The Invisible Anglicanism of CS Lewis

cs lewis

(image source wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis)

If you spend any length of time interacting with contemporary writing about CS Lewis, you’ll discover one thing almost instantly: Lewis has become a theological Rorshach test for his readers. This was one of the dominant themes of the many tributes published about him on the 50th anniversary of his death this past November.

A certain group of Catholic readers—let’s call them “Chesterton’s warrior children”—cannot imagine someone like Lewis writing the things he did and not converting to Catholicism at some point. And since they cannot grant the possibility that one can write like Lewis and be Protestant, they are forced to conjure up fanciful theories to explain Lewis’s Protestantism. The best example of this is the “Ulsterior motive” theory, which claims that Lewis never got over the deep-seated anti-Catholic sentiments of his youth. (These critics conveniently fail to note that his family never seemed to possess any strong anti-Catholic sentiments to begin with, given that their servants were Catholic and Lewis’s parents were not terribly committed to the more radical brands of Irish protestantism.) The warrior children manage to say this with a straight face, which is somewhat remarkable given that many of Lewis’s closest friends were, of course, Catholic.

Meanwhile, American evangelical readers tend to see Lewis as a proto-evangelical, a man utterly committed to classic creedal orthodoxy and utterly uninterested in delving any deeper than that. He is the mere Christian par excellance in their minds and represents a tacit endorsement of the evangelical tendency to avoid the thornier theological questions that usually prompt one to seek out a confessional identity of some sort.

Both readings, of course, miss the most basic fact of all about Lewis the Christian: CS Lewis was a conservative Anglican churchman. It’s perhaps fitting that amongst all the tributes, it the was the Anglican Alan Jacobs who made this point about Lewis’s identity while also drawing attention to its neglect amongst many of his readers.

“I want to suggest that one significant reason for Lewis’s widespread positive reception in the U.S. involves simple ignorance on the part of American audiences of what it means to be a layman of the Church of England.”

Understanding Lewis the Anglican can take readers a long way toward understanding the respective strengths of Lewis’s mentioned by others in their tributes to him.

Any student of recent Christian history will, of course, be unsurprised to find an Anglican doing marvelous work while writing as a broadly orthodox Christian. Lewis is simply one of many to do so. Consider his contemporary (and sometimes rival) TS Eliot, or later 20th century preachers like John Stott and JI Packer. Most recently, N.T. Wright has risen to prominence on the back of both impressive scholarly works and accessible popular writings. (Jacobs himself likely deserves a mention here as well for his essays and writings on reading and technology, amongst many other topics.) Wes Hill, though very young, seems another promising example of this trend based on his fine work Washed and Waiting.

Catholic readers seeking to understand Lewis’s depth and orientation toward the world need not chase down fanciful (and, when one actually thinks about it, rather insulting) theories of “Ulsterior” motives that kept Lewis from simply crossing the Tiber like all good Christian humanists apparently should. They simply need to understand that he was an Anglican and that Anglicans seem to have a particular talent for distilling complex Christian truth into clear, accessible language that anyone can understand. What Lewis was doing in books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain is simply another species of what Stott did in The Cross of Christ or what Wright did in books like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.

And yet, Lewis’s membership in the Anglican communion should also speak to evangelical readers of more free church or non-denominational persuasions. It is striking that as much as Lewis spoke about mere Christianity, when asked to speak about his own spiritual life he constantly returned to his roots in Anglicanism. Lewis might have written about a broad Christian orthodoxy, but the spiritual experience that enabled him to do so was much narrower.

