If you follow the gay press, you might remember Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist Church (UMC) minister who presided over his son’s same-sex marriage in 2007. Then, six years later, he was hauled in front of a UMC court to answer charges of not having upheld the denomination’s Book Of Discipline, which says ministers cannot officiate at same-sex unions.
An Act Of Love follows Frank’s story, using a good mix of both the Schaefer family and his supporters, as well as those on the other side of the religious court case to recount what happened. Over its 90-minutes it unpacks the events, its repercussions and what has gone on since the case – including the fact Frank was later brought in front of the UMC’s highest court after he started ministering again in California.
It’s an interesting tale, ranging from how Frank’s son, Tim, came out and the acceptance the young man found within his family, to how that acceptance wasn’t forthcoming elsewhere, including some of Frank’s parishioners, who felt their minister must have done something wrong to have a gay son. Thankfully, An Act Of Love doesn’t ignore some of the other issues that were at play here, with Frank’s eventual court case only happening after other, petty issues had arisen in his own church, such as more traditional worshippers getting upset about the introduction of a second, more modern Sunday service. If you’re not religious and wonder whether people would really get so upset and vindictive about what seem like minor things in a church, believe me they would.
Indeed, it’s interesting how messy local politics ended up becoming something more once the court case started, where the media and many others saw it as the collision between two ideas of how Christianity should treat gay people. It also led Frank, who’d officiated his son’s wedding out of love rather than because he was trying to make a statement, to realise he genuinely needed to make a stand.
An Act Of Love then looks at the wider battle within the UMC over LGBT people. Their official stance is that homosexuals are equal to straight people, except being gay is incompatible with Christian teaching and they shouldn’t be allowed to get married – so not really that equal at all. As with many other denominations, it’s resulted in ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ factions being at loggerheads over how to handle the issue.
It’s an interesting thing in the documentary to hear how the anti-gay people talk. While the pro-gay people talk about love and embracing other’s difference, the anti-gay folk sometimes use rather aggressive, sometimes violent, language. There’s often a barely disguised selfishness and nastiness to how they think about the issues and how they think of their ‘opponents’, which they paper over by vaguely remembering every so often that Christianity is meant to be about love. The nice thing is that the documentary doesn’t force this viewpoint upon them, it lets them talk and hang themselves. Indeed, it underlines why in the last few years anti-gay people have increasingly looked like they’re on the losing side of history, and why most people don’t support things such as so-called ‘bathroom bills’, as so much of their rhetoric only speaks to themselves and bares little relation to real life. Thankfully, so far the rise of Trump and his ilk doesn’t seem to be changing public sentiment on LGBT issues, even if the anti-gay forces are likely to feel reinvigorated and their will undoubtedly be setbacks for LGBT rights.
Anyway, away from that digression and back to the documentary, which is interesting, sometimes illuminating and occasionally quite moving. While Frank himself has an occasional tendency to sound tad self-important, it’s more balanced by the fact that it’s absolutely clear that everything he’s doing comes from a place of compassion and empathy. An Act Of Love also underlines why sexuality is causing such tumult in the church, as different worldviews collide, but everything thinks their view of what God wants is right.
For Frank, what cuts through that is love, both for his own gay children and for others that the church has shunned, just because of who they love.
Overall Verdict: A sweet and ultimately uplifting documentary using one family’s story to explore the issues rocking various religious denominations surrounding LGBT issues.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac