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CS Lewis on Liturgy

CS Lewis

I was recently re-reading CS Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. It is a wise book, and his thoughts on community worship seem as relevant today for deeper reflection as when they were first published 60 years ago,

I am delighted that it was my motion to the Christchurch diocesan synod that started the process for adding CS Lewis to the NZ Anglican Calendar.

A couple of previous posts also spring to mind: the wonderful A Footnote to All Prayers and Screwtape liturgy.

Do enjoy and reflect on these thoughts drawn from from Letter 1 (apologies – I am not changing his male language of the early ’60s; I’m sure he would write differently today, and I hope his gendered language doesn’t distract too much from his excellent points):

…There is no subject in the world (always excepting sport) on which I have less to say than liturgiology. And the almost nothing which I have to say may as well be disposed of in this letter.

I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.

To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain–many give up churchgoing altogether–merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best–if you like, it “works” best–when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. …

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit–habito dell’ arte.

It may well be that some variations which seem to me merely matters of taste really involve grave doctrinal differences. But surely not all? For if grave doctrinal differences are really as numerous as variations in practice, then we shall have to conclude that no such thing as the Church of England exists. And anyway, the Liturgical Fidget is not a purely Anglican phenomenon; I have heard Roman Catholics complain of it too.

And that brings me back to my starting point. The business of us laymen is simply to endure and make the best of it. Any tendency to a passionate preference for one type of service must be regarded simply as a temptation. Partisan “Churchmanships” are my bête noire. And if we avoid them, may we not possibly perform a very useful function? The shepherds go off, “every one to his own way” and vanish over diverse points of the horizon. If the sheep huddle patiently together and go on bleating, might they finally recall the shepherds? (Haven’t English victories sometimes been won by the rank and file in spite of the generals?)…

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2 thoughts on “CS Lewis on Liturgy”

  1. I think CS Lewis either had a specific short-term localized phenomenon in mind or fear he was talking mince.

    Up here, any one liturgy has multiple yet finite variations (eg pertinent prefaces, where to shove the Peace, which version of the Lord’s Prayer to use, subject to the priest’s choice on the day) – if being alert to the mood of the day throws him off, he has problems.

    There is also the overarching story-arc of change over decades. I joined this church in the days of the original 1982 liturgy. (It’s since been modified for inclusivity.) That liturgy has its poetic moments and a breadth of expression allowing for broad beliefs.

    I sometimes wonder if I’d be a stick in the mud whenever a completely new version might decide to arrive, but I also look back on the 1970 which interjects grovelling before receiving and the 1929 which grovels all the more, limits welcome to the table and has you still beseeching *after* receiving. Mere offputting “novelty”, my $posterior. The reasonings and ramifications are very worthy of contemplation.

    . o O ( “Even the performing dogs under the table”… )

    1. Thanks, Tim – my reading is that your “multiple yet finite variations” fits within CS Lewis’ text. I do not think that in NZ Anglicanism one can, with honesty, say the variations are finite (yes – they are finite in the sense of there being a finite number of services on any one day here, but the are not finite in the sense of being able to list the possibilities before they happen, if that makes sense). Lenten Blessings

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