It’s a key point to remember for American evangelicals who specialize in a more cafeteria-style approach to theology, sampling a bit of Lewis here, a bit of Luther there, and a bit of Carson over there. You cannot be a theological cosmopolitan—at least not if you wish to think with any clarity about Christian faith, life, and practice. You must belong to a specific tradition, a specific church body. But by binding yourself to a confessional tradition, you open yourself up to the entire possibilities of the merely Christian tradition. For proof, look no further than Lewis himself. It is only when you stand within a particular confessional tradition that you can walk out into the hallway of the Christian house and enjoy it for what it is. If Lewis were speaking to us today, it’s highly likely that his first advice to Protestant readers would not be to immerse ourselves in broad Christian orthodoxy, but to commit ourselves to a particular Christian tradition. Once we learn to live within a more narrow specific confessional tradition, then we become far more capable of speaking with verve and clarity about the creeds.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course. Remember your Aristotle—the universal form adheres within particulars. If you set out to tell a story about Everything, you’ll get nothing. It will be so broad and ambitious that it ends up signifying nothing. But if you, for instance, tell a story about an ordinary family in an ordinary Texas town, you might end up with an incredible story of love and loyalty and duty, of courage during times of trouble, and of fidelity to people and to place, that speaks in universally accessible language. By committing yourself to a particular confessional (and orthodox) tradition, you open to yourself the full riches of Mere Christianity. To paraphrase Lewis: Aim for the particulars of a specific confessional tradition and get the universals of mere Christendom thrown in. Aim for mere Christendom without any confessional roots, and you’ll get neither.

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  • Jacob Lupfer

    Very thoughtful! I’ve been aware of American evangelicals imagining Lewis as a literal-Bible fundamentalist, but hadn’t considered how his adoring Catholic readers would try to remake him in their own image. Enjoyed reading this.

    • Alice C. Linsley

      I am a member of the Chesterton Society (Louisville Chapter). Our chapter is comprised of Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox. We all greatly admire the work of C.S. Lewis, and though we might be regarded as some of Chesterton’s “warriors” we have never tried to remake C.S. Lewis. We are aware that Chesterton wrote much of his best work – Heretics, the Father Brown mysteries, etc. – while he was still an Anglican.

  • Amelia Sims

    Good article about Lewis, but your advise seems relativistic to me. What about aiming for not just a confessional tradition, but the TRUE tradition? This seems much more important to me. As a Catholic I consider it Lewis’s downfall that he did not pay enough attention to the truth of his Anglican tradition.

    • http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/ Edward Green

      Amelia, Lewis disliked Gin and Lace Anglo Catholicism and wrote fairly negatively of pomp. However he believed in the real presence, went to confession and spoke of purgatory to his friend Malcolm.

      Whatever you call such a stream of Anglicanism it is foundational to its historic identity, and has little to do with Englishness. Such a reformed catholicism is also seen in the episcopal Lutherans of Scandinavia.

      The question of truth for Anglicans is complex, as a more reformed influence exists within the Church (although Scotland is very different). So although Lewis (and I) draw from wells fed by Bosphorus and Tiber, we share a church with others who drink from lake Geneva.

      This tension certainly informed Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

      • Amelia Sims

        Anglicanism is English to it’s core. It is impossible to separate Anglicanism from it’s historical foundation in English history with Henry VIII and English Culture.

        You are right though. The story of the English Reformation is more complex than people realize. In England, the Reformation was more a revolution. The dissolution of the monasteries brought about a redistribution of wealth so radical that nothing like it was seen until the French and Russian Revolutions. As the monasteries were dissolved, the entire educational, social welfare, and health care systems collapsed. The monastic lands and riches were simply taken by the king and given to his cronies.

        Over time, the effect was to identify the Church of England not only with the monarchy, but with Englishness. Members of the Church of England hold their Christianity in one hand and their Englishness in the other, and they pray by putting their two hands together. Converts to the Church of England often do not realize the depth of this union of Christianity and English nationalism. More importantly, many Anglicans are unaware how much their Christian faith is defined by their English culture.

        This means that Englishness is written in and through the Anglican religion in a far deeper way than Scottish culture is written into Presbyterianism or German culture into Lutheranism. Without having a firsthand experience of this blend of religion and culture, it is impossible to understand the heart of Anglicanism.

        The problem with traditions (confession, Real Presence, purgatory) separated from the Catholic Church, is that they lose their roots in Apostolic Succession which was founded by Christ as he instituted them in his Church founded on the rock(Peter).

        Though this tension did inform Mere Christianity, a book I happen to love, I still hold my position that Lewis did not pay enough heed in his writings to the reasons for the truth of his particular Anglican tradition.

        • http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/ Edward Green

          I am not convinced Henry the VIII has much to do with Anglicanism as a spiritual tradition. And his actions, whilst lamentable, were as much to do with western European politics as they were the Vatican.

          However he created an environment in which Anglicanism would eventually flourish. The heart of Anglicanism is found in the Caroline divines, who included Scottish Episcopal non-jurors. I doubt Englishness was a significant part of their agenda. A desire to be Apostolical was.

