C.S. Lewis & Liturgical Innovation

C S LewisApart from being a great literary figure, C.S. Lewis was, of course, a devout and committed Christian. Though an Anglican, he was never partisan and can be, and is, read with profit by Catholics. The recent controversy about Fr  William Rowe, in Illinois – who offered his resignation when taken to task by his bishop (and not for the first time) for habitually changing the words of the Mass and making up his own prayers – brought back to mind some reflections offered by Lewis in his excellent little book, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm.

So rather than offer my own commentary on Fr Rowe and the practice by some priests of constantly tampering with the liturgical rites, it seemed better to remind us of some of Lewis’ observations. They were first made in the early 1960s but are as relevant today as then. In light of what was soon to follow, they verge on prophetic. That these are the observations of a layman give them an added force.

It looks as if they [ie clergymen] 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 hidebound? 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 dancing but only learning to dance. A good show is a shoe you do not 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. … Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. …

It may well be that some variations which seem to me merely matters of taste really involve grave doctrinal differences. … I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occured gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little. … Yet we all want to be tinkering. …

Lewis makes some profound and fundamental points about liturgical worship and the role of ritual. The liturgy should focus our attention on God, not ourselves, and certainly not on the celebrant. Even his homily should be revealing more about God than about himself (oh those stories about his travels, encounters, friends and childhood – occasionally illuminating, but all too often self-indulgent). None of us, celebrant included, comes to church to do something with the liturgy, but to let the liturgy do something with us.

Lewis moves on to personal prayer, but his observations about the use of “ready-made” prayers in our private devotions has a relevance to public, liturgical devotion, especially in light of Fr Rowe’s fondness for ad-libbing liturgical prayers and texts. On the use of these “set-texts” in prayer (and so in worship) Lewis maintains that,

[f]irst, it keeps me in touch with ‘sound doctrine’. Left to oneself, once could easily slide away from ‘the faith once given’ into a phantom called ‘my religion’.

Secondly, it reminds me ‘what things I ought to ask’ (perhaps especially when I am praying for other people). The crisi of the present moment, like the nearest telegraph post, will always loom largest. Isn’t there a danger that out great, permanent, objective necessities – often more important – may get crowded out? By the way, that’s another thing to be avoided in a revised Prayer Book. ‘Contemporary problems’ may claim an undue share. And the more ‘up to date’ the Book is, the sooner it will be dated.

This insight could be usefully applied to the common practice of in-house composition by individuals of intercessions for the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Often many ramble on, offering virtual party-political statements at times, addressed more to the congregation than to God, and very often seeking to be ‘relevant’. When done well, bidding prayers can be very enriching; when done poorly they were best not done at all!

Lastly, going back earlier, Lewis’ point about innovation as a means to “luring” people to church deserves some reflection. In seeking to make liturgy ‘relevant’ to those who do not come, we can end up marginalising those who do come. The sad truth is that, for this reason but indeed for other reasons as well, these (illicit) innovations have not crowded our churches. A pathetic percentage of Catholics actually attends Mass. The reason is less to do with an inaccessible liturgy than with a more general crisis in faith. Our worship is the fruit of our faith; if our faith is lacking, then so too will our desire to worship. If the quality of our faith is lacking, so too will the quality of our worship. By attempting to lure the unready into church with the baubles of novelty, all we do is draw an audience united in the desire for diversion or entertainment, not a congregation united in faith and drawn for worship. If the Church’s liturgy means so little to some Catholics, then the remedy is not to make changes to the liturgy, but to seek change within those Catholics so that they can appreciate their need to worship God, and do so at one with the Church. No doubt this is one of the tasks set for the Pope’s New Evangelization.

15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis & Liturgical Innovation

  1. Your observations and those of C S Lewis I believe apply very much to the post vatican 2 liturgical changes in the Mass. Pope Benedict has observed that these were not an organic development from the immediate predecessor, as had occurred gradually over centuries before, but an entirely new construct. Before Vat II you entered the church and your gaze was conducted by the central aisle to the raised sanctuary where stood the raised altar and the central focal point containing the tabernacle, where Christ resided in protective custody,a voluntary prisoner of His creatures, (unfathomable humility !) Then our priests led us the church militant, forward ad orientem to meet the approaching Lord. Now we gather like a rugby team gathered in a circular huddle before the match. Now the central focal point is the “president” gazing down upon his subjects from his throne. My point is that the symbolism is all wrong. I have a friend here in Sydney who is an active member of the traditional Anglican communion and my researching of that body on the internet gives me the distinct impression that the liturgical forms are very much pre-Vat II, which I grew to love whilst at Douai from 1937 to 1942 and have missed so much since.
    Congratulations on your running of this website. You may recall we had a brief meeting in 2003 when I visited for a weekend retreat.
    Ad multos annos,

    Hugh Ivens.


