Monday, July 14, 2008

Bishop Gene Robinson, Sir Ian McKellen, and "For the Bible Tells Me So"

Tonight the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre featured the UK premier of For The Bible Tells Me So, “a provocative documentary about the chasm that separates gay life and Christianity today,” produced by Dan Karslake. It was followed by a conversation and Q&A with the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson and Sir Ian McKellen, Shakespearean actor and star of The Lord of the Rings.

The evening started with a beautiful bass voice giving the standard instructions for everyone to turn off their cell phones and pagers. Turns out it was Sir Ian, who arrived on stage a few minutes later.

He introduced the movie, saying he had seen it in Minneapolis when he was touring with Lear. He then retired to the audience to watch it. The full house was clearly engrossed in the film, laughing, applauding, sighing, and wiping away tears as it progressed. When it was finished, they applauded enthusiastically for well over a minute.

Sir Ian returned to the stage to introduce Bishop Robinson, comparing him to the “heroes” who helped overturn the ban on gays in the military in the UK. Then he introduced Bp. Robinson as “a man of hope, but so much more than, all the way from New Hampshire, all the way from Sodom and Gomorrah, but not all the way from the Lambeth Conference.”

Bp. Robinson entered to laughter and wild applause. He began by introducing producer Karslake and then introducing the audience “to the person who makes my life possible and the love of my life, my partner, Mark Andrew.”

Sir Ian began by asking why the bishop agreed to participate in this film – wasn’t taking care of his diocese enough without getting involved in something larger?

Bp. Robinson told how after all the death threats that followed his consecration, Karslake managed to get past all his security and appear in his office to tell him about his idea for the film. Karslake impressed him with his passion. But more than that, the bishop felt he could trust Karslake with his parents.

“As for the diocese, they are so wonderful – I love these people and they love me back. It’s been hard for people in my diocese to share me with the world. . . They hear about me sharing the stage with Sir Ian McKellan but the press is never there in the church basement with potluck with macaroni and cheese and the Jello molded salads, doing the things a bishop does on a day in, day out basis,” he said.

“I turn down a lot of offers. I tell them I have this day job. You know, my call was to ministry and my personal call has been to the marginalized, to those told for so long by the church, by the culture, by parents, by who knows that they are less worthy of God’s love. And my own life and experience, by God working in my life, I know what resurrection is about because not only have I seen it, I’ve lived it.”

He went on to talk lovingly about the people in his diocese, praising their Christian outreach to the world.

“You know, I say to people if you want to see what the church is going to be like after we stop obsessing about sex, come to New Hampshire. Oddly enough, ours may be the diocese out of the entire worldwide communion dealing the least with this. Everybody else seems to be having to work on this all the time and we’re just getting on with the Gospel,” he said.

Bp. Robinson said he thought one of the reasons the discussion in the Episcopal Church was getting so much attention was that all the mainline Protestant denominations in America are having to deal with the issue of full inclusion of GLBT people. They are watching very closely to see if the Episcopal Church splits apart, or starts hating each other, or pulls this off. They are waiting to see if “we are going to make a statement about the expansiveness of God’s love in a way that will bring people in,” he said.

“My sense is that we have a lot of people who have stopped hating us and they are happy to join us to work against hate crimes and so on, but they’re not ready to celebrate us either. These people in the vast movable middle are the people we can reach, the people that Dan made this film for, who want to be in the right place. . . but this Bible thing keeps hanging over them and the minute someone pulls scripture on them, they crumble. What I love about this film is I think it gives people a firm piece of ground to stand on to say, ‘No, actually I don’t think that’s what the Bible says.’

“It’s time for us to take back the Bible from people who have been using it as a bludgeon against some of the most vulnerable people in society.”

The audience responded with loud applause. Then Sir Ian called for questions from the audience.

The first question was from a man who said he understood that after excluding him from the Lambeth Conference, the archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to the Diocese of New Hampshire asking him to donate $4000 to help support the Lambeth Conference. Bishop Robinson replied that that was not true – the request was for $7000.

The next question was asked by a transgender person who wanted to know what he thought was the origin of the neglect of the transgender community not only by society and the church, but also by the gay and lesbian community, some members of which “can hardly bear to use the T in LGBT.” The questioner related the story of a trans woman who was forced by security guards to use the men’s room where she was sexually abused.

