When a man loves a man and also loves Jesus

By Melissa Reid
Bishop Gene Robinson with his partner, Mark

By Melissa Reid.

This article is a response to Love Free or Die, a film screened at the Human Rights Art and Film Festival 2013. Read more of Right Now‘s HRAFF coverage here.

“We are not yet at a place in this country [the United States of America]) where we believe the full and equal rights of gay and lesbian people are a matter of justice. We are not there yet”—Bishop Gene Robinson.

The traditional Judaeo-Christian idea of marriage is increasingly contentious as societies, cultures and states move to recognise the union between gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people as not only an issue of religion, but an issue viewed through a lens of human rights. The exclusion of same-sex marriage from acceptance and celebration by the majority of churches and from the law by the majority of nation states is discriminatory and unequal. This highlights that love is not valued when it diverts from conventional understandings. This is a matter for all people regardless of gender, religion or sexuality.

Christianity and other major faiths are increasingly being faced with the conundrum of how to manage a definition of marriage which traditionally has been between a man and a woman. Sections of society the world over are seeking the expansion of religious and biblical understandings to embrace the honesty and legitimacy of love between consenting adults, regardless of either person’s gender. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in 76 countries. In eight countries it is punishable by death. An increasing number of US states (12 have formally recognised same-sex marriage) along with religious institutions and churches have achieved, or are at least discussing, equality of homosexual love and marriage.

Love Free or Die, a film shown at this year’s Human Rights and Arts Film Festival (HRAFF), follows the experience of the first openly gay Bishop of the Episcopalian Church, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, USA. The film addresses his personal experiences of managing his relationship with God, his sexuality, his church and Mark, his partner. Opening with the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, the documentary follows Robinson’s emotionally tumultuous journey defending his right to be both a proud homosexual man and a Bishop. This journey illustrates the complexities of his relationship with the church and his faith, as well as the personal challenges of religious men and women who are homosexual as well as those who support and fight for marriage equality. The church has become increasingly divided through questioning marriage equality and formal recognition of homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality. This penetrates into the core of people’s religious identities, exposing the inconsistency and perceived incompatibility of human love and divine love.

“It’s time religious institutions took responsibility for what their speech empowers people to do…”

Homosexuality has divided society and many religions. The church has marginalised some believers because of tensions between sexuality and religious practices; homosexual people may suppress who they are and what they feel in order to stay true to a traditional and literal interpretation of the word of God. The film illustrates how Robinson faces discrimination, bullying and exclusionary treatment by his colleagues. Love Free or Die tells of how Robinson was excluded from fully participating in the Lambeth Conference because of his sexuality. Prior to the Conference, Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Communion, forbade British Churches to allow Gene Robinson preach to their congregation. Reverend Dr Giles Fraser of St Mary’s Church invited Robinson to address his congregation, only to receive hate mail for his actions. Congressional members protested in anger during Bishop Robinsons service. This is but one example of many that highlights the reality of Robinson’s journey and the barriers that confront him.

During the Conference in Britain, Chris Woolls, Director of the Cara Trust, invited Robinson to spend time with people living with AIDS, all with common experiences of discrimination at the hands of the church. Speaking of the inclusiveness which Robinson oozes, Woolls questions why the church has such a problem with same-sex people. For Woolls, it would be “almost comical if it was not so serious for what it represented for gay people”.

Love Free or Die succinctly portrays the raw issues and opinions that are the foundation of the same-sex marriage debate. The film addresses the common catch phrases used to discriminate against homosexuality, deny marriage equality and examines these through the lens of rationality and humanity. The church, like society, is torn on the issue. Sentiments outlining that ‘God created a man and a woman to be together’, ‘heterosexuality is God’s design’, that ‘homosexuality is unnatural’, and that ‘it is not people who hate homosexual people, but God who hates homosexual people’ are introduced alongside views and opinions held by people in the church who believe, along with Robinson, that “the church of tomorrow cannot look like the church of yesterday”.

The existence of people within the church who are not members of the heterosexual majority does not often enter into mainstream debate.

Robinson has been at the forefront, challenging the discriminatory and anti-human rights rhetoric that has worked to oppress people who are same-sex attracted, whether they be Christian followers or not. The Bishop has been the victim of hate mail, death threats and attempts on his life by the religious faithful, illustrating how deeply this issue penetrates. However, Robinson was determined to achieve respect and equality by working through the injustice he faces. With his supporters and his commitment to his faith, he marries justice and the rights of same-sex attracted people with the Christian faith. “It’s time religious institutions took responsibility for what their speech empowers people to do,” he said.

The existence of people within the church who are not members of the heterosexual majority does not often enter into mainstream debate. As a result, little is known about the extent and experiences of these people who live without freedom, without dignity or respect from pockets of society, sections of the church and certain states. The personal difficulties of being torn between identities—when who you are and what you believe are not compatible—can equate to a crisis of faith and belonging. Such experiences are disempowering and can foster an environment of discrimination and reduced personal freedom.

Robinson and a minority within the church have been brave to challenge the traditional beliefs of the Church, beliefs that resulted in Robinson experiencing a crisis of faith, not with his God, but with the Institution. Along with Robinson, this minority is growing. There are other members of the church who respect and support friends who are gay or lesbian, yet condemn the union of same-sex couples in “Holy Matrimony” based on their understanding of marriage. These people are then torn between respecting and disrespecting the rights of their friends and the position of the church.

The Christian faith is 2,000 years old. Christianity is underpinned by interpretations of religious texts and these interpretations differ between people and between times. In the past, the church has (like broader society) discriminated against women and against non-Anglo Saxon people. Addressing the crowd at a formal event, Robinson suggests “the Church has been wrong before and it is wrong again. The God that I know in my life is sick to death of the Bible being used to abuse us”.

Christianity is the religion. The church is the institution. The church largely represents the religion; however, as history shows, not all people of the same religion subscribe to the same church teachings. This is illustrated in the breadth of Christian denominations, indicating that the people who hold the power are not necessarily representative of everyone’s biblical understandings.

Faith, love and sexuality all tap into the core of a person’s being and identity.

Discrimination is highlighted in domestic, international and universal human rights documents as being in contravention of a person’s human rights. The church may be a powerful institution, but it is not above the law. Religion is complex, faith is complex and the interplay with state legislation and human rights makes religious teachings and practices even more so. Faith, love and sexuality all tap into the core of a person’s being and identity. However in 2010 the Episcopalian Church at its General Convention voted with a significant majority to continue to allow the consecration of gay male bishops (77 per cent yes, 31 per cent no) as well as a 74–35 vote to allow the blessings of same-sex marriages in states where it is legal.

These are welcome changes and their significance cannot be underestimated; they afford justice and adhere to human rights. This is a significant development for the Episcopalian Church, for the Christian faith and humanity at large. It is a representation of rights being recognised and respected due to the plight of a small minority in the face of a powerful majority. As one rung on the ladder, Love Free or Die highlights how the process started and hints at the journey ahead.

“Let us be clear, God has no favourites… and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression and we can all continue marching in the light of God.”