    1. Dear Hugh,

      We meet again, if only in the cyber-ether. Pax.

      You have pout your finger on what, sadly enough, made Lewis’ words so prophetic. In the world of the 60s, dominated by the newly-exalted concrete and plastic, we seemed that everything could be constructed at will, and sadly that included the liturgy. The proof of the dangerous path that was trod lay not so much in the construction per se (after all, most individual elements had an ancient pedigree) but in its presumably unintended result of focusing on the celebrant. As you say, the symbolism was all wrong; or the dynamic was awry, to put it another way. In the process a new strain was put on celebrants, who now had to be ‘creative’ constantly, and add something new. I referenced last year a priest on a far northern mission who felt liberated by the new translation and its concurrent impetus to stick to the book.

      They talk about priests being put on pedestals before the council; they are even more so after it, how ever much they try to de-clericalise. You can take the collar off, but a priest is just as much a priest as always. Perhaps it is a worse type of clericalism that a priest might feel he can decide when and where he can appear as a priest. It is not a job, after all – it is a life.

      Blessings on you!


  2. “Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity.” Are you willing to quote those words to the mother who brings her 12-year-old daughter to church on a Sunday morning to proclaim together their belief that “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”? The girl turns to her mother and asks, “Didn’t Jesus come to save women and children too?” What would C.S. Lewis have the mother answer– “Yes, dear, you and I are ‘men'”? It’s absurd for them to call themselves men.

    Be realistic: not all change in liturgy is “tinkering.” Some change is essential to reception of the Gospel as inclusive, to clarify its meaning in the language we actually use to communicate. Foolish consistency, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, is the hobgoblin of little minds–misogynist minds of churchmen included.

    On many occasions, no doubt, we offend God with our sexism, but now the Church commands us to add insult to sin by calling some of those occasions “prayer.” “[A] congregation united in faith and drawn for worship” must take seriously the departure of so many for whom the new translation of the Roman Missal is not unifying but divisive, a wholly unnecessary and deeply alienating distraction from worship. Thank God for the priests who have the Christian good sense to amend it!


    1. You would do Lewis a disservice to apply his statement to every minute detail of liturgy. Change he accepts, but feels it should be wholly necessary and sparingly done. He would have no problem with the entire Church making such changes. The whole point of his observations was that he objected to individual priests changing things by their own authority according to their own, often too ephemeral, lights. That you commend the handful of priests who change the words of the Missal themselves would indeed draw Lewis’ frown. They of course show scant regard for the principles of the liturgy and exhibit the worst form of clericalism: I can do what I think best because I know better.

      That “so many” are departing because of the new translation is news to me. And if they left the practice of the faith because they do not like the style of English used then I would have serious questions to ask them about why they were coming to Mass in the first place. When younger, I had to put up with overweight, middle-aged women gyrating in flowing gowns in something called liturgical dance, that was barely short of blasphemous, had no warrant nor place in Christian liturgy, and was but poorly-disguised exhibitionism. Still I went to Mass. God still must be worshipped in the Church, even if surrounded by people who seem to want the focus on themselves. I didn’t like it; I had no choice for quite some time. Abandoning Mass was a not an option.

      I agree that at times we may have offended God by our sexism, though I suspect we would differ on the examples of it we would give. But I expect we have offended him equally by ascribing to him every latest example of social ‘progress’ and far too many secular dogmas. If we are not united in worship we are nothing as the Church. And yes, it is a matter of words. Infelicities and mis-steps notwithstanding, I would rather have unity in truth than anything else when it comes to worship. So too, I suspect, does the majority of the Church.



      1. ” What does it profit a MAN if HE gains the whole world and suffers the loss of HIS own soul.” Is this sexist ? Does it imply that women have more fiscal responsibility than men.?
        To be fair however, in the text ” Qui propter nos homines….”,where the noun HOMO was used and not VIR,a more sensitive translation would have been HUMAN BEINGS.


