CS Lewis’s blast against women in holy orders

C. S. Lewis spoke prophetically about emancipation, gender confusion, and women in office. For him, the essence of the Church and God’s covenant with mankind was at stake.

It is rather popular these days to advocate a minimalist Christianity. The other day a Dutch national newspaper stated that the English apologist C. S. Lewis would not have been interested in in-depth discussions about women in office (Reformed Daily 29/9/22). This suggests that Lewis considered this a secondary topic, on which Christians should agree to disagree. Apart from the painful truth that liberal Christians hardly ever manage to aquire this charitable attitude: Nothing could be further from the truth. Lewis considered the male character of the priesthood essential for the nature and character of the Church.

Anyone who knows the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England, realizes that it was not until 1985, long after Lewis’ death, that the view prevailed that women could become deacons. Woman in “holy orders” – the priesthood would follow some years later – was experienced by Anglo-Catholic believers as the surrender of Biblical authority and catholicity. Since apostolic times, the church has believed everywhere that the ministry is reserved for baptized men. Anglo-Catholics such as David Ashenden (former chaplain to her majesty Queen Elizabeth) and Walter Hooper (secretary and later biographer of Lewis) felt compelled to transfer their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, as the Church of England had clearly sacrificed its catholicy. This was clearly a bridge too far for Lewis, especially after 1870, when the Vatican introduced doctrines on the Pope and Mary that do not meet the criterion of catholicity. (It was not at all the general faith of the Church everywhere since Apostolic times that the Pope was infallible and a superbishop who could overrule or even appoint/veto it over local dioceses; or that Mary reigns as Queen of Heaven). When specifically asked why he did not cross the Tiber, Lewis told his Roman Catholic friends that Mary’s position and the dogma of the Pope’s infallibility prevented him from becoming a Roman Catholic (Pearce, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, page 421).

Essay

Lewis thus came from an ecclesiastical tradition in which the woman in office was anything but a secondary matter. Moreover, he did write quite extensively on the subject as well. In 1948, “women in ministry” was on the agenda of the Lambeth Conference, a meeting for which the Archbishop of Canterbury invites bishops from all over the world to discuss matters of faith. After the Second World War there was a shortage of priests and Lady Marjorie Nunburnholme (1880-1968) proposed as a solution that women should be admitted to holy orders. After all, the distinction between man and woman had disappeared in Christ, hadn’t it? (Galatians 3:28).

Not at all. Lewis was rather shocked. Not so much because he considered this a non-sensical argument: after all, Galatians talks about equal access to salvation and elsewhere the Apostle clearly speaks of a compulsory division of roles on biological grounds. For Lewis, rather, the essence of church and creation was at stake. He shared his concerns in the essay “Notes on the Way” (in “Time and Tide”, Vol. XXIX, August 14, 1948). Although there seemed little reason for him left to do so, since the ecclesiastical authorities had assured him that Lady Nunburnholme’s proposal did not stand a chance. Nevertheless, the literary studies master from Oxford felt compelled to pick up his pen and share his thoughts on this matter. Women in holy orders was clearly an extremely important topic to Lewis. This is evident not only from the fact that he wrote, but also from the contents of his essay.

No longer Catholic

Lewis’ reasons to reject women in office were both pragmatic and of a principle nature. He chose strong words. Women in ordained ministry would completely destroy the Church of England (“torn in shreds by the operation”). Moreover, the Anglican Church would thereby cut itself off from its Christian past and thus effectively break with the Church of all times and places. In other words, it would stop being Catholic. Its nature and purpose would cease to exist, according to Lewis.

He believed that the practice of the Bible was the standard that determined one’s ability to be and remain a church. In Scripture, not even Mary, the mother of Son of God, had a place in ministry or leadership in the Church. Why not? Ecclesiastical ministry represents God (for example, in the official blessing on behalf of God) and reflects both his substance and the patriarchal order of creation.

These are reviled concepts in our time. Lewis prophetically foresaw this. He also warned against addressing God as “our Mother who art in heaven” as the next step. Gender confusion touches on the essence of God. “Suppose it no longer matters whether the incarnation of Christ had a feminine or masculine form, and the second Person of the Trinity can be called both the Daughter and the Son.”

“Back to reality”

According to Lewis, in the order of society man functions as the image bearer of God and as covenant head. This is not a spiritual judgment, but a realistic appeal to the created reality, to created purpose, to God’s intentions. This also affects the church. God’s re-creation through Word and Spirit builds on that order. Christ, as the second Adam, is the head of his Church. It is no coincidence that the Apostle Paul uses creation, fall, and the headship of Christ to motivate the division of human roles on the basis of biological distinction (1 Timothy 2;  1 Corinthians 11:2-16).

Lewis warns that sexuality is not something superficial which may simply be detached from the spiritual life. Even the neuterisation of male and female in civil society he considered essentially evil. Lewis watched with profound regret as the British government government of his day mobilized women economically in the name of equality and endeavoured to erase the distinction between men and women. In Holland the same would happen a few decades later under Christian Democrat leadership, so called. It is often alledgedly conservative ministries and parties – like the Conservatives under David Cameron – that are responsible for major liberal shifts in society.

Lewis’s view was that this may be inevitable for secular life, but that Christians still have an obligation to disagree, as Lewis personally did very vocally on this occasion. Whatever happens, Christians should never accept this sort of thing in Church, or be caught up in the mass hypnosis of the neuter politics of the modern world. Lewis considered this a big lie. Especially our Christian life should be based on reality, as God sees it.

Read my contribution in the Reformed Daily here.

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