C.S. Lewis put his priest in an awkward position, relying on him to perform a wedding ceremony that was contrary to church rules—for at least two reasons. (More on this below.)
I performed a wedding this past weekend. Clergy commonly say “I married so-and-so,” but that phrase sometimes leads to confusion, and occasionally elicits snickers.
At any rate, I’m marrying fewer couples now that I’m semi-retired. Serving as a military chaplain, with a youngish population, I sometimes got weighed down by the number of requests to conduct wedding ceremonies. That’s no longer the case, although ironically both bride and groom in this case are on active duty in the United States armed forces (the Air Force and Army respectively).
The reason I allude to weddings being a bit of a burden, is that—for the conscientious pastor, which I strive, imperfectly, to be—they involve far more than the ceremony itself.
The majority of pastors I know require premarital counseling . . . and that requires time. It may come as a shock to some, but pastors don’t schedule those counseling sessions for their own benefit. Pastors provide them (and even require them) for the benefit of the couple. It’s called “pastoral care,” and decently done, it can only enhance the chances for a marriage’s success.
This was one of those wonderful weddings where I am quite confident the couple will live happily ever after. I really don’t mean to be trite, but they have the qualifications that strongly influence marital success, e.g. emotional maturity and a shared faith in Christ (who will be the cornerstone of their union, just as he is of the Church).
They understand, insofar as our finite minds are capable, that God truly has accomplished the miracle of making of the two of them a single flesh. And now they are living out that adventure.
So, as I write this post my thoughts are not about Independence Day (although it is the fourth day of July). Instead I’ve been rereading the story of C.S. Lewis’ two weddings with Joy Davidman. Their initial union was a sham, in the sense that it was a legal act conducted for ulterior reasons (circumventing immigration laws).
And this fact, that they were not married with the intention of truly being husband and wife, is one reason to validly question the validity of the very act.
If you’ve never read about Joy, or at least viewed the film Shadowlands, you are missing out on a fascinating story . . . and you lack familiarity with one of the most important elements of C.S. Lewis’ life. I’ve briefly discussed Lewis and Joy at Mere Inkling in the past, including “Dating Like an Inkling” and “C.S. Lewis and Women.”
When the two of them married, it was in a purely civil ceremony, on 23 April 1945, in Oxford. Naturally, they continued to live separately.
Only after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer did Lewis realize he had fallen in love. He accordingly sought to make of their fiction a true marriage. This meant, for Lewis and Joy, marrying “in the church.”
Unfortunately, the Church of England would not sanction the marriage, since Joy was divorced. (The fact that her husband, William Gresham was a serial adulterer did not excuse that fact.)
And thus we arrive at the focus of my reflection.
Since the church could not officially bless his marriage, Lewis turned to an Anglican priest who was a former student and a personal friend. His name was Peter Bide.
I suspected that the Reverend Bide needed to give the request some prayerful consideration. After all, a pastor does not “bend” the practices of the church (and faith) he represents without serious reflection. Still, Christian ministers do possess what is referred to as pastoral discretion.
The concept is already developed in early Christian theology. In the Orthodox churches, it is referred to as pastoral economy (οἰκονομία, oikonomia). It relates to the pastoral principle of following the spirit, rather than the strictest letter of the law.*
Joy’s death was thought to be imminent when Bide joined them in marriage at her hospital bedside. Yet, they were blessed with a three year remission of the cancer, and enjoyed some precious time together before its grim return. Bide had initially been asked by Lewis simply to come and pray for her.
In a fascinating letter to Dorothy Sayers, written on the 25th of June, Lewis alludes to this concept while relating his special news.
I ought to tell you my own news. On examination it turned out that Joy’s previous marriage, made in her pre-Christian days, was no marriage: the man had a wife still living. The Bishop of Oxford said it was not the present policy to approve re-marriage in such cases, but that his view did not bind the conscience of any individual priest.
Then dear Father Bide (do you know him?) who had come to lay his hands on Joy—for he has on his record what looks very like one miracle—without being asked and merely on being told the situation at once said he would marry us. So we had a bedside marriage with a nuptial Mass.
It is interesting that Lewis uses the words “without being asked.”
That’s not quite how Bide recalls it.
