Was C.S. Lewis an Anglo-Catholic?
By Pastor Brian Carpenter
C.S. Lewis has certainly received a warm embrace by almost all sections of Christendom, and by people of all sorts of other stripes. When I was a student at St. Meinrad’s School of Theology and Benedictine Monastery (yes, you read that right) there was a whole section in the bookstore dedicated to Lewis’ writings and writings about Lewis. I bought my own copy of Pilgrim’s Regress there. His books could also be found in the bookstore of the liberal Presbyterian seminary where I studied. And when I attended Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN, I also found him prominently featured in the campus bookstore and widely appreciated at the seminary. I have to say that no other (uninspired) author I can think of could be found in those three places. That remarkable fact alone speaks volumes about Lewis’ stature. Lewis even has a following among the Mormons, who find some of his more speculative fictional writings to be congenial with their peculiar views.
But it is somewhat surprising that Lewis has been received so widely among Evangelical Protestants, for Lewis’ views, especially the views he expressed towards the end of his life, were remarkably congruent with Anglo-Catholicism.
What is even more surprising is how many Protestant Evangelicals are unaware of that fact. Mere Christianity, it is true, was written to be “non-partisan” on matters which divided Protestantism from Rome, but that is the only place where he intentionally withheld his own views. In every other place where he thought it relevant, he had no qualms about articulating them.
However, he did not see himself as a belligerent participant, taking sides in a battle of ideas within Christendom, except insofar as some aspect of unbelief had invaded Christendom. Even there, he was courteous. Thus, most of his fire was directed outwards, towards the pervasive unbelief he encountered. So it is true that Lewis stayed away from internecine debates, and in particular the debate between the high and low parties in the Church of England (one friend and biographer remarks that Lewis looked at him as though he had tried to serve him poison when he mentioned it, and said, “We must never speak of that again.”)
Yet his views were clearly congruent with Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic theology. Consider, for instance, the theology of the sacraments underlying the following statement from “The Weight of Glory:”
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
In his essay “Priestesses in the Church?” he argues that women can’t be priests, but not because they can’t preach, à la 1 Tim 2:12, (indeed, he explicitly repudiates the notion that women can’t preach in this essay.) Instead, he grounds it on the concept that the priest must be male in order to represent God to the people. This, of course, is the argument used by Rome to justify an all male priesthood.
In one of his radio addresses during WWII, he said (and note the order):
There are three things that spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief, and…the Lord’s Supper.
About the Lord’s Supper, he once said:
Here is big medicine and strong magic.
And again he said:
My ideas about the sacrament would probably be called ‘magical’ by a good many modern theologians.
He also credited his wife’s very striking remission from cancer to a private communion service administered by a friend of his who was an Anglican priest.
Lewis professed a belief in purgatory. In Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer he wrote:
I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the ‘Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become . . .
. . . The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy?” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am “coming round,” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.
The Newman he mentions is the 19th C Oxford Tractarian who founded Anglo-Catholicism.
Along with that, he believed in praying for the dead. Again, in Letters to Malcolm he writes:
Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?
When his Anglo-Catholic friends thought he was near death, they arranged for him to receive Extreme Unction from an Anglo-Catholic priest, and Lewis accepted it.
It is true that he perhaps said some things from time to time which might allude to Protestant views, but it is equally clear that he had rejected Protestantism at least as consistently as he rejected theological liberalism. Though I obviously think there is benefit to be had in reading Lewis, I think the reader must be discerning. For there is little doubt where his sympathies lay on a great many crucial issues, and those positions are not very congenial to historic Protestant views.