Ten ways the Church is like Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Church Logo

By Ken Howard & Wendy Dackson

[Simulblogged on FaithX and Past Christian]

It all started a few days ago, when Ken came across an Episcopal Church Meme on Facebook and reposted on his own Facebook page with a comment about how it reminded him of Downton Abbey (and not exactly in a good way). The meme in question, displayed below, showed the Presiding Bishop, along with several other resplendently attired clergy and lay people lined in the National Cathedral nave, with the slogan “Ancient Tradition. Modern Outlook. That’s the Episcopal Church.”


Much to Ken’s surprise, his snarky yet somber comment – that the Church should more than simply the “thoughtful theatre” of Downton Abbey – touched of hours of free association – between Ken, Wendy, and friends – about the many and varied ways in which Downton Abbey could serve as a metaphor for the Church generally, and the Episcopal Church specifically. [scroll to the bottom for Ken’s original comment]

By the time all was said and done, there was enough material for a blog post on the subject. What follows are the several of the ways the Church is like Downton Abbey, the fictional castle, and Downton Abbey, the show.

Way #1
Both are institutions caught between the future and the past, uncertain of their relevance in the present.
 Downton Abbey is a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but its occupants are not entirely certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world – something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing – with some of its inhabitants trying to find relevance by fitting into a much-fantasized future and other trying desperately to hang on to an over-idealized past. Sort of like the Church, right?

Way #2
Both are overly focused on caste, class, and rank.
 At both Downton Abbey and in the Church there is a definite caste system at work, and within each caste, a fiercely protected hierarchy. In Downton, there is the division between the aristocracy and the servants/villagers, and it is especially in the “common” class, the majority, where rank is most obviously important – it’s very important to be an assistant cook rather than a kitchen maid, or to be acknowledged as first In the Church, the caste system is most obviously seen in, but is not limited to, the clergy-lay divide). On the clergy side of the divide, the three ordained orders have morphed from three equally valued vocations into a hierarchical ladder in which too many are reaching for the next rung. And on the lay side, rank is too often reflected in who gets asked to be senior warden, who is “admitted” to the Altar Guild, who gets elected to General Convention, etc.

Way #3
Both are unreflectively obsessed with the preservation of the status quo. 
At Downton Abbey, when the Crawley family fortunes are on the decline, the question is not “how do we deal with changing circumstances?” but “how do we keep things going as they have been?” Meanwhile, the Church is still hanging on to the need to make things look like they did immediately after the Second World War: married with children, and the centerpiece of people’s social lives. This leads on to….

Way #4
Both are pretending to be in a time and place other than those in which they actually exist. 
Highclere Castle, the house that is the real star of Downton Abbey, is in post-modern Hampshire, far south and a century later than the Crawley estate in post-Edwardian Yorkshire, yet serves as a setting for acting out social conventions and attitudes from a bygone era. The Church – including and often particularly our own Episcopal Church, has a tendency to behave as though it is much more deeply anchored in the past than it currently is, preferring to imagine that is rooted in Victorian or medieval England, or better yet the early Christian era, while most of its current controversies are rooted firmly in the Modernism of the so-called Enlightenment and much of its current attitudes are grounded in the 1950s.

Way #5
Both are closed systems, suspicious of “outsiders.” 
Downton Abbey is, to a large extent, a closed system. Not only is it exceptionally difficult to cross from one caste to another within the house (Tom Branson being the prime example, having been a chauffeur and marrying one of the Crawley daughters), but it is even more difficult to come in as an outsider. Sometimes, this suspicion and hostility has worked to the benefit of the household: one can name Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s wealthy-but-nasty beau prior to her marriage to Matthew Crawley. Matthew, the distant heir to the title and estate, along with his mother Isobel, did not exactly receive an enthusiastic welcome to the family, either. But at least Carlisle and Matthew had some claim (either wealth and social rank or blood) to entering the system. More recently, Miss Sarah Bunting, a teacher who again crosses lines of rank (by tutoring assistant cook Daisy, and having a bit of romantic possibility with Tom Branson), finds it impossible to be an acceptable dinner guest at the Abbey. Likewise, churches often promote themselves as “welcoming”, but function as closed systems where newcomers have a difficult time finding an acceptable role. Which leads to…

