The first time I visited Oxford, in 1982, the porter at Magdalen College didn’t even recognize the name— C. S. Lewis. I had asked him if he could give me directions to Lewis’s former home in Headington Quarry. Obviously he could not and did not.
Things have changed a lot since 1982. Now Lewis is remembered all around Oxford. At the pub where the Inklings met, at Magdalen College, and not least—at his parish church—Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, where a plaque now appears on the pew where C. S. Lewis sat with his brother Warren.
The first time I visited the church I only saw the outside and Lewis’s grave, shared with “Warnie”. Since that first visit I have returned to Holy Trinity a number of times and worshiped there. The church is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the Oxford area.
C. S. “Jack” Lewis’s connection to Holy Trinity Church stretches back to the time even before his return to Christian faith in 1931. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy:
“As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays; not because I believed in Christianity, nor because I thought the difference between it and simple Theism a small one, but because I thought one ought to “fly one’s flag” by some unmistakable overt sign. I was acting in obedience to a (perhaps mistaken) sense of honour. The idea of churchmanship was to me wholly unattractive… though I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo. It was, to begin with, a kind of collective; a wearisome “get-together” affair. I couldn’t yet see how a concern of that sort should have anything to do with one’s spiritual life. To me, religion ought to have been a matter of good men praying alone and meeting by twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters. And then the fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! The bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing. Hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me. Of all musical instruments I liked (and like) the organ least. I have, too, a sort of spiritual gaucherie which makes me unapt to participate in any rite” (1).
It occurs to me that this paragraph is a good description of Lewis’s attitude toward attendance at his parish church not only at the beginning of his Christian life but right the way through to the end. Lewis’s first mention in his letters, of attendance at his parish church, was in a letter to Arthur Greeves written on January 10, 1931 (2). This, along with other references in Lewis’s letters and Warnie’s diary, provides some proof, if we needed any, that he did indeed begin attendance at college chapel and at his parish church after becoming a theist in Trinity Term of 1929 and prior to his return to full-bodied Christian faith in September 1931.
However, Lewis’s references to church attendance became more frequent in his letters after his conversion. On October 24, 1931 Lewis wrote to his brother about a pleasant tea time with the Reverend Wilfrid Savage Thomas, Vicar of Holy Trinity from 1924 to 1935 (3). Judging by Lewis’s references to Thomas in his letters, and Warnie’s references in his diary, both the Lewis brothers were, on the whole, pleased with Thomas as their vicar.
It is also clear from Jack’s letters and Warnie’s diary that in the early 1930’s both of the brothers did not take Holy Communion every Sunday. Both Jack and Warnie came back to faith in Christ around the same time, toward the end of 1931. And both took Communion again for the first time on the exact same day — Christmas 1931 — though Jack was at Holy Trinity Headington Quarry and Warnie was in Shanghai (4). Warnie planned at that time to henceforth take Communion four times per year. Jack, for his part, was displeased with the vicar trying to “make it a rule that you must communicate if you want to hear a sermon” (5). In other words, in his early days as a Christian Jack preferred to attend church services without always taking Communion. Warnie later summarized Jack’s early and later attitudes toward Communion in this way:
“… he had been a practising Christian again for some time when he said to me, of Communion: ‘I think that to communicate once a month strikes the right balance between enthusiasm and Laodiceanism.’ In later years he saw that ‘right balance’ differently and never failed to communicate weekly and on the major feast days as well” (6).
Jack summarized his own early view on the taking of Communion in a letter to his brother on January 17, 1932:
“I see (or think I see) so well a sense in which all wine is the blood of God—or all matter, even, the body of God, that I stumble at the apparently special sense in which this is claimed for the Host when consecrated. George Macdonald observes that the good man should aim at reaching the state of mind in which all meals are sacraments. Now that is the sort of thing I can understand: but I find no connection between it and the explicit ‘sacrament’ proprement dit” (7).
If Jack and Warnie were generally pleased with the Reverend Thomas as their vicar, they were certainly less delighted with his successor, the Reverend T. E. ‘Peter’ Bleiben. On September 10, 1939, one week after England declared war on Germany, Jack wrote to Warnie, reporting how unhappy he was with an extra petition which Bleiben added to the Litany that morning: “Prosper, oh Lord, our righteous cause.” Jack protested to the vicar regarding “the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous—a point on which He may have His own view” (8).
It was on July 21, 1940, during a not too profitable sermon from the curate of Holy Trinity, The Reverend Arthur William Blanchett, that Jack was struck with the idea for a book which eventually became The Screwtape Letters (9). Screwtape’s second letter to Wormwood no doubt reflects some of Jack’s own experience in attending church services. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that when his patient goes inside the church building…
“… he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. …Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. …Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman” (10).
If this was reflective of Jack’s own experience in attending church then it seems natural to ask: why did he keep going? When asked during a “One Man’s Brain Trust” in 1944, “Is attendance at a place of worship or membership with a Christian community necessary to a Christian way of life?” Lewis answered:
“My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target. It is extraordinary how inconvenient to your family it becomes for you to get up early to go to Church. It doesn’t matter so much if you get up early for anything else, but if you get up early to go to Church it’s very selfish of you and you upset the house. If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit” (11).
Jack did indeed face opposition to his church attendance on the home front. Mrs. Moore would often taunt him on his return home each Sunday. “Back from the blood feast” she would say (12). Yet Jack did indeed continue on with church attendance, Mrs. Moore and boring sermons notwithstanding.
