Charles Williams and the Order of Co-Inherence

by Peter Cawley

"About this time there grew, throughout Logres, a new company..."

In 1917 Charges Williams, publishers' clerk and aspiring poet, was initiated into the Fellowship of the True Rosy Cross. The Fellowship was a mystical ritualistic group formed by A.E. Waite in 1916 out of his earlier Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn had separated from the Order of the Stella Matutina shortly after that group’s split from the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn in 1901. Charles Williams always spoke of himself of having belonged to the Golden Dawn. He stayed with the Fellowship for about five years. What he learned in the Fellowship stayed with him much longer.

Charles Williams, with a taste for rite and ceremony developed in the High Church section of the Church of England, involved himself in the rituals of the Fellowship wholeheartedly. He wrote:

"One of the advantages of ceremony, rightly used, is that it gives a place to self-consciousness, and a means whereby self-consciousness may be lost in the consciousness of the office filled or the ritual carried out."

He reported to student Anne Ridler that he always learned the words of a ritual by heart in order to participate with dignity; other members read the words from a script. For many years after he left the Fellowship, he kept his ritual working tools, including a sword, in his office. He also retained his knowledge of the symbolism of magic and the occult, and drew heavily on this knowledge in his novels and poems.

While a member of the Fellowship, and for some years after, Williams conducted evening classes on English Literature at the London City Literary Institute and the Balham Commercial Institute. The subject of these classes was usually poetry; but a blending of charismatic presentation, sympathetic student-involving discussions, and rather unorthodox theology drew a small but enthusiastic following of students around Williams. He became an informal Spiritual Director for many of these students. Some students requested the formation of an Order of Co-Inherence to formalise the spiritual practice that grew out of the discussions. Reluctantly, after much consideration, Williams agreed that those who wished to do so might regard themselves Companions. This Order became the prototype for the Company described in the "The Founding of the Company" in the poem The Region of the Summer Stars.

The concept of co-inherence was buttressed by Dante's Romantic Theological notion (depicted in Waite's Tarot card, The Lovers), that lovers should see in each other a reflection of God. For Williams this meant following the Way of Affirmation; that worldly love and the delights of creation were the correct starting places for the inner journey. The Via Negativa, the ascetic way, was firmly rejected. The main task for the Companions of the Order of Co-Inherence is the practical application of these ideas to daily living through the doctrines of Exchange and Substitution.

The Order of Co-Inherence was envisaged as an order of the Christian Church, but an order with an absolute minimum of rules. Williams believed that any person could become a Companion at any time or in any place by simply accepting and practicing the basic tenet of co-inherence. While co-inherence, and the beliefs that flowed from it, was associated with Christian doctrine in the mind of Williams, the occult influence flowing through the Fellowship of the True Rosy Cross is also apparent. Compare Williams' simple criteria for Companionship in the Order of Co-Inherence with admission into the Holy Assembly as described in A.E. Waite's Hidden Church of the Holy Grail:

"There are no admissions-at least of the ceremonial kind... in the last instance the candidate inducts himself .. (The Holy Assembly) does not come down... it draws up, but it also inheres."

The ideal of co-inherence can be included, with profit, into the belief system of the sincere non-Christian occultist. The principles hold true independent of any formal religious system; the practices have the potential to become the basis of powerful therapeutic magical operations.

Simply stated, co-inherence is the concept that all human beings are spiritually interconnected and totally dependent on each other. "No man is an island" and so every thought and every action affects other people. In another terminology, humanity shares a "vast spiritual reservoir".

Williams took some trouble to emphasize that effective Exchange and Substitution did not require "intense states of natural love" or the "most advanced sacrificial victims of religion", but rather, could be implemented by "ourselves" and "the ordinary man". It operates in ordinary life, and does not require faith, but only "the first faint motions of faith". In the novel, Descent Into Hell Williams graphically dramatized the application and scope of exchange and substitution.

The practice of exchange and substitution implies that one can take, by a mutual agreement or compact, the mental, emotional or physical burdens of another. In Descent Into Hell Pauline allows her obsessive fear to be taken on by Peter Stanhope (an idealized Charles Williams figure). This exchange is presented as being comparable to allowing a friend to carry a parcel. The fear is a burden to Pauline because she has become overwhelmed by it: its assumption is a relatively small concern to someone who has his or her own inner state well regulated in that regard. As Williams pointed out elsewhere: "one may practice a virtue on behalf of another more easily than for ones self". The exchange does not have to be reciprocal with a specific person or for a similar kind of need. In the novel, an unburdened Pauline goes on to help the earthbound soul of a recent suicide, and, reaching further back in time, takes on the death of an ancestor, permitting him to die an exemplary death.

The actual mechanism of substitution and exchange is simple, though not always easy. The greatest obstacle, as any counsellor can testify, is often the unwillingness of the sufferer to let go of the root cause of their pain. It is important that the compact of exchange be mutual, particularly on the part of the sufferer. After the initial sympathetic exchange, the substitute is imagined as experiencing the symptoms instead. The substitute in turn privately visualizes the situation and accepts the pain and negativity. Because the substitute is more detached from the physical and emotional history of the suffer, the emotions are more easily balanced and the pain better endured.

As the practical working out of substitution and exchange is in the imagination and on the astral level, neither time nor distances are obstacles to its implementation. A change can be effected on the past from the present time using this technique. The main difficulty would lie in reaching a mutual consent across time. All the ethical aspects of the situation, especially with regard to the karmic responsibilities of others, would also require careful consideration. However, self-therapy, working on ones own time-line to modify past trauma from a balanced stance in the present, is a safe and profitable exercise.

Charles Williams warned of some dangers in the practice of exchange and substitution. Chief amongst these is "pretentiousness". Amazing feats and wonderworking are to be avoided: the Order of Co-Inherence is not to become a backdrop for ego-trips. Nor is anything to be promised that obviously can not be done. Williams emphasized the wisdom of beginning with the practice of small things: "To begin by practicing faith where it is easiest is better than to try and practice it where it is hardest". However, he also added: "There is little that could not be done". For the Qabalist who has acquired the skill of balancing internal forces before acting, this is especially true.

As Companions of the Order of Co-Inherence say to each other as they go their separate ways: "Under the Protection!"


Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, New York, 1978.

Gareth Knight, The Magical World of the Inklings, Element Books, Longmead, 1990.

Anne Ridler, "Introduction", in Charles Williams, The Image of the City and Other Essays: Selected by Anne Ridler with a Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1970.

Charles Williams, Taliesin Through Logres: The Region of the Summer Stars: Arthurian Torso, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1974.

Charles Williams, "The Way of Exchange", in The Image of the City and Other Essays: Selected by Anne Ridler with a Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1958.

© Copyright Peter Cawley 1991, minor revisions 1999.
 Used by Permission.
 Adapted from Round Merlin's Table America, Summer/Fall 1991