welcoming.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams barred Robinson from attending the decennial Lambeth Conference in England in 2008. Robinson delivered a sermon at a London church during the gathering, but a heckler interrupted it. Parishioners clapped and sang hymns to drown him out as security personnel escorted him from the church. Robinson stood solemnly until the heckler had been removed.
"Pray for that man," he said at the altar as his voice began to tremble. "Fear is a terrible thing and the opposite of love is not hate, but fear."
Robinson conceded that he didn't know if the heckler had a gun or a bomb inside the motorcycle helmet he held as he shouted at him.
"It really affected me," he said. "More than the danger of it, I was just overwhelmed at what were the events in this guy's life that led him to be there doing that. It just made me very, very sad."
Episcopal leaders at their 2009 General Convention approved two resolutions that affirmed gay and lesbian clergy and allowed bishops to bless same-sex unions. Los Angeles Bishop Mary Glasspool became the first partnered lesbian to be ordained in the church with her 2010 consecration.
New Hampshire has also changed since 2003.
Gays and lesbians have been able to legally marry in the state since 2010 – Robinson officiated one of the first same-sex weddings that took place in New Hampshire after the law took effect. Robinson, who entered into a civil union with Andrew in 2008, has also spoken out against a bill that would repeal the state's marriage equality law.
"I don't think there's enough traction to overturn it," said Robinson, noting that polls indicate roughly 60 percent of New Hampshire voters oppose the measure. "I think we're going to be okay on that issue."
Nearly a decade after his historic consecration, Robinson's trademark humor and loquacious mannerisms remain. He plans to retire from the church early next year, but he reluctantly and humbly accepts the suggestion that his story has inspired hope among LGBT people around the world.
"If somehow there's been that kind of help given to them by my story, then why would I deprive them of that," said Robinson. "Even though it feels weird, I've learned to say, 'gosh, thank you so much.'"
To view the video, visithttp://vimeo.com/34841975.