By 1940 Jack and Warnie even had their favorite pew at Holy Trinity. Near the front of the church on the left-hand side as one faces the altar was a pew beside a pillar just large enough to accommodate the two brothers (13). However, on Easter Sunday in 1940 there were so many people in church that Jack had to sit on the other side of the pillar and tightly wedged against it with his bottom resting on the angle at the end of the bench (14)! Apparently this was the general location in which the Lewis brothers sat for the rest of their church-going lives.
In a tape recording entitled Two People of the Foothills: Reminiscences of C. S. Lewis by the Reverend Canon R. E. Head, Vicar of Holy Trinity from 1956-1990, Lewis’s former pastor recalled the Lewis brothers sitting in the two-person pew next to the pillar. Head said that the Lewis brothers sat in that position so that they could see the altar and the pulpit but not be noticed by the rest of the congregation.
Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s step-son, who attended church with his step-father throughout the last decade of his life, remembers Jack sitting in a different place. In 1997 when Doug showed our mostly-American tour group around Holy Trinity Church he happened to mention to me how Jack sat behind the pillar during the service so that his facial expression could not be seen by the vicar, Ron Head.
“Was that because he disagreed with the vicar’s theology?” I asked.
“No,” said Doug. “It was not so much Ron’s basic theology that Jack objected to, but the slants that he put on it. Ron was a fine scholar of church history and by intellect a High Church Anglican. However, in his sermons there were often many things that would cause a spasm of pain or perhaps a look of total boredom to cross Jack’s face. Sitting as he did out of sight of Ron, Jack could yawn if he had to without causing pain to a man whom he regarded as something of a bore, one who had become lost in the trivial aspects of his calling whilst ignoring some of the essential ones. Ron was a very nice and indeed I think a good man and none of us would have hurt him for the world.”
In fact Jack referred to Ron Head as “a very trying curate” in a letter written to Mrs. Mary Van Deusen on April 22, 1954 (15). Head was curate at Holy Trinity from 1952 to 1956, prior to serving as vicar. On December 28, 1953, Lewis wrote to the same Mrs. Van Deusen and said:
“I think someone ought to write a book on ‘Christian life for Laymen under a bad Parish Preist’ for the problem is bound to occur in the best churches. The motto wd. be of course Herbert’s lines about the sermon ‘If all lack sense, God takes a text and preaches patience’” (16).
At that time Lewis was suffering from “the virtual extinction of Morning Prayer in favour of an 11 o’clock Celebration.” When Ron Head arrived at Holy Trinity Church Holy Communion was celebrated at 8 a.m. and Morning Prayer at 11 a.m. Lewis preferred the early service because there were no hymns. Head was responsible for reversing the times of these services, an action which Lewis found irritating though not impossible to submit to. Lewis wrote to Van Deusen,
“Perhaps we are put under tiresome priests chiefly to give us the opportunity of learning this beautiful & happy virtue: so that if we use the situation well we can profit more, perhaps, than we shd. have done under a better man” (17).
In our own age in which “church shopping” is so prevalent we have much to learn from the unwavering discipline of C. S. Lewis in regard to church attendance. Despite the fact that Lewis seldom “got anything out of” the sermons in his parish church, he never went looking for another congregation. He believed in attending services at the church closest to his home and that was that. Lewis was determined to go to church, not for what he could get out of it, but for what he could put in, namely—worship. Lewis understood well the temptation of searching for a church that would “suit” him; he once delineated this temptation in another letter from Screwtape to Wormwood:
“My dear Wormwood,
You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches” (18).
C. S. Lewis was determined not to become such a “connoisseur of churches”. As he wrote to Mary Van Deusen, “Is there not something especially good (and even, in the end, joyful) about mere obedience (in lawful things) to him who bears our Master’s authority, however unworthy he be—perhaps all the more, if he is unworthy?”
In summary it is evident that C. S. Lewis faced the same temptations that every Christian faces who attends church for many years. What sets Lewis apart from most of us is that he learned how to resist those temptations; and thereby he gained certain lifelong and perhaps eternal benefits from attending the same parish church for all of his Christian life. With regard to church attendance, as in so many other areas of Christian experience, we have much indeed to learn from this famous apologist and fellow pilgrim.
Will Vaus is the author of Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis and The Professor of Narnia: the C. S. Lewis Story. You can find him on the internet at www.willvaus.com.
1. Lewis, C. S., Surprised by Joy, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955, pp. 220-221.
2. Ibid., p. 948.
3. Hooper, Walter, editor, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II, New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 2.
4. Ibid., p. 30. See also Kilby, Clyde S. & Mead, Marjorie Lamp, editors, Brothers & Friends, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 92-93.
5. Collected Letters, Volume II, pp. 8-9.
6. Lewis, W. H., editor, Letters of C. S. Lewis, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, p. 19.
7. Collected Letters, Volume II, p. 43.
8. Ibid., p. 272.
9. Ibid., p. 426.
10. Lewis, C. S., The Screwtape Letters, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942, pp. 15-17.
11. Hooper, Walter, editor, God in the Dock, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, pp. 61-62.
12. Griffin, William, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, p. 176.
13. Collected Letters, Volume II, p. 365.
14. Ibid., p. 377.
15. Ibid., p. 463.
16. Ibid., p. 397.
18. Screwtape Letters, p. 81.