By Jim Naughton
Before last night’s British premier of For the Bible Tells Me So, director Dan Karslake sat in the Green Room at the South Bank Arts Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre and tried to explain to Sir Ian McKellen why he had made the film. Dan said that because Biblical justifications are central to the defense of anti-gay policies, he felt that it was important to examine what the Bible actually said about long term, monogamous homosexual relationships (which, the clergy and scholars in the film argue is: nothing). But more important, he said, was his belief that people’s attitudes are changed most profoundly through intimate relationships, and because there are few relationships more intimate than that bond between parent and child, he decided to focus on how conservative Christian parents came to terms--or failed to come to terms--with a child’s homosexuality.
Elsewhere in the room, Bishop Gene Robinson, his partner Mark Andrew, a two-man documentary film crew and some theatre staff finished ironing out the evening’s logistics The design for the evening was straight forward. Sir Ian would introduce the film, after the film he’d introduce Bishop Gene, they’d converse, talk show-style for about five minutes, and then Sir Ian would open the floor to questions.
There was really only one suspenseful element to the evening: would 13-year-old Chris Naughton’s father be able to obtain Sir Ian’s autograph and thus be re-admitted to the bosom of his family, or fail ignominiously due to lack of nerve and be banished.
On stage a few minutes after his conversation with Karslake, McKellen outlined the evening for the audience, described how he had seen the film for the first time on a whim in Minneapolis one afternoon, and loved it, mentioned that it had won awards at nine film festivals and played in hundreds of churches, referred to Bishop Gene as “a hero of our time” and sat down in the front row.
I will write more about the film at another time, I hope. Suffice it to say that it deserved the standing ovation it received, and that some of the testimony Karslake elicited from the parents he spoke with will move even seasoned culture warriors. The question and answer period had a familiar feel to anyone who has ever watched a black backdrop sort of interview program. Gene spoke about meeting Karslake for the first time, when the director some how talked his way through security on the day of Gene’s consecration in New Hampshire to make his pitch.
“I knew I could trust him,” Gene said. More important: “I knew I could trust him with my parents. And were they not adorable?"
To McKellen’s question about why he wasn’t content just to do his work with the people of his diocese, a question much on the lips of those in the Communion who find his presence here inconvenient (and his popularity a rebuke) Gene responded: “I am with them 90 percent of the time, but all they ever hear about is when I get to sit on a stage with Sir Ian McKellen and do fancy things.”
He said that often, on the day following a big media event, he’s in a church basement eating macaroni and cheese, followed by a Jello mold dessert.
"If you want to see what the church is going to be about when we stop obsessing about sex,” Gene said, “come to New Hampshire.”
His best applause line of the evening was: “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 members of society.”
The question and answer session elicited only sympathetic queries. One questioner described sitting behind the protester who interrupted Gene’s sermon on Sunday night at St. Mary’s, and being verbally abused by the man before he was escorted from the building. A few moments later a priest in the audience said he actually knew the protester, and said he wasn’t such a bad fellow once you got to know him and understood some of the difficulties he had faced in his own life. He gave the man’s name, but I haven’t had a chance to verify it, so I won’t disclose it here.
Another of Gene’s better moments came when he described how everyone in the gay rights movement, as in all human rights movements, “stand on the shoulders” of those who came before them. Referring to the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s, he said, “I am here because some drag queens got sick and tired of being harassed by the police.”
The evening ended with Sir Ian performing a speech that Shakespeare wrote for a play not his own: The Book of Sir Thomas More. (The theme is the inhumanity of persecuting strangers, and you can read it by clicking on Read More.)
When Gene asked him if he would perform the speech for him as a favor, Sir Ian said, yes, adding, "you've practically converted me to Christianity."
As for the suspense: at the last possible moment, just as he was to walk out of the Green Room door with some friends, Sir Ian remembered that Chris Naughton’s dad was hoping for his signature.
“There you are,” he said. “Does he know Lord of the Rings?
“Yes, and X Men and...”
But Lord of the Rings was enough. Sir Ian wrote Chris’ name on the top of my notebook page, then in hasty strokes he drew the profile of Gandalf the wizard with smoke coming from his pipe. “Love from London. Ian McKellen, 2008.”
I am not going home tomorrow. But I could.
(Hat tip: Mike Barwell).
Shakespeare's contribution to the Book of Sir Thomas More. More delivers the speech when he is called upon to rid England of immigrants after a riot:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed:
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled—and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians as their fancies wrought,
With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Doll: Before God, that’s as true as the gospel.
Betts: Nay, this’ a sound fellow, I tell you. Let’s mark him.
Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
One supposition, which if you will mark
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears. First, ‘tis a sin
Which oft th’apostle did forewarn us of,
Urging obedience to authority;
And ‘twere no error if I told you all
You were in arms ‘gainst God.
All: Marry, God forbid that!
[editor's note: In this speech, More provides three logical arguments against the rioters’ actions and, by the time he is finished, the mob has been persuaded to stop their rioting. Note these three arguments, and the order in which More makes them.]
More: Nay, certainly you are.
For to the King God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule and willed you to obey;
And to add ampler majesty to this,
He hath not only lent the King his figure,
His throne and sword, but given him his own name,
Calls him a god on earth. What do you then,
Rising ‘gainst him that God himself installs,
But rise ‘gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands
That you like rebels lift against the peace
Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make,
Whose discipline is riot.
In, in, to your obedience! Why, even your hurly
Cannot proceed but by obedience.
What rebel captain,
As mut’nies are incident, by his name
Can still the rout? Who will obey a traitor?
Or how can well that proclamation sound,
When there is no addition but ‘a rebel’
To qualify a rebel? You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound—alas, alas!
Say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case,
And this your mountainish inhumanity.