by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)… – David Bowie 1971
“Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert…” – Isaiah 43 (CEB)
In 1971/2 David Bowie’s song “Changes”, like David Bowie’s various personae, spoke to England of its changing life. In those years I went to University to read Drama and Theatre Arts, a course that (literally) involved hugging trees and exploring the world with your fingertips as well as undertaking close literary studies of Shakespearean texts and detailed theorising about Russian directors in the context of Russian revolution. In 1971/2 I was eighteen; Bowie was twenty-five. England, it seemed, was turning and facing the strange.
Turning, but only up to a point. In my generation Drama was a brand-new University subject, suspected by many as a typical example of the dumbing-down of academia and of intellectual vacuity, just as new subjects always are, and still are. In those years Bowie’s complex and androgynous personae drew hostile fire as well as adulation. In the words of one of his obituarists, he was “An Unapologetically Authentic Queer Icon”.
And yes, it seemed England was turning and facing the strange – but it also seemed England was wanting nothing to change at all. In short England was in cultural turmoil, just as it always is, and still is. Bowie’s song, like the popular songs of all ages, speaks of this too. It speaks of the conflict that turmoil brings as the culture of the nations moves, and the strange draws near, and the strange is resisted afresh: “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it…/ Where’s your shame / You’ve left us up to our necks in it…”
All that was forty-seven years ago.
Seventeen years after “Changes”, on May 24 1988, thirty years ago last week, Section 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted. It stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This was not the law of a nation turning and facing the strange. For those seeking a more open England, it seemed in those years that other parts of Bowie’s song spoke more loudly: “Every time I thought I’d got it made / It seemed the taste was not so sweet”, and “Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older”.
All that was thirty years ago.
Section 28 was repealed in England on 18 November 2003. It had therefore been part of English law for fifteen years. In those years the Church of England’s views on homosexuality had coalesced around “Issues in Human Sexuality” (1991), a document which still holds force in this Church. Six months before Section 28 was enacted the General Synod had passed, by 403 votes to 8, a motion which in the words of the Bishop of Norwich “stated that sexual intercourse properly belongs within marriage and that… homosexual genital acts [are sins against this ideal and] are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.” (Bishop Graham James, presentation prior to the Synod debate on GS2055, February 2017). In short, the Church and the law-makers were not far apart, in those years. Another part of David Bowie’s lyric seemed to be the words of the church to people of LGBTI orientation and identity: “There’s gonna have to be a different [man].” And the response of that community: “Time may change me / But I can’t trace time.”
All that was fifteen years ago.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which allows same-sex marriage in England and Wales, was passed by the UK Parliament in July 2013 and came into force on 13 March 2014. Bishop Graham in his presentation before the Synod debate in 2017 referred back to Section 28’s insistence that schools must not teach the value “of what it called ‘pretended family relationships’…”, and he went on, “… namely same sex partners having a normal family life”.
And in 2014 the normal family life of same-sex partners was not only seen as legal, and legally commendable, but the possibility of its recognition by the state as marriage had become equal in the eyes of the law. And the Church and the lawmakers were sundered by these changes. And in the Church we have had to engage with the work of trying, slowly, falteringly, to decide together what that sundering might mean for us and for our witness. What it might meanfor the commending of the Gospel in our policies and in our common life. What all this might mean, perhaps especially to people who cannot see what our problem is, and who see our struggling as a problem in itself.
All that was four years ago.
David Bowie died on January 10 2016. He did not live to see the election of Donald J Trump in the USA, nor the explosion of right-wing populist rebellion across the world in that year and in the years since. He did not live to see the world of today, which increasingly seems to struggle to turn and face the strange. But in 1971 he saw the future from afar, and he sang about it as a poet sings, that is as one of the family of people who can change the world by singing:
“I’Il watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through:
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)…”
© Paul Liverpool 2018