By Chris Willman

Who says gay marriage is not big in Utah? At the Sundance Film Festival, one of the higher-profile documentaries proved to be Love Free or Die, a feature-length look at New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson’s struggles for full affirmation of openly gay clergy and newlywed couples by the worldwide Anglican Communion (unsuccessfully) and the Episcopal Church (with, of course, very different results).

This was not Robinson’s first time at this dance — a previous Christianity-and-gays doc, For the Bible Tells Me So, premiered at Sundance five years ago, featuring Robinson in a supporting role — but this time, his was the name above the title, as they say in filmdom. In the end, the movie wasn’t left unpartnered at the altar: Although Love Free or Die did not receive the voters’ top honor, the fest conferred a prestigious special jury prize at the closing evening ceremony.

The bishop was no longer parked in Park City by the time the film won that award. He heard about the award from director Macky Alston while Love Free or Die was unspooling in the less glitzy climes of Pasadena’s biggest church basement. The screening at All Saints Church was the centerpiece of a weekend of events under the umbrella “20 Years of Blessing,” tied to the anniversary of the famously politically active parish initiating pastoral blessings for same-sex couples.

“Before we begin the Q&A, I want you to watch Sandra’s face,” Robinson said, as he announced the good awards news not just to the Pasadena audience but to producer Sandra Itkoff, who had joined him in leaving Sundance for the All Saints screening.

The stampede of applause for the plaudit put a cap on what, for this congregation and like-minded Episcopalians, will certainly count as the feel-good movie of the year. The film begins in defeat, as Robinson is locked out of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. For this audience there could be no Hollywood ending happier than the one that has American bishops approving twin resolutions (one on gay bishops, another on blessings) by an overwhelming vote at the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim.

In the earliest stretch, it appears as if the documentary might take a Roger & Me tack, as Robinson makes rounds on the periphery of Lambeth but fails in most of his attempts to meet up with fellow bishops. “I was told that there is a picture of me in the security office so I could be recognized and turned away,” he says. “It just seems a little over the top to me. … I’m not going to storm the cathedral.”

When he does finally visit Canterbury Cathedral, a guard declines his request to be filmed as he enters the building — but in the most polite way possible, of course: “We don’t want to be contentious. I’m not going to say no, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t do it.” Anglophiles and Anglicans may chuckle at that quintessentially British moment, even if general audiences do not.

The most dramatic scene comes when Robinson preaches at a more liberal-minded London parish during the conference and is interrupted moments into his homily. “It is an astounding thing, fear, and it does terrible things to us,” Robinson preaches. “Perhaps it is the Church that is acting the most fearful right now. How discouraging that the Anglican Communion would be tearing itself apart because…”

“Because of heretics like you, sir!” shouts a burly, long-haired young man, grabbing his leather jacket and motorcycle helmet as he eventually accedes to the ushers and applause and hymn-singing drown out his shouts.

“It short of shook me,” Robinson says later of the incident. “I’m not quite recovered. … Sometimes when evil comes your way, the only thing to do is stop right there and absorb it.”

Conservatives may be pleased to know that they are represented by more than hecklers and the dada theater of “God Hates Fags.” While it’s hardly a secret which side of the debate the filmmakers are on, Alston interviews bishops who oppose Robinson’s agenda, some of whom are friendly toward him.

Says Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh: “I think the thing where I have counseled my brother Gene is to kind of straighten up” — pun seemingly not intended — “and buck up. Holiness is the issue, sacrifice is the issue, not fulfillment or affirmation. Remember, hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever.”

Bishop Edward Little of Indiana tells the cameras that “Gene Robinson’s my friend and I want the very best for him. We have much more in common than what divides us. But my role as the bishop means I have to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. So it is impossible for me as a matter of conscience to lend my name or my Episcopal office to any act that would step away from that traditional Christian teaching on marriage.”

Perhaps the most moving sequence in the film, for some longtime observers on either side, is when an unidentified priest weeps during table discussions preceding the vote at the Anaheim General Convention, torn between impulses in an honest and riveting way.

“I want my gay and lesbian friends to know, you’re not the only ones who have hurt so much over this, wept, and prayed,” she tells her table mates. “Pastorally, it’s a no-brainer. … But biblically, I just struggle so much. We’re all loved, I know that. But we’ve got to decide, as committed Christians, what is prophetic and what is apostasy. And I can’t decide right now. I just don’t have clarity. And I hope you can honor that. … I can’t apologize and I can’t celebrate.”