Way #6
Both regularly rely on a system of assimilation rather than welcome. 
In Downton, the Crawley family ultimately learns to love and accept Tom Branson, and even to rely on his considerable gifts and talents but only after they seduce him into assimilating into their customs, manners, dress, and other affectations. Ultimately, he begins to wonder who he really is and what he has become: almost an aristocrat but still suffering from a kind of imposter’s syndrome, uncertain about the “price” of his acceptance. Churches often make the same error in their newcomer incorporation efforts, mistaking assimilation for welcome. And in almost every denomination, the Church’s systems for discerning and training clergy tend to act as an over-active immune system, weeding out any leadership that would challenge the status quo.

Way #7
Both have a tendency, if not careful, to reduce people to their roles. 
In Downton, Sir Robert often reduces Cora to her role as his wife, being unable to remember that she is (a) an attractive woman (evidenced in the suspicion of her adultery with the art expert), and (b) having interests (such as her knowledge of art and music) apart from the Abbey and the family. In Church, this is often seen in our overreliance on clergy for pastoral care and an under-reliance on lay people. Wendy recently experienced this with a Facebook friend – an Episcopal priest – who on learning she had sustained a broken wrist, asked (on Facebook) if she wanted a visit “from my parish priest,” when what she would really rather have was a visit from a friend. (She didn’t get the visit.)

Way #8
Both often engage in secret keeping and triangulation in defense of honor.
 This is almost a weekly trope on Downton, with almost every character hiding a secret from at least one other character, often from the world at large, often as an “open secret,” enough to provide “plausible deniability” of the ”elephant in the room,” and generally with the aim of defending the family’s honour. The issue is never about preventing wrongdoing (or doing the right thing to begin with) but rather to prevent scandal. Better to send the person who “caused” the embarrassment away than to confront the underlying issues. In the Church, one need not look farther than most denomination’s disciplinary procedures to find evidence of this dynamic. From pedophile priests to drunk-driving bishops, the system is concerned less with supporting healthy behavior than it is with punishing bad behavior, and less with catching and rectifying bad behavior early than with ridding itself of those who manage to get themselves caught. Which is kind of related to…

Way #9
Both often resort to scapegoating.
 In Downton, the plot lines tend to either kill off or run off anyone who might make a positive bridge between old and new, or give a critical view of the status quo. Think hard about Lady Sybil, Matthew Crawley, Tom Branson… and then think of what church does when someone wants to bridge divides. As Ken once said, “If you want to be a bridge, be prepared to be stepped from both sides. And finally…

Way #10
Both are metaphors of poor stewardship of real estate. 
The one thing that becomes immediately clear about Downton Abbey is that most of its living space is unlived in most of the time. One of the reasons they need so many maids is to keep the dust from settling on all the furniture in the unused rooms. If those rooms were being used more frequently, they would not need to be dusted so frequently, because in a well-used home, the activity of the occupants make dusting almost unnecessary. And what’s more, judging by their obvious relief when the injured soldiers are relocated at the end of the “Great” War, it’s clear the Crawley’s would like to keep it that way. Most churches are similarly poor stewards of their “living space.” A few services on Sunday, maybe another on Saturday evening, a few meetings during the week… That adds up to a lot of empty space. And even those who rent out their space do so more out of financial need than out of an earnest desire to put their buildings to their highest use.

Got some examples you’d like to add? We’d love to hear from you…

Coming soon: “What the Church Could Learn from Dowton Abbey” (Spoiler alert: The list is shorter)

Ken’s original snarky Facebook comment:

This recently posted Episcopal Church Meme just doesn’t do it for me. It seems to be proclaiming that the Episcopal Church is sorta like Downton Abbey: a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but with occupants not not 100% certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing… A two-legged stool: Tradition and Reason, minus Scripture.

I mean, I loves me some Downton Abbey but the Episcopal Church I joined is more than thoughtful theatre. We have a core of theology solidly ground in Scripture. Obscuring our engagement with Scripture doesn’t make us more attractive. Rather it makes us seem…empty.