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Loving Free

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Like most Episcopalians in the US, I am an Anglophile, and look forward to returning to the land of my "mother church" this week. It has been four years since I was in England, present but not included in the once-a-decade Lambeth conference of Bishops in 2008. As the Archbishop of Canterbury plans for his retirement, I trust that the decision to exclude me will be one of the low points Rowan Williams reflects upon as he leaves office.

My exclusion from the conference was a missed opportunity for Anglican Bishops from around the globe to have an opportunity to chat with someone unashamedly Christian and unashamedly gay. And it was an intentional act of exclusion by Archbishop Williams, my spiritual "father in God," the pain of which lingers with me nearly four years later.

That I am not the first gay bishop should surprise no one. But I am the first gay bishop who has been honest about his orientation. And the punishment for being honest? I have the dubious distinction of being the first duly elected and consecrated Bishop excluded from Lambeth since the event began in the mid-19th century.

I return to England energized by how much has changed in the last four years -- and disheartened by how much has not. The BFI Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will offer its screening of Love Free or Die on March 24, a documentary which premiered at this January's Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize. Crafted by filmmaker Macky Alston, the film follows my personal life and public ministry from the Lambeth Conference in 2008 to the 2010 election and consecration of the second openly gay, partnered Bishop in The Episcopal Church, Mary Glasspool, in 2010; from the struggle for marriage equality and equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people within the church and society, to the inauguration of Barack Obama as President in 2009.

But in my eyes, the real hero of the film is the Church -- that often staid, usually timid, lethargic, slow-to-change institution which, in its American expression, is lively, courageous and changing quite rapidly into the inclusive community we believe Christ would want us to be.

We understand that many in the Church of England believe that The Episcopal Church is moving too fast. With all due respect, the Church of England is moving too slowly!

As I return to England, I am perplexed at how little has changed here. The English Church is still arguing over whether ordained women are fit matter for consecration as bishops. One would think that if they were intrinsically unfit to be a Bishop, they would be unfit to be ordained at all! Women are children of God, and if you don't believe them to be full members of the Body of Christ, then stop baptizing them as well!

Same-gender clergy couples who enter into legal domestic partnerships are supposed to promise their Bishops that they will be celibate in their relationships. The fact is that most Bishops don't really expect it, most couples don't really mean it, and everyone knows it's an absurd charade. Many English bishops respect and love their gay and partnered clergy, accepting dinner invitations to their homes and enjoying an easy relationship with them -- as long as such a relationship doesn't become public. It is embarrassing to the Church to foster this hypocrisy, to stand in the way of truth. And how sad for the Church (not to mention the state Church) to be working against the one institution that is a relationship's highest calling -- marriage -- something even the secular culture seems to understand.

On the first day of marriage equality in New Hampshire, I blessed the marriage of two women, the older of whom, at age 75, longed to have the Church recognize her 25 year relationship before she died. This faithful couple (and I) never thought we would live to see such a thing happen in the Church. It was a joyful day, not just for the happy couple, but for the great number of people who braved a snowstorm to be there. What surprised me the most was how meaningful it was for the straight couples there who realized how much they had largely taken for granted their right to marry the person they love. If only the Archbishop could experience the profound joy present that day.

I appreciate the Church of England from which so many churches around the globe were birthed. But I long for it to express its full and unequivocal acceptance of women, and to find its way toward embracing and celebrating the gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people within and beyond its congregations. Aren't English Anglicans embarrassed that the secular State is more inclusive than the Church?

Isn't Jesus embarrassed?

Love Free or Die is a movie about hope and about how God never abandons God's human little church. God never gets it wrong; the Church often does. But the Church can also, by God's grace and with God's help, find the courage to change. And in some places, it is! If you thought you would never again be inspired by the courage of an institution, if you want to watch a Church risking its life for the LGBT community, if you want to see how change can happen against all odds, join us for Love Free or Die.