Co-produced by the church it profiles (Wingspan Ministry is an arm of St. Paul Reformation Lutheran), “This Obedience” illustrates the problem inherent in participants making a documentary about themselves amid public controversy. Chronicle of lesbian pastor Anita C. Hill’s 2001 ordainment and the subsequent firestorm of hostility among U.S. Lutheran communities (as well as unaffiliated bigots) is so one-sided it reduces a genuinely fascinating subject to treacly propaganda. Pic’s relative presentational polish only underlines its schematic, finger-waggling nature. Exposure outside gay fests and liberal Christian circles will be severely limited.
Hill had been a pastor at St. Paul for 18 years, duly trying all the established channels for ordination, before she and allies decided to directly challenge governing national body the ELCA’s (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) explicit strictures against ordination of gays and lesbians who are “non-celibate.” (Hill is in a longterm committed relationship with a woman.)
Hill was ordained without official sanction, albeit with the congregation’s unanimous approval. Lutheran higher-ups immediately censured St. Paul, asking its diocese Bishop to resign over his participation in the well-attended ceremony. This flap earned a visit from familiar, clownish homophobe Rev. Fred Phelps, whose camera-ready followers have heckled gay-bashed victims’ funerals (including Matthew Shephard’s) and who appear here proudly holding signs like “Fags Die — God Laughs.”
Neither Phelps nor his acolytes are interviewed here, however, and in general, “This Obedience” avoids unpleasantness so thoroughly that its air of virtuous struggle becomes stultifying. Hill surely does appear a much-loved, generous, admirably humble person. But filmmakers cast her and other St. Paul-affiliated participants in such a blandly inspirational light — underlined by James Richter’s treaclesome piano score — that the pic resembles a longwinded testimonial dinner.
One commentator notes “Lutherans are good at being nice,” pegging the subtle hypocrisy in a church administration that pretends to embrace all comers, but invariably tables difficult issues for further research that might never end. Such is the ultimate fate of Hill’s ordination — and the gay strictures in general — at the ELCA conference where her allies stage silent protests recorded with ponderous, martyrdom-bestowing weight by docu.
Endless voiceover commentary solemnly conveys how participants feel at that instant, with no attention paid to repetitiousness. By the nth group rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the lay viewer may well ponder whether all these “nice” folk are among the most boring people on Earth.
Docu’s tech aspects are above-average if unimaginative.