"Love Free or Die," director Macky Alston's one-hour documentary about the first openly gay elected bishop in the history of Christendom, could easily be a polemic. And some viewers will see it that way. But one scene in particular stands out for its humanity.
At the July 2009 conference of the Episcopal church where church leaders voted to approve the consecration of gay bishops and blessings of same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is legal, Mr. Alston's camera lingers on a church member who weeps over her decision to vote against the church's efforts at inclusivity for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members.
"Pastorally, it's a no-brainer," she says. "But biblically, I still struggle so much. We've got to decide as individual Christians what's prophetic and what's apostasy, and I can't discern it right now. I don't have clarity. I hope you will honor that."
It's a heartbreaking scene that cuts through reductive debates that pit "sinful choices" against "bigotry."
"Love Free or Die" (10 p.m. Monday, WQED-TV), a presentation of PBS's "Independent Lens," is sympathetic toward its subject, Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, who ignited a firestorm of controversy when he was consecrated as a bishop in 2003. It's rather shocking to consider how dramatically public opinion on gay rights has changed in the past nine years with a majority of Americans now favoring equal rights for the country's gay citizens.
But back then, divisions were deeper, and both sides are represented in the film.
"Sexuality isn't the issue," says Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. "Humanity is the issue. The only thing Gene Robinson did differently is he refused to play the charade that he was a straight man who had a roommate. He was truthful."
The film also includes commentary from Bishop Bob Duncan, former Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh, who led a schism to form a breakaway church, the new Anglican Church in North America.
"It's not about homosexuality," he says. "The issue is the church lifting up a leader that's contrary to what the tradition has taught can be done and contrary to what the scripture says can be done. It's really about scriptural authority."
And there's the rub because scripture can be interpreted to condemn by those who see the church as a victim of change, or scripture can be understood to promote the full inclusion of LGBT church members by believers seeking an evolution.
"Love Free or Die" doesn't delve into textual interpretation, but it does show the shoddy treatment Gene Robinson has had to endure. A man interrupts a 2003 sermon, calling Bishop Robinson a heretic and urging him to repent. Bishop Robinson is clearly shaken, humiliated by the public bullying he endures.
"Pray for that man," Bishop Robinson says after the disruption, his voice cracking. "Fear is a terrible thing, and the opposite of love is not hate but fear."
Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published October 28, 2012 12:00 AM