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This documentary chronicles the attempts by a lesbian minister to be accepted in the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the United States; more broadly, it records the struggle for legitimacy of any marginalized group. The film focuses on Anita Hill, who was ordained to ministry in 2001 with the unanimous vote of her urban, interracial Lutheran congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her ordination violates ministerial criteria of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which stipulate that openly gay or lesbian clergy must be celibate, since Rev. Hill is in a long-term committed relationship. The first third of the film celebrates her ordination. Scenes from the jubilant service include a sermon on “this obedience,” Rev. Hill’s call from God that supersedes any human organization. The only denominational sanctions to the ordination are a [End Page 220] request for the officiating bishop to resign (which he does) and a censure against Rev. Hill and the congregation.
The second two-thirds of the film detail the 2001 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, at which Rev. Hill proposes overturning the ban on lesbian and gay clergy in committed relationships. Attendees inside the Assembly and protesters outside debate the issue. Rev. Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church from Omaha, Nebraska, best-known for protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, face off with Soulforce, an interfaith ministry against religious discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons through non-violent means. Through it all, Rev Hill is a persistent, if reluctant, figurehead.
At first it appears her resolution may pass, and supporters exult. However, opposition mounts, and before the proposal is defeated outright, Rev. Hill substitutes an amendment requesting a multi-year study of the issue, which succeeds. The film ends on a hopeful note, with young Assembly attendees grieving the compromise and Rev. Hill and her congregation pledging to continue the fight.
Issues raised in this film resonate with most Protestant Christian denominations in the United States, which have struggled with openly lesbian and gay clergy since the 1980s, resulting in dozens of ecclesiastical lawsuits and more than a thousand clergy stripped of their ministerial credentials. Other documentaries on this issue include The Congregation (PBS, 2004) which explores the case of Rev. Beth Stroud, a United Methodist minister in Pennsylvania. This Obedience has excellent production values and a story told with earnestness and integrity; it is clearly a labor of love for those involved.
Despite these strengths, however, the film’s weaknesses make it probably inappropriate for university or community use outside a Lutheran context. First, it is heavily weighted toward Anita Hill and her congregation. No negative voices are interviewed, and only a few opponents are shown speaking at the Assembly. This imbalance undermines the film’s credibility and mitigates discussion for viewers. Second, the film does not place Rev. Hill’s case in larger historical or theological context. No comment is made about the ELCA allowing openly, albeit celibate, lesbian and gay pastors at all, a position more progressive than many Christian groups. In fact, without some knowledge of Lutheran history and polity, the film is difficult to follow. Third, the film’s pace is excruciatingly slow. Going into more detail than necessary to make its points, the film could be interpreted as a commentary on the snail’s pace of social change; however, the viewer may lose interest. Finally and most disappointing, Rev. Hill does not come across as a compelling figure. When she addresses groups, she is dynamic, funny, and charismatic (her line “I’m a dyke against sin” is the best of the film); however, in interviews, she is cautious and somber. More interesting (and with nearly as much screen time) is Hill’s friend and [End Page 221] congregation member Emily Eastwood, who gave up dreams of ministry as a young woman due to her sexual orientation, but is inspired by Rev. Hill to quit her job and return to seminary.
Issues related to gay and lesbian clergy continue to wrack Christian groups, threatening to divide entire denominations; in fact, the ELCA continues to debate the issue. This...