    2. Yes, MVC!
      I KNOW Fr. Bill.
      He was not tinkering, nor multiplying words….
      He was PRAYING!!!!!!!!!!!!! … and making it easy for everyone to follow and to share in the prayer. The people attending the Mass come from a variety of intellectual levels and ages… This parish is in a college town. Medical doctors, students from the college, including foreign exchange, housewives, auto mechanics, farmers, children who attend public school, and the parish school K-8, and people with special needs, elderly, disabled. Actually, I know people who would not go to Mass/Church, except with Fr. Bill. There was a small vocal minority in the parish who did not love him. The people knew him and love him. He was very active in the parish, the school and in the community. You will not find a more Christ-like man in this world!
      He was all about unity, peace, understanding and common sense.


      1. From the outset, let me assure you that no comment is being made on Fr Bill’s compassion or character. I know nothing about him, and I have no reason to think that he is not a kind and considerate man. Indeed I would happily accept that he is such a person.

        But that is not the point. In fact Teresa, what you said gives the key to what is wrong with what Fr Bill does.

        Actually, I know people who would not go to Mass/Church, except with Fr. Bill.

        That people would only go to Mass if Fr Bill were saying suggests very strongly that they were going for reasons other than (1) to fulfil their Christian duty to (2) worship God by uniting themselves with Christ’s sacrifice. To go because you like the priest, and not to go for any other priest is an appalling state of affairs. Priesthood is not a popularity contest; and popularity is not necessarily a goo indicator of a priest’s ministry. A priest is ordained to serve the Church, the universal Church and not just its local expression in a parish. When parishes start doing their own thing then there is impaired unity with the rest of the Church.

        The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, the unity of the WHOLE Church. This is why it is important to stick to the book, as it ensures that we are all, no matter what languages, united in the content of our prayers. The Mass is not just about the group gathered together for a particular celebration of the Mass. That local congregation only has meaning in its unity with the universal Church.

        Your parish is not unique; your description of the various types of people who make it up could be used by thousands of other parishes. I am sorry, but your parish is no more special than any other.

        I balk at saying it, but it could appear to be an act of ego for him to think that “I” could make the texts more understandable. You say he was not tinkering, but the example I saw in the press coverage of his changing the Sunday collect was clearly tinkering, and in fact worse than tinkering: his prayer had a totally different meaning to the original (indeed his prayer was a statement, not a request at all). And are you suggesting, when you say “he was PRAYING!!!!!!!” that no other priest who faithfully follows the Missal is not praying? What an insult to the rest of up priests. Does Fr Bill really know better than the rest of the Church? Some truths cannot be put into simple words without making them simplistic and warping their meaning. If we do not understand something the first time we hear it, that does not matter. You will hear these prayers again and again, and in time (if you have not already asked someone what they might mean) they will become clear. And of course, the prayers are addressed to God, not the people.

        So while I can rejoice that Fr Bill was obviously a conscientious pastor in your parish, nevertheless he has made serious and illegal changes to the Mass, and refused to amend even at the direction of his bishop, to whom he has made a solemn promise of obedience at ordination. Fr Bill disobeyed the previous bishop as well. At some stage the bishop must say, “Enough”. Now he has, and Fr Bill has no right to complain given the many years he was given to amend. But we should all certainly keep him our prayers, and pray that he lives out the rest of his priestly ministry in joy, in obedience to the Church, so that he can bear more fruit to God’s glory.



  3. A more *accurate* translation is “human beings,” whether we examine the Latin homines (rather than vir) or the Greek of the Nicene Creed, anthropoi (rather than andros). Given the enforced inaccuracies of translation into English, we must question the motives for retaining archaic, gender-exclusive wordings. I offer the argument having to do with the girl’s self-image and sense of exclusion from Christ’s gift of salvation only after churchmen reject the plain, straight-forward, common-sense “women and girls are not men” observation about clarity. What does it profit us if we gain an enduring liturgy and suffer the loss of our integrity?


  4. It is quite true that in widespread modern usage “man” is not an ideal translation of “homo”. However, historically it has been quite acceptable, and only ceased to be so from about the 1970s. Is that an argument for retaining it in the revised Missal? No. To be honest I wish that, instead of substituting the inelegant “us human beings” for “nos homines”, the translators had just omitted it and left it as “us”. I wonder if some on the translation committee were so antagonised by the gender-inclusive lobby that they saw including “men” as a blow against that militant lobby. That is just a wondering on my part; I have no evidence of it.