Bp. Robinson said he could not speak to the situation in England, but he could talk about what he thought the situation is in America. He said, “This is big concern in the LGBT community in the United States and I think in some ways the gay and lesbian community has been insensitive and non-inclusive and needs to be called to account for that. I think there is work that needs to be done in the bisexual community and in the transgender community that for whatever reason we’ve done more work on in the gay and lesbian community, and that is for people to come out and really to tell their stories.

"Oddly enough, I would put bisexual people at the bottom of that list in America. We get more information and get exposed to more stories of real people in the transgender community than we do from bisexuals and I would say that most people in the church are more undone by bisexuality because they assume that means a person is by definition being promiscuous, having sexual relationships with people of both sexes at the same time. I guess what I would hope for both the bisexual and the transgender communities is that you continue telling your stories, because like this movie – it’s knowing people, having faces to put with the issues that has brought about this change. If people get to know us as people, then when we talk about the issue, a face comes up with the issue, and that irrevocably changes people.

“You’re absolutely right, we’ve got a long way to go -- even with the gay and lesbian community -- we have been careless with bisexual and transgender people and with their inclusion and with showing them the respect that should be there. We are on this remarkable journey and we’re living in this difficult transition time. It’s not up to me to ask, but I would both ask for your patience in teaching us and leading us and calling us to account, just the way you have done now. And you and others are in my prayers,” he said.

The next questioner asked about same sex couples adopting children. Bp. Robinson said that research – which is usually ignored – shows that there is only one difference in children raised by parents of opposite sexes and parents of the same sex, and that is that children of same sex partners are invariably more tolerant. He said his kids had four parents, three men and one woman. Both his daughters, unbeknownst to him, wrote their college entrance essays on what they had learned by having two gay dads.

An older gentleman then related his experience of sitting with his partner of many years behind the man who had heckled Bp. Robinson the previous night at St. Mary’s Putney. Prior to verbally attacking the bishop, the man said, he had vented his venom on this man’s partner. He said he and his partner had given up on the Anglican community for many years because they had been effectively ostracized and persecuted and excluded by the Anglican community in this country.

Bp. Robinson replied, “First of all, thank you for coming last night. Given your experience, that’s an act of faith in and of itself. What I say to people whose experience has been like yours is remember that God and the church are not the same thing. The church is our feeble attempt to discern God’s will and to live it out in our lives individually and in community. We get it wrong and history is full of times despicable times when the church has gotten it wrong. But God doesn’t ever get it wrong.

“Second of all, the church that many gay and lesbian people, bisexual and transgender people have left is not the church that’s there now. So I say to people go back and give it another try. Maybe the church you rightfully left because of abuse at the hands of religious people -- maybe that community isn’t what it used to be.”

He said that just because laws changed about racial discrimination doesn’t mean racism has gone away, nor have laws against discrimination against women ended sexism. He said there are two parts to the work. The first is getting the laws changed so that the system of heterosexism is not enforced by power. The other half is “changing people’s hearts, and like racism and sexism, homophobia will take a long time to disappear.”

He told of a sculpture at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. It is a relief showing a spiral of African Americans moving upward, and every one of them is standing on someone else’s shoulders. He said he is only where he is because he is standing on the shoulders of the gay men at the Stonewall Bar in New York who stood up against police harassment thirty or forty years ago, and of other gays and lesbians who stood up against injustice.

“There are people who will need or want to stand on yours and my shoulders, and there are things you can do to change your world and the world, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

When asked by another man how he, Bp.Robinson, and the people of New Hampshire and people of good will could support the Archbishop of Canterbury as he tries to mend the communion in the face of those bent on splitting it, Bp. Robinson said that as a bishop, he benefits from the critiques of the people he serves, and that people can best help Archbishop Rowan Williams by offering loving critiques.

“I am coming to Lambeth Conference not to storm into the pulpit and rip the microphone from his hands or to protest in any way. I’m simply wanting to be there both to tell the story of God’s astounding work in my own life that enables me to be who I am, and to tell people that God is available and wants a relationship.

“I’m not willing to have them leave and not be reminded on a daily basis not just by my presence but by many people from around the Communion who are both faithfully and unabashedly Christian and unashamedly gay, and we’re going to be there to remind them that we are here too and we’re not going anywhere. They took vows to serve all their flock, not just some of their flock, so I made that witness in respectful critique in hopes that in their conversations they will remember that all of them, no matter what country they come from, no matter what the legal or religious stance about homosexuality is, we are members of their churches and they have vowed to serve us all. I pray for the archbishop of Canterbury every day,” he said.

