Priestesses?

CS Lewis’s 1948 essay on “Priestesses in the Church” strikes a reader today as simultaneously quaintly naive and trenchantly prescient. The naive part comes near the beginning, where Lewis describes the decision to take “a revolutionary step.” It would “cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches,” and “the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation.”

He cannot imagine the Church of England acting with “an almost wanton degree of imprudence.”

He admits that common sense is on “the side of the innovators”: “We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office.”

Yet Lewis sees these dire consequences because he discerns that the decision to ordain women as priests is more than “a revolution in order.” It is a revolution in order. In the Anglican liturgy, the priest “speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God,” and the whole issue is whether a woman can do the latter. In piety, charity, and intelligence, a woman “may be as ‘God-like’ as a man; and a given woman much more so than a given man.”

Behind the revolution in order Lewis sees a brewing revolution in Christianity itself: “Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to ‘Our Mother which art in heaven’ as to ‘Our Father.’ Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does. . . . if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.” After all, “Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity.”

Here the prescience and the naivete overlap: What Lewis considered a reductio has been warmly embraced since 1948. If a revision of the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer is the price of ordaining women, it’s a price that many are eager to pay.

There is also a revolution in our understanding of created existence: “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.” In some areas, Lewis thinks, “neuters” might tolerable – in the “ant-hill” of the city or factory. In the church, though, “we must return to reality,” and in reality we are not interchangeable, “homogenous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body.”

The purpose of creation itself is called into question: “One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.”

He argues that “Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all.”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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