    However, there are not many, if any, girls who take such interest in the words of the creed that their self-image might be imperilled by the use of “men” in the creed. Nor boys for that matter. That argument is emotive and unrealistic. Moreover, what are we to do with the literature that pre-dates, say, 1970. and which liberally uses “man” to refer to humanity? Do we ban the reading of it by young people out of fear that their self-image might be damaged? If so, we will end up with a generation with no historical perspective at all and which unthinkingly accepts modernity as the sum total of society and culture.

    One thing is quite clear to anyone who has taught children – their facility for language is prodigious. That is why so many schools now teach foreign languages from the age of about 5. The child’s brain soaks it up like a sponge. Moreover, children have a natural inquisitiveness free from bias (save perhaps that soaked up from loudly opinionated family members) which allows them to cope quite easily with the idea that a word used to mean something other than what it does today.


    1. About the allegedly gender-neutral “man,” of course you’re right that “historically it has been quite acceptable, and only ceased to be so from about the 1970s.” First, the 1970s are forty years past, and schools and colleges have taught inclusive language most of that time. The times they’ve been ‘a-changin,” as Bob Dylan once sang; today, young people, along with many others, expect to speak and write gender-inclusive language. Second, your noting that readers “cope quite easily with the idea that a word used to mean something other than what it does today” is sufficient answer to your question whether we should “ban the reading of [older literature] by young people out of fear that their self-image might be damaged.” We all understand that sexist standards prevailed for centuries and that they no longer prevail in Standard Written English. The problem arises when a church document like Liturgiam Authenticam enforces such archaic usages more than a generation after we acknowledged the psychological harm done to previous generations and long after our secular institutions have discarded them.

      I completely agree that the translators should have left “nos homines” as “us”; further, they should have taken the ELLC route of translating “et homo factus est” as “became truly human”– a far more accurate translation–one which does not imprint Christ’s maleness on the doctrine of the Incarnation. In full, the ELLC lines read “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” When this elegant and clear language was readily available to Vox Clara and the bishops, one must question their motives in opting for a stumbling, at best ambiguous, sexist translation instead.

      I suspect that you are correct also in surmising that their motive was political, to strike out at a feminist “lobby” and to drive such women from the Church. They have succeeded in that. But they’ve also succeeded in strengthening, among conscientious women and men whom they’ve driven away, incentives for thorough-going reform of a Church much in need of various reforms.

      Finally, there’s nothing “emotive” in the arguments for avoiding gender-exclusive language. Most of them are reductio ad absurdum arguments, based on linguistics, on the difficulties of disambiguating the allegedly gender-neutral “man/men” and “he/him/his.” The 12-year-old girl cannot be duped into thinking that she and her mother are “men.” Surely, she is not “imperilled” by it, but only because she quickly sees through to the attitude that motivates keeping it in place.


      1. For some reason I failed to answer your latest comment – forgive me, and I shall now.

        I was educated in the late 1970s and 1980s, in a Jesuit school in Sydney. We were not taught inclusive language at all. The teaching of inclusive language has not been as universal as you claim. IN fact for a couple of years I have assisted with some chaplaincy work at a famous school not too far from us, and they certainly even now do not use inclusive language. There are women who come to our Sunday Mass precisely because (among other reasons) they will not hear inclusive language in the scripture or Missal. When preaching, most of us will make the effort to avoid unnecessary gender specificity, and make the further effort to ensure that our inclusivity is grammatically correct.

        Alas, you continue to assert that non-inclusive language causes “psychological harm”, even though you accept in the paragraph before that people can indeed work out what the particular use of a word implies. Otherwise we must have had century upon century of psychologically harmed people, damaged by hearing “man” instead of “human persons”. I will not accept it, and history proves it to be false.

        You tentatively agree with me when I suspect a degree of political motivation in some of the translations, but I never claimed that it sought to “drive such women from the Church”. That is patently false, an almost hysterical argument that deserves no further attention.

        While I agree that some of the non-inclusive translations could have easily been avoided without damage to doctrine or acquiescence in any feminist agenda, and probably regret they were included, the fact remains that this is the prayer of the Church and we have no right to change it. In the previous Missal there were “translations” so bad that they mauled the meaning and content of the original prayer, often using banal and trite language. I hated it. But I used it, because it was not my place to change the official texts of the Church’s worship. The new Missal is faithful to the prayers that the rest of the Church is offering, and I am happy with that. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

        Peace to you.


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