Macky Alston’s documentary Love Free Or Die is a direct shot at one of the most intensely debated social, political, and religious issues facing society today. What makes it so remarkable, aside from it’s potentially incendiary subject matter, is that it’s handled with such a gentle affection, and focuses on a seemingly unremarkable man who may, in fact, be changing the hearts and minds of millions of people.
For those who don’t know, the film centers on the Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of the New Hampshire diocese. Robinson is a unobtrusively charming, affable man, a sweet-natured and kindhearted fellow that anyone would be delighted to have as the head of their church. Except, of course, for one small thing — Robinson is openly gay, and is in fact married to his partner Mark. Appointing a gay bishop (he was out well before his election) sent shockwaves throughout the Episcopal Church in the United States, and inevitably had global repercussions as it affected the Anglican Church of England.
What follows is an in-depth examination of a church with millions of followers and centuries of tradition, and the bullheaded resistance to change that is so predominant among many religions today. Robinson, who has been open about his sexuality since the late eighties, was elected Bishop in 2003, and since then has been facing a variety of adversities regarding that election. The film chooses to focus on two critical events — the 2008 Lambeth Conferences (a gathering of every Bishop from the worldwide Anglican Communion), and the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Each meeting dealt with the Robinson question in different ways, and it’s a intriguing examination of how they impacted Robinson’s life (and vice versa), as well as how those events and the subsequent actions affected the rest of the Anglican Communion.
The two distinct events demonstrate a telling difference between the demagogy of the governing body (The Church Of England) and the newer bodies like the semi-independent churches throughout the United States. Most telling is that for the Lambeth Conferences of 2008,Robinson is the only bishop in the world to not receive an invitation. Interestingly, Robinson decides to head to London during the Conferences anyway, yet takes a novel approach to protesting the decisions to willfully exclude him. Instead of protesting and marching upon the Church, he instead spends his time giving services to smaller churches and visiting charitable organizations (notably an AIDS clinic) and dispensing prayer and support. Part of what makes Robinson such an engaging character is his adamant refusal to become a jargon-spewing mlouthpiece, and instead shows a determination to let his actions speak for themselves. He’s a generous, unassuming character who genuinely seems to enjoy his work and the people around him, and it’s easy to see why he was elected as a bishop based on personality alone. As a result, the film’s job is an easy one when it comes to the Lambeth Conference — show Robinson in his natural element, preaching about love and faith and caring for the sick, and then show the antiquated, stolid and stuffy bishops, lead by the Archbishop of Cantebury.
Ultimately, Robinson’s efforts in London were fruitless, as the Church refused to change its stance on his participation. It represents an unusual conundrum for the Anglican Communion — the damage is done, in one sense. He’s already been elected bishop and it’s a far more treacherous and complex endeavor to recant his election. That conflict creates a seamless transition into the next phase of the film, the U.S. General Convention, wherein the American bishops meet to discuss the Church’s business. In this case, there were two issues on the table — whether or not to allow any further openly gay bishops to be elected, and whether or not to allow Episcopal bishops to bless same-sex marriages (in those states where it’s legal to do so). This is where the film really shines, and director Macky Alston was allowed a surprising amount of intimate access both into Robinson’s life as well as into the back room machinations of the Convention. Alston handles the unfolding events with an evenhanded, unbiased lens, simply showing the discussions and the rationales on both sides, and eschewing any sort of commentary that could give a hint of opinion.
The Convention is a fascinating experience to witness, and it says something about Alston’s directing that he’s actually able to make a conference of Episcopal bishops interesting (a point noted by Robinson himself). There’s a sprawling variety of opinions among the attending bishops, but what’s refreshing is that there was little thoughtless, hardline conservative representation. Instead, there was an emphasis on the conflict of those who felt genuine affection for Robinson, but their faith was so ingrained and their dedication so intense that they couldn’t bare to vote against the wishes of Cantebury and the existing dogma. There were bishops who voted their heart, those who voted their heads, and those who voted as they believed the Church wanted them to vote, regardless of their personal opinion. It was a riveting, oft-heartbreaking demonstration of the conflict between modern societal evolution and historical religious dedication.
But what makes the film is Robinson himself. I described him as unassuming, and that descriptor remains apt. He’s an unremarkable looking man, balding and getting rounder in the middle, ruddy cheeked with an easy smile and a friendly demeanor. And while he chooses a more soft-spoken path of resistence, his singleminded dedication to what he feels is right and fair is fierce, and the introspective moments where he’s speaking directly to the camera create a palpable sense of righteous zeal tinged with anger, sadness and frustration. Yet there’s more to him than his mission, and the film maintains a balance of his religious and political leanings with intimate glimpses into his personal life, with partner Mark and with friends and family.
In the end, the film is a winner, a relatively balanced examination of the conflicting roles of the modern church, on the rising tide of LGBT rights movement and the difficulty the church has with reconciling its “love one another” foundation with its misguided practices. Yet the film is rarely an outright condemnation, instead simply presenting the events as they are, showing Robinson for what he is, and allowing you to draw your own conclusions. It’s hard not to side with him, and perhaps that’s what makes the film so praiseworthy. It’s not just a documentary, it’s a shot across the bow of modern religious practices, a blazing sign of the changing times and the need for our churches and synagogues and mosques to change with them, lest they be abandoned and left behind.
Full disclosure: I have three uncles who are Anglican priests, so I’m somewhat intimately familiar with their inner goings on. Additionally, I’ve met Gene Robinson through a very good mutual friend, which hopefully balances out my experiences with the Church. And for what it’s worth, Robinson really is rather adorable.
Love Free Or Die played at the 10th Annual Independent Film Festival of Boston. There is no release date set on the film yet.