        • Anastasios

          Well yeah, but isn’t Catholicism Roman (or at the very least Western) to its core? Sounds like a pot and kettle issue to me. The existence of tiny numbers of token Eastern Catholics doesn’t change the fact that Catholicism is as shot through with Westernness as Anglicanism is with Englishness.

          • Anastasios

            I’m not sure there’s any theological tradition that’s 100% culturally or geographically “neutral” or “universal”. Orthodoxy is Eastern, Catholicism is Western-European (and Latin American, although this is a more recent development), Oriental Orthodoxy has 6 wildly varying ethnic flavors, Anglicanism is English, Presbyterianism Scottish, and generic evangelicalism is American as apple pie.

        • Jer6vs16

          I can only reply with a quote from a good Church of Rome laymen who knew him best (J.R.R. Tolkien):

          “Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men (or women) should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth.”

  • malcolmdfrench

    Given the historical comprehensiveness of Anglicanism, it seems more than odd to speak of it as confessional. There is no Anglican confession, and the 39 Articles have never had the same sort of place in Anglican thought as, say, the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans or the Westminster Confession for British Presbyterians. Indeed, the entire Elizabethan Settlement was an attempt to create a national church which would comprehend all but the most recusing Catholics and all but the most rigid Puritans.

    So, with respect, I think Jack has been as much a Rorschach Test for the present author as for anyone else.

    • http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/ Edward Green

      Or Anglicanism is a Rorschach Test …

      • malcolmdfrench

        Probably something to be said for that.

      • Anastasios

        And then, of course, there is Kallistos Ware who thinks that deep down C. S. Lewis was an Easterner at heart. Many Anglicans of his era undoubtedly were. Around that time union between the CoE and the EO was being seriously considered. Unfortunately, the triumph of liberalism within Anglicanism derailed those prospects on a large scale, although there are some small groups of “continuing” Anglicans who have joined the Antiochian Archdiocese as “Western Rite” parishes. Perhaps if Lewis had lived today, he would have found his home in one of those groups? He most definitely would not have been the Katharine Jefferts-Schori type of Anglican, nor the Puritan-leaning J. I. Packer type.

        http://simplyorthodox.tumblr.com/post/13591976386

        • http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/ Edward Green

          Point proved I suspect. Although Anglicansim has elements of Western Rite Orthodoxy there is to much of a reformed and reforming element within.

          The dominant movement within the Church of England is Charismatic Evangelical. Of course Evangelicalism is a form of liberalism I suppose – denying historic essentials of the faith.

          Liberalism is a retreating force in the CofE.

          • georgeor

            I would be interested to hear what essentials of the faith you believe evangelicals have abandoned. I ask as somebody who goes to an evangelical church, but who finds the movement so diverse that it would be hard for me to make such a statement.

          • http://www.future-shape-of-church.org/ Edward Green

            Please understand my comment in context – from the perspective of the Orthodox tradition, who would understand Evangelicals as lacking Apostolic Succession and the fullness of the Sacraments.

          • georgeor

            Gotcha. I was just wondering. If you don’t mind my asking another question, what does Apostolic succession mean to the Orthodox? I’m familiar with how Catholics deem it important to have a “line of succession” from Peter to the present day pope, but I’m not familiar with how the Eastern Church uses the term.

          • Crusilly

            Dear Georgeor, as I see no reply here, may I offer my tuppence. The idea of the Apostolic succession refers, within both Orthodox and Catholic tradition, to all clergy, including all the bishops, that of Rome being but one of them. The particular link between the see founder and the current incumbent which is so important for the Catholic is a kind of a supplement (however important) to the basic concept of succession (which asserts that Christ Himself is the founder of the institution known as the Church).

  • Joseph Sunde

    Great reminder for all of us cafeteria dwellers. Just hoping I can somehow count the Assembly of God — my own home — as a “confessional tradition.” :)

  • The Ohio Anglican

    Okay, what is the big deal about this article? In ‘Mere Christianity’ not only did Lewis mention that he was an “ordinary layman of the Church of England”, but in the preface of the book he states “All this is said simply in order to make clear what kind of book I was trying to write; not in the least to conceal or evade responsibility for my own beliefs. About those, as I said before, there is no secret. To quote Uncle Toby: ‘They are written in the Common-Prayer Book.’”

