Monday, July 7, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Worst Essay: "Priestesses in the Church"

"Priestesses in the Church"

This piece, written almost exactly sixty years ago, first appeared in TIME AND TIDE in August 1948, apparently in response to a piece by a Lady Marjorie Nunburnholme that had been published there a month earlier; it appears in the ESSAY COLLECTION but is best known for its inclusion in GOD IN THE DOCK: ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS (ed. Walter Hooper, 1970). The issue at hand is CSL's taking a strong stand against a proposal to allow women to be ordained as priests within the Anglican church -- an oddly timely topic, given that just today comes word that a church council has approved setting in motion a program that will see women serving as bishops in England within a decade* (women have already been serving as Anglican priests since 1994; the U.S. Episcopal Church has had women as priests as far back as 1974). So in a very real sense, by arguing against the ordination of women, Lewis is very much on the Wrong Side of History. This would probably not have disturbed him much, since he enjoyed the pose that he was the last Old Western Man, nobly defying the iniquitous Modern World. But from our point of view, it has the deceptively disarming effect of making his argument appear quaint, which undercuts just how dangerous his line of reasoning remains today.

Calling Lewis's piece an argument is something of a misnomer, since at the outset he admits that any logical consideration of the case would go against him and abandons logic to defend his position by saying we should rely instead on our gut instincts ("prejudice begotten by tradition") in matters of faith -- a position strikingly at odds with his famous account of his own (reason-based) conversion in SURPRISED BY JOY. Instead, in this essay he asserts that if the mental image of a woman serving communion makes someone wince, it's a sign from God that women aren't intended to play that role. But the argument that our prejudices are the surest guide to God's intent is a dangerous claim, one that could be used to justify all manner of horrors (racism, misogyny, homophobia, &c); an instinctive revulsion against sharing some privilege we enjoy is more likely to be a warning of shortcomings in our upbringing or character.

Nor does Lewis's wonderful gift for analogy help him much here. As his symbol of the immutable essentials of eternity that reflect the right relationships between the sexes, he choses --a formal English dance of the late 18th/early 19th century. But surely nothing is more artificial, more an arbitrary product of its place and time, than a formal dance. And, as an arbitrary culturally-specific artifact, it's no evidence at all of Things Eternal; it's as if Charles Williams in THE GREATER TRUMPS had specified that the dancing figures of the Tarot were doing the Charleston.

Why the Worst of the Worst? Essentially because of Lewis's assertion near the end, with protestations of humility, that women simply cannot represent God to other humans, that only Men can do that --which sounds suspiciously like Kipling's White Man's Burden, which the English used as a rationale to conquer and subjugate a large portion of the world (much to the rest of the world's dismay). CSL generally made a point of avoiding doctrinaire issues in his religious works, and this exception to the rule shows the wisdom of his usual practice.


*At the same time, the council rejected a proposal for "flying bishops", so that those made uncomfortable by the idea of having women in spiritual authority over them could avoid joining the 21st century and be ministered to solely by male bishops; for the report, and the dismay of a very vocal minority at the news, see

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