Fortunately, Bide provided an account of this event, published under the title “Marrying C.S. Lewis.” (The title provides a prime example of what I said earlier about how pastors talk about weddings.) It appears in C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society
When I got there, up to the quarry where he lived, Jack said, ‘Peter, what I’m going to ask you isn’t fair. Do you think you could marry us? I’ve asked the Bishop, I’ve asked all my friends at the faculty here, and none of them will.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t seem to me to be fair. They won’t marry us because Joy was divorced, but the man she married in the first place was a divorced man, so in the eyes of the church, surely there isn’t any marriage anyway. What are they making all this fuss about?’
Well, I must admit that I had always thought that the Church of England’s attitude to marriage was untenable. They rested everything upon the promises given in the marriage service, and said that they couldn’t possibly be repeated elsewhere. However, there was one exception. If the man turned out not to be able to consummate the marriage, then a Decree of Nullity would go through the courts and be recognized by the church. This made the whole thing collapse in my view. I mean, if you promise for better or worse, and non-consummation isn’t for worse, I don’t know what is.
On the other hand, I went to a minor public school, and a public school is a terrible place not least because it gives you a lasting fear of authority. ‘The headmaster wants to see you.’ And that lasts all through life—I’ve never got rid of it totally. And so the fact that there were church laws by the dozen which forbade me to do anything of the sort really worried me. I mean it worried me because it wasn’t something that I just thought was a superficial thing, something I could just push to one side. I wasn’t in my own parish, I wasn’t in my own diocese. What right had I to go charging into a situation like this which everybody else had refused to have anything to do with?
Well, I know you’ll probably find this a rather corny thing, but after long cogitations—and it took me the best part of an hour—I said to myself, ‘What would He [Jesus] have done?’ and then there wasn’t any further answer at all. Of course He would have married them, wouldn’t He? Would He have regarded the law and everything else above the expression of love which this woman had made both towards the church and Himself and to her future husband? And so I married them in the hospital, with Warnie and the ward sister as witnesses.
Bide continues, expressing his frustration at how differing versions of the story have proliferated, while the truth of the matter has been left unexplored.
I don’t understand this, I never have . . . but that is the story, and what you see in Shadowlands has little or nothing to do with it. It made me very cross that there have been about six different treatments of this episode in the course of the last ten years and nobody has ever come and asked me what happened. It strikes me as absolutely extraordinary.
A.N. Wilson went all the way to America to talk to somebody who had talked to me: an expensive journey, when he could have walked down the road and found me himself. It’s a very odd thing, but now you know what the truth is.
Reverend Bide died in 2003, and his obituary includes some fascinating facts. I had not realized that, like Joy, in his early and foolishly idealistic years he too became a communist!
The article in The Telegraph describes his reprimand by the Bishop of Oxford, and the gentler correction offered by his own bishop. And it uses a word rarely seen in the United States to describe the episode.
A year at Wells Theological College was followed by ordination at Chichester in 1949 and appointment to a curacy at Portslade with Hangleton, near Hove. His dynamic ministry there led to the creation of a separate Hangleton parish, with himself as its first vicar since the Middle Ages. Then came the contretemps over the Lewis/Davidman marriage and his move to Goring-by-Sea in 1957.
It is interesting to note that Bide was no child when he chose to conduct the marriage ceremony. Although he had only been ordained for eight years, he was a veteran of WWII and MI6 before attending seminary.
A Sad Postscript
Lewis and Bide shared the pain of losing their wives the same year. Immediately after learning about Bide’s wife’s death, Lewis wrote the following letter. It provides a fitting conclusion to our reflections on the subject of the contretemps of Lewis’ wedding.
The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford 20 Sept 1960
My dear Peter I have just come in from saying my morning prayers in the wood, including as always one for ‘Peter and Margy and Joy and me,’ and found your letter. I hope they are allowed to meet and help one another. You and I at any rate can. I shall be here on Wed. next. If you could let me have a card mentioning the probable time of your arrival, all the better. If not, I shall just ‘stand by’. Yes–at first one is sort of concussed and ‘life has no taste and no direction.’ One soon discovers, however, that grief is not a state but a process–like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend God bless all four of us.
* Several New Testament passages refer to the “letter of the law,” including Romans 7:6-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.
The photograph above was created by combining images of the real couple with a transparent image of the couple as portrayed in Shadowlands by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.