A couple of days ago I noted C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the arguments used by complementarians. But of course that does not imply that he was an egalitarian. Indeed I now have proof that he was not. I thank my commenter Iconoclast for a link to an interesting essay by Lewis apparently entitled Priestesses in the Church?, posted last year by Alice C. Linsley on her blog. According to this page the essay was originally written in 1948. In it Lewis makes clear his opposition to the ordination of women in the Church of England.
Lewis certainly would not have approved of Barbie becoming an Episcopal priest, as pictured here. Thanks to Dave Walker at the Church Times blog for the link (although it’s broken) to the Facebook group Friends of Episcopal Priest Barbie (not sure if my link will work any better). It is a real group, so this is not just an April fool, and I took the picture from it.
To start with, C.S. Lewis got one thing quite wrong: no one was asking for a separate “order of priestesses”, but for women to be admitted to the existing order of priests, as has now happened. But I think he is on the ball to say that
the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse
– to which some would add a shallow and tendentious interpretation of certain Bible passages.
When it comes down to it, the argument which Lewis makes is that God is male, not female. That implies that for him women are less the image of God than men. He admits that it is “masculine imagery” which is used of God, but he confuses the imagery with the reality when he makes God really masculine. When Robert Burns wrote “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”, his beautiful poetic imagery was not supposed to mean that the woman he loved was in fact not a woman but a rose. I’m not really qualified to lecture a professor of literature like Lewis, but he seems to have forgotten the basics of how poetry works. Poetic images are figures of speech not to be taken literally. So if calling God Father is indeed “masculine imagery” of the poetic kind, it precisely does not imply that God is really and essentially male.
Lewis gets to the most basic issue when he writes:
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters. As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complimentary organs of a mystical body.
Here “complimentary” is a transcriber’s error for “complementary”; Lewis certainly wouldn’t have confused the two words, and the latter appears in this version of the text. So he upholds the principle of complementary roles for men and women, while in this essay being careful to avoid the kinds of arguments which he put in the mouth of the Ape in The Last Battle.
In the paragraph I just quoted Lewis has hit the nail on the head. Indeed I would hold, along with most egalitarians I imagine, that distinctions of sex are “irrelevant to the spiritual life”. But Lewis seems to disagree. So how can we resolve this? Lewis, having rejected reason earlier in the essay, turns to church tradition. As an evangelical I prefer to turn to Scripture. And there I read:
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27 (TNIV)
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (TNIV)
Thus the Bible makes it clear that males and females are equally made in the image of God, and that the distinction between them is precisely “irrelevant to the spiritual life” in Christ. Thus the clear biblical position is that God is neither male nor female, and that neither gender is better fitted than the other to represent him to humanity.
Of course C.S. Lewis was right and prescient to write that
the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds
by allowing women priests. In the 1990s the shreds were inexpertly patched together by such means as the infamous “flying bishops”. Now that women bishops are in prospect the whole patchwork is falling apart again. But the reason this has been so contentious is that a large minority in the church has been taken in by the kinds of bad arguments about the essential masculinity of God which Lewis put forward.
To be fair to C.S. Lewis, he was a man of his time and so shared “an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort” with the idea of women priests. In 1948 he was not young (he turned 50 that year) but still unmarried. He had little experience of women apart from his odd relationship with his surrogate mother Jane Moore. It is perhaps hardly surprising that he treated them more or less as a separate species. But, fortunately for half of humanity, that is not how God treats them.