“I THOUGHT you’d ask that,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said, after the Today programme kept him waiting for ten minutes on Monday morning for his scheduled interview on the Anglican Primates’ meeting. The death of David Bowie had just been announced, and the Radio 4 flagship was running an extended tribute after the news. At the end, the Archbishop was asked for his thoughts on the dead rock star.
His reply was revealing: “I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ’70s particularly, and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had. An extraordinary person.”
What Bowie was, and the impact he had, went well beyond music. In the ’70s, he stood as an iconic figure in a time of sexual self-discovery — not just for individuals, but for wider society, too. His arrestingly androgynous figure embodied a new openness to sexuality. “Turn and face the strange,” he famously sang.
There was, of course, far more to this archetypally post-modern pop star than sex. It was key to his chameleon character that it enabled fans to draw from it whatever they wanted. Even the Vatican tweeted at the news of his death, choosing: “Commencing countdown, engines on, Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.” Bowie was, many forget, the man who knelt at a memorial concert for Freddie Mercury, and recited the Lord’s Prayer to the crowd.
Even so, given the prominence of his sexuality, it was bold of Archbishop Welby to say that he relished what Bowie was, especially on the eve of the Primates’ discussions on how to deal with disagreement on the place of gay people in the Church.
Much theological opposition to homosexuality rests on the presumption that it is a choice, a perverse decision to deviate from the heterosexual norm. But that view has been left stranded by a scientific and social consensus that sees that this relies on a premise as false as Aquinas’s notion that male semen contains a tiny homunculus — an entire foetus in miniature — which requires only a convenient womb into which it can be implanted. It is why Aquinas thought that male masturbation was a more grievous sin than rape. Homosexuality is now seen not as a choice, but a biological disposition influenced by genes and prenatal brain structure.
In one sense, David Bowie added confusion rather than clarification to this. Although he once publicly declared himself to be gay, he later said that he was actually bisexual, and, later still, insisted that he was “always a closet heterosexual”. His sexual ambiguity was the act of an agent provocateur out to attract attention to his music.
But if Bowie was a controversialist and a contrarian, he was a catalyst. He was a role model to the alienated and angst-ridden, experiences that many people endure at some point in their lives. More than that, he was a force of liberation to those whose sexuality meant that they were oppressed by a stultifying social conservatism rooted in an obsolete anthropology. Theology that rests on out-dated science needs rethinking.