He said it’s very odd for Americans to think about an established church, because we are so intent on separation of church and state. How can a state church go against laws that affect every other part of the state? He said it’s hard to get his head around that.

He said he is for separating the civil rights of LGBT people from the religious rites, that he believes a lot of religious people would support civil rights for them if they were separated from religion. He suggested that people might get married in a civil ceremony and then the religious people would go to church to have the union blessed, as people in France already do.

A man said that given that Archbishop Akinola was not going to change his views, and Archbishop Jensen was not, why would the Anglican Communion not benefit by splitting into different churches.

“The strongest argument that can be made for the Anglican Communion, and I make it all the time, is that we actually need each other. We need it for our own salvation, because if our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia and other parts of the world aren’t there to tell us what we need to hear, those of us in the West and especially in America, we need to hear the ramifications of America’s waltzing around the world acting like a drunken cowboy, having our way, what we’ve done through colonialism, in terms of racism. We need to have a Communion so we can have those conversations."

He said American, British and Canadian bishops at Lambeth are going to hear what life is like in Mozambique, in Kenya and in other places.

“I long for those kinds of discussions. And you know, the world needs a model like that. Right? If we don’t figure out how to live together as the world gets smaller and smaller, even though we disagree about things, it’s not going to be pretty. And wouldn’t it be nice if the Anglican Communion could offer a model that the world might learn from?"

He went on to say, “You see in the movie deeply religious people who have a world view, don’t they? And that world view seems to explain pretty much everything that’s happening. And then they have an experience for which that world view is insufficient to explain. And in the film the families are caught between what they’ve been taught and love for their child. And then inevitably that throws one into chaos and confusion and anger and denial and all kinds of things. And at the end of that process comes hopefully a new worldview that takes into account that new experience.

“I think those of us in the Anglican Communion need one another to have that kind of transformational experience on a variety of topics, including this one. So let’s put it this way. I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Optimism seems to me to depend only upon what I’m able to do, and that’s not very trustworthy. Hope depends on what God is able to do.”

The last question was from a young woman who said there was a Christianity before there was a Bible. Could he imagine a Christianity without a Bible or is it integral to the faith as we perceive it now? He said he did not think he could imagine such a thing.

“The central tenet of Christian belief is that for a reason we can only imagine is self-giving love, God makes this astounding decision to reveal God’s self to us. For Christians, that happened in the person of Jesus Christ. And the most we know about that is in those sacred texts. Now what we do with those sacred texts is very important here. You know the four Gospels are not unlike four people who witnessed an accident and each noticed different things, remembered different things that the others didn’t. So we have to use our brains here. God doesn’t ask us to check our brains at the door. We are to use the intellect we have been given to make sensible and reasonable and right choices about those interpretations. So I can’t imagine out doing that without the Bible.

“Let me say this about the Bible, and this is something I’m ashamed to say I only grasped in the last year or so even though I must have read it a thousand times. In John’s Gospel, on the night before Jesus dies, he says this remarkable thing to his disciples. He says, there is much more that I will teach you that you cannot bear right now, so I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth.

“I take from that that Jesus is saying I’ve done just about all I can do with you bunch of fishermen and workman but you know what, God isn’t finished with you and God’s self. That’s why I say I don’t worship a God that’s locked up in the scripture two thousand years ago. The God I know in my life is alive and well and interacting with us all the time. And I believe that Holy Spirit – God -- is leading us closer and closer to a better and better understanding of God’s truth. It’s not that God’s changing, but our ability to apprehend and comprehend God is changing. Thank goodness for that. Look how we used scripture to justify slavery or the subjugation of women and now LGBT people.

“I am hopeful that Spirit will lead us forward into an ever better picture of God’s truth.”


Ann said...

Great report Katie --- see Jim's here

Brian Baker said...

Bishop Robinson was at Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento for 2 days shortly before heding to England. It was clear in our casual conversations that he was really looking forward to this screening in England. I am so pleased it went well. We too showed the movie w/ Q&A afterward. We didn't have Ian McKellan, but it was a great evening, and the Sacramento community was equally moved. Thank you for excellent reporting.