    Also, the quote that is the basis of this article needs to be put into the entire context in which it was used; “I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially ‘high’, nor especially ‘low’, nor especially anything else.” So, for all of those who like to categorize people or beliefs this non-mystery is solved, C.S. Lewis was an orthodox Prayer Book Anglican, not a crypto-catholic or crypto-evangelical or crypto-anything else.

  • Timothy O’Connell

    Good Jake; thank you.

  • William Hartley

    “You cannot be a theological cosmopolitan—at least not if you wish to think with any clarity about Christian faith, life, and practice. You must belong to a specific tradition.”

    Though I agree with the sentiment, when you say “cannot” and “must”, it makes me need to ask “why not” and “why”?

    The truth is: You can be a theological cosmopolitan, and you don’t have to belong to a tradition.

    Interested in a bit more defense of your statement, beyond your personal, heartfelt conviction. (If and when you have the time…)

    • jakemeador

      William – Briefly, I’d say that it’s an issue of the manner of belief or the way in which a belief is held. A theological cosmopolitan–whether we’re talking about a cafeteria Catholic or a non-confessional evangelical–holds beliefs based on their own rationalistic judgments and preferences, which makes them methodologically modern even if the specific beliefs themselves might be Christian. And I’d say that’s a very dangerous place to be because your Christianity is being shaped primarily by your own views and tastes rather than by a broader tradition to which you are accountable. Basically, it seems to represent a soft form of modern individualism that is going to make Christian faith untenable in larger groups and even in individual lives in some situations or settings.

      • William Hartley

        Jake…thanks for taking the time to respond.

        Again, let me say that I share your conviction about connecting to traditions, and am committed to doing so myself.

        But, I’m wrestling with putting those convictions into words, and I’m rooting for you to help me out…though I’m not sure I’m sold yet.

        I do hold beliefs based on my judgments. Call them “methodologically modern” if you will (is that a bad thing?) … but having beliefs shaped by a contemporary relevant assessment is not necessarily worse than adopting beliefs shaped by the ancient or medieval assessments, which are not as relevant, or macro-historically informed.

        My issue, like so many others, is that traditions create spiritual “track homes”, but I want something custom. So I look for a tradition that matches these convictions. These are more than just preferences, so they are difficult to jettison. To scimp on these issues is not genuine … or, as Luther put it, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

        But, what I describe is every Evangelical as his/her own Papacy. That can’t work either.

        Keep it coming! Thanks for the blog…glad I found it.

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    One cannot read the Abolition of Man and not conclude that Lewis was constitutionally Catholic, even if he remained in partial communion with Rome. His clear rejection of nominalism as well as his sustained defense of natural law is so rooted in the metaphysical sensibilities of Thomism that it seems fair to say that Lewis is much closer to Chesterton than to Wright (that’s N.T., not Frank Lloyd).

    • Micael Gustavsson

      Is N.T.Wright a nominalist? Or enemy of natural law?

  • http://frjody.com Jody Howard

    Very good piece. It’s helpful to remember that, as other commenters have pointed out, Lewis was never shy about his Anglicanism when he felt it needed to be addressed. At the same time, he was a proponent of the idea that Christians get closer together by moving deeper into their own traditions. The faith to Lewis was not a line that one moved back and forth on, but more like a pie, with each tradition being a slice, and the deeper one moves into one’s own tradition, the closer one is coming to committed practitioners of other traditions. (I can’t remember, but I seem to recall Lewis using the same metaphor, or one similar, in Mere Christianity or somewhere else).

  • gk

    “(Catholics) simply need to understand that he was an Anglican and that Anglicans seem to have a particular talent for distilling complex Christian truth into clear, accessible language that anyone can understand.” After spending considerable time studying Anglicans (and ‘–ism,’ including CSL), I have a sense of what you’re aiming at here. Unfortunately, to many (most?) catechized Catholics, the absence of a coherent ecclesiology undermines what is otherwise “clear” to perhaps many (most?) Protestant/Anglican/Evangelical minds. For Catholics (eg. Tolkien), that coherence is intrinsic to the clarity itself. Without it, the clarity is substantially unclear, as it was for CSL.