C. S. Lewis on “Liturgiology”

“Liturgical reforms are hell.”- Auden

Well, unless my reading of Fair Use is way off, I’m allowed to do this…

The following is an excerpt from Ch. 1 of C. S. Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Though the chapter is untitled, I think it’s fair to dub it “On Liturgy,” or— to use the mouthful that Lewis employs throughout the essay— “On Liturgiology.” It’s not ruining much of a surprise to mention that there is no actual Malcolm receiving and replying to Lewis’s letters (though at one point I had convinced myself that it was Malcolm Muggeridge); Lewis simply adopted the epistolary mode in order to write more convivially. But “convivial” should not be taken to mean “dumbed-down”— indeed, I think some of Lewis’s most profound writing is contained in the pages of this book. Whatever the case may be, I really do enjoy Lewis’s missive style, and over the years I have come to imitate both the mode and the voice of his writing in Letters to Malcolm at times, here on this blog and elsewhere. This is no boast: I am merely confessing to attempting imitation of Lewis’s style, not claiming success!

This essay occupies a foundational place in my spiritual formation. I was a former nominal Lutheran/jaded non-evangelical when I left Oregon to head to college in Michigan, and I didn’t know what I really believed. But I knew what I didn’t believe, and I knew that I really disliked evangelical non-denom Protestant church. I had begun to read more, however, and was already inclining away from triumphalism in matters of politics (Patrick Buchanan’s The Death of the West and Where the Right Went Wrong had torn up my neoconservatism by its flimsy roots), and given how wedded my outlooks towards politics and religion were to each other (like those of most American conservatives), it was only natural that the triumphalism of American evangelicalism (still latent in my thinking at that time) would follow suit. And it did, in fits and starts. In that process, Lewis’s essay on liturgy was big for me. Rereading it today, I find it to be even more wonderful.

Enjoy! And do consider buying the book.

"Dear Malcolm...you're not real."

“Dear Malcolm…you’re not real.”

On Liturgiology; from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
C. S. Lewis

I am all in favour of your idea that we should go back to our old plan of having a more or less set subject— an agendum— for our letters. When we were last separated the correspondence languished for lack of it. How much better we did in our undergraduate days with our interminable letters on the Republic, and classical metres, and what was then the “new” psychology! Nothing makes an absent friend so present as a disagreement.

Prayer, which you suggest, is a subject that is a good deal in my mind. I mean, private prayer. If you were thinking of corporate prayer, I won’t play. There is no subject in the world (always excepting sport) on which I have less to say than liturgiology. And the almost nothing that 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 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. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “’Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”

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.”

Yes, one does wonder...

One does wonder…

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.

Correct. "Where's all mah soul sistas? Lemme hear ya'll flow sistas!"

Correct. “Where’s all mah soul sistas? Lemme hear ya’ll flow sistas!”

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, “everyone to his own way,” and vanish over diverse points of the horizon. If the sheep huddle patiently 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?)

As to the words of the service— liturgy in the narrower sense— the question is rather different. If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy: otherwise it will finally be vernacular only in name. The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.

I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced in a century— like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare. As things are, we must reconcile ourselves, if we can also reconcile government, to a new Book.

If we were—I thank my stars I’m not—in a position to give its authors advice, would you have any advice to give them? Mine could hardly go beyond unhelpful cautions: “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelettes.”

Already our liturgy is one of the very few remaining elements in our hideously divided Church. The good to be done by revision needs to be very great and very certain before we throw that away. Can you imagine any new Book which will not be a source of new schism?

Most of those who press for revision seem to wish that it should serve two purposes: that of modernising the language in the interests of intelligibility, and that of doctrinal improvement. Ought the two operations—each painful and each dangerous—be carried out at the same time? Will the patient survive?

What are the agreed doctrines which are to be embodied in the new Book and how long will agreement on them continue? I ask with trepidation because I read a man the other day who seemed to wish that everything in the old book which was inconsistent with orthodox Freudianism should be deleted.

For whom are we to cater in revising the language? A country parson I know asked his sexton what he understood by indifferently in the phrase “truly and indifferently administer justice.” The man replied, “It means making no difference between one chap and another.” “And what would it mean if it said impartially?” asked the parson. “Don’t know. Never heard of it,” said the sexton. Here, you see, we have a change intended to make things easier. But it does so neither for the educated, who understand indifferently already, nor for the wholly uneducated, who don’t understand impartially. It helps only some middle area of the congregation who may not even be a majority. Let us hope the revisers will prepare for their work by a prolonged empirical study of popular speech as it actually is, not as we (a priori) assume it to be. How many scholars know (what I discovered by accident) that when uneducated people say impersonal they sometimes mean incorporeal?

What of expressions what are archaic but not unintelligible? (“Be ye lift up.”) I find that people react to archaism most diversely. It antagonises some; makes what is said unreal. To others, not necessarily more learned, it is highly numinous and a real aid to devotion. We can’t please both.

I know there must be change. But is this the right moment? Two signs of the right moment occur to me. One would be a unity among us which enabled the Church— not some momentarily triumphant party— to speak through the new work with a united voice. The other would be the manifest presence, somewhere in the Church, of the specifically literary talent needed for composing a good prayer. Prose needs to be not only very good but very good in a very special way, if it is to stand up to reiterated reading aloud. Cranmer may have his defects as a theologian; as a stylist, he can play all the moderns, and many of his predecessors, off the field. I don’t see either sign at the moment.

Yet we all want to be tinkering. Even I would gladly see “Let your light so shine before men” removed from the offertory. It sounds, in that context, so like an exhortation to do our alms that they may be seen by men.

I’d meant to follow up what you say about Rose Macaulay’s letters, but that must wait till next week.




  1. An excellent essay, yes. And I was unaware that Malcolm was fictitious.

  2. C. S. Lewis has so much common sense, it is hard to believe that it was once common. Lewis had great gifts but general academic writing was, in his time, much more free of obfuscating ideology and jargon than today’s writing. Also liked your intro!

  3. I also meant to say that, while I respect Lewis’ injunction to “to take what we are given and make the best of it,” I’m afraid I share the impatience of those of my time in as much as I’d really be teed-off if my church were to adopt a plain, Baptist-type format or, worse!, “contemporary worship”. I’m an escapee from that world and I’m afraid I’m just weak enough to allow the details of the newly adopted liturgy to interfere with my hearing the “pure and sweet” presentation of the Word of God–assuming the liturgical innovators were actually able to preserve the latter. It is the case of a standard I can see but am unable to attain. As I get older, I have become overwhelmed with such standards!

    • Thanks for your comments, Doug. I was thinking the same thing, myself, about the “take what we are given and make the best of it” line. But I think the answer is really quite simple: Lewis simply would not have recognized much of what goes on in modern evangelical Protestantism as a “church service” at all. Moreover, I think his is an emendation to hold fast to the received tradition — that is “what we are given,” and that is what every generation is to “make the best of”. So much of what is done in modern Protestant church simply was never “given” — it was invented. This is a non-trivial distinction. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul twice makes reference to what it means to steward the mysteries of God: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread…”, and “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…”. So there must first be reception before there is delivery. This is the essence of truly catholic — which is to say, truly Christian — tradition. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a margin in which practice has some “free play”, for there certainly is: this is what our Confessions speak of as adiaphora. But freedom can be abused, and the margin is not of infinite width. Liturgical novelty for its own sake harms the unity and clarity of the faith. As Lewis says elsewhere in the essay, “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelettes.”

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