Bishops seen on the liberal side of the debate are mostly seen taking an equally gentle tack — one exception being Barbara Harris, the first woman consecrated as an Anglican bishop, who’s less prone than ever to mincing words. “At the last Lambeth,” she tells the filmmakers, “I was just outraged by some of the things that were being said. I announced to all and sundry that if assholes could fly, this place would be an airport.”

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts, discloses — for the first time in so public a forum — that he is a gay man who, as a monk, honors his vow of celibacy.

“Everybody has a different role to play in this thing. I mean, I’m gay, and as a celibate monk, I can’t be out in quite the way that Gene is out,” Bishop Shaw says in the film.

“At the last Lambeth Conference they wouldn’t let me bring a member of my community because it wasn’t a female spouse. … My community does that for me,” he said of the support that a married priest receives from a spouse. “The Lambeth office said, Well, how do we know they’re not partners? In the end all I could say was that we’re both celibate monks.”

Most of Alston’s film is very much a celebration. One emotional sequence begins with Robinson preaching at a downtown New York parish immediately before a gay pride parade. Parishioners will join Robinson in handing out cups of water to the marchers, and he reminds the Manhattan congregation that these are not just party refreshments.

“It’s a very holy thing that you do when you offer that cup of water,” he says. “You are representing the community of Christians and Jews and Muslims who are 95 percent the source of all the oppression we LGBT people have experienced in our lives. So when you offer a cup of water bearing the name of Christ … you are the oppressor offering a cup of water to the oppressed. They get it. They get the act of compassion. My question is, do you get it?”

Viewers see Robinson attend the wedding of a lesbian Episcopal priest on the first day gay marriages are legal in New Hampshire. There’s also Robinson’s own wedding, back in 2008 (shortly before Lambeth, though not shown in sequence), attended by his parents, who talk about the dissension their son’s coming out caused with friends back home.

Robinson flashes back to his childhood. “When I was growing up, a poor Kentucky boy, I heard God’s voice in Scriptures. [R]ather than hearing all that negative stuff, what I actually heard — and internalized — was ‘You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’ No matter what else has come my way, I’ve got that, and nobody can take that away from me.”

Disagreements on scriptural authority arise only in passing in the film, which naturally does not tread too far into theology. During the Pasadena Q&A, however, Robinson addressed the topic head-on.

“I think one thing is to remember that arguing particular verses of Scripture, generally speaking, doesn’t move us very far,” he said. “Because before you can ever argue any of those verses, you actually have to argue about how we regard that book. Whether it be the Jewish Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, we at least have to be honest about whether we regard those Scriptures as the Word of God or the words of God — whether it was divinely inspired or divinely dictated. And if you’re coming from those two very different regards from those holy texts, then you’re actually arguing from different planets, and it’s very, very hard.”

Robinson added: “All the research shows that while that gets us not very far, what gets us there are stories — individual stories. This very conservative evangelical pastor in Park City asked me to just tell my story. He’s a young guy, smart and charismatic and obviously very successful in what he’s doing. How could it be in 2012 that he had never sat with a gay person and listened to their story? But let me tell you, the country is full of ’em. And those of us on the East Coast and Left Coast forget that in the middle, this is news to people! … Nothing does it like telling a story, which is part of why the movie was made.”

In that regard, a sort of evangelistic outreach is planned in conjunction with the rollout of the documentary. Robinson said moviegoers should not expect to see Love Free or Die in many theaters. Instead, the plan is to make a DVD available to individuals and congregations through the film’s website, with an emphasis on group showings for “the movable middle.”

“We are asking that everyone who sees the movie invite a person — a family member, a coworker, a former classmate — who are among that large group of people who for the most part love us — they know us, they think positively about us — but they still go in the voting booth and vote against us,” Robinson said. “You know about that here in California.”

Robinson repeatedly referred to an iconic “Aunt Betty” as the film’s target audience. “Make it your project this year to call them up and say, ‘Aunt Betty, you remember how we had that little altercation at Thanksgiving? Can I get you out for coffee, and let’s talk about that?’” Robinson said. “And then, it looks as if this will be showing on PBS in the fall, and … we’re working on getting it shown on Thanksgiving weekend. So you’ll be at home with Aunt Betty, and you can have a better conversation this time.”

Chris Willman is a veteran entertainment reporter based in Los Angeles.

Love Free or Die