Eight things the Church could learn from Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Church Logo

by Ken Howard and Wendy Dackson

Alrighty then! Our recent blog post “10 Ways the Church is Like Downton Abbey” got quite a lot of views. So, like our friends in Public Television, we decided to renew Downton Church for a second “season.” And the theme for season two is “Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey.”

Indeed, there much agreement in the comments we received that Downton Abbey – both the story and the production – was an excellent metaphor for the organized Church. Both are centuries-old institutions, both have a tendency toward aristocratic organization and behavior, both are steeped in tradition and stymied by traditionalism, both have a higher opinion of their own inherent holiness than their histories reveal. In other words, as institutions, both Downton Abbey and the Church are prone to similar mistakes.

Yet as the historical premise of Downton Abbey and the current cultural context of the Church (“in a world where everything is changing, an institution struggles for relevance…”) reveal, both institutions are capable – albeit reluctantly and imperfectly – of learning and change. So taking the metaphor a step further, what are some lessons that the Church can learn (or perhaps remember) from looking in the mirror of Downton Abbey.

Lesson #1 – Noblesse oblige (with nobility, obligation). One thing that the various members of the Crawley family learn again and again, each in different ways, is that with positions of social power and influence comes social obligations: an understanding of their responsibility for those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon them. Lord Robert always seems keenly aware of the house’s obligation to provide economic sustenance and social stability (maybe too much of the latter) to both those directly employed by the house, and those on the wider estate and in the village. Lady Cora seems more attentive – though in a somewhat naïve fashion – to the emotional lives of those who depend on them. Lady Mary, on the other hand, makes a transition from self-centered debutante to more of a socialite with a conscience, who understands that part of their responsibility to those around them is to remain relevant to their needs in a time when those needs are changing in big ways.

What might the Church learn? Despite the claim that churches are somehow under siege from the prevailing culture (at least in North America and western Europe), they still hold a privileged position. Whether as employers of lay professionals (educators, administrators, musicians, and a variety of others), or as shapers of public opinion and policy (as evidenced in the new-but-contested RIFRA laws in Indiana), they influence people well beyond who shows up in any given congregation on Sundays. That influence shapes public perception of the Church –for good or ill. Churches might be better attuned to how their actions affect those with whom they have little if any contact.

Lesson #2 – Willingness to change. Speaking of change, another thing the members of the Crawley household all seem to learn – albeit reluctantly – is that change (sometimes profound change) is often a necessity. And they display willingness (if under duress) to listen to and act on (if sometimes fumblingly) voices other than their own about better ways forward. Indeed, one by one each of the family members seem to learn the painful lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around their comfortable traditions, and that awareness of the changing needs of the world around them often requires them to adapt – not just by adding electricity, telephones, radios, and other new-fangled technology, or sporting new fashions at social occasions, but by making deeper changes and finding new reasons for being.

What might the Church learn? That “modernizing” is more than trying to be “trendy” or “relevant” to a particular generation – right now, the millennials. Concentrating on new music that sounds more like what young people hear on the radio, or being more “cool” in the language used in preaching, or using “contemporary” forms of worship isn’t enough – worse than not enough, in some cases it may actually be harmful: like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when we really need to be getting people into lifeboats. This is not a new problem. Every generation in From the very beginning, every generation in Church has faced the challenge of translating the Gospel for a new generation. The problem arises when, instead of offering the new generation a true translation in words they understand, we instead sugarcoat it with passing cultural affections in order to make it easier to swallow. True modernizing means discovering what are the public perceptions and beliefs about the faith are and addressing them honestly and directly, without compromising the core of Christian faith or cheapening the tough demands that being a follower of Jesus entails. It isn’t easy or quick, the way changing up the music or adding projection screens might be.

Lesson #3 – A Sense of Family. At Downton, the servants are more than simply support staff to the family and the house. By and large, there is a palpable sense of family between the upstairs Crawleys and the downstairs servants: a feeling of connection and interrelatedness. And while the relationship is not always pleasant – or healthy, for that matter – it is deep and strong… How else could a character like Thomas survive for all these seasons? And how else could the Dowager and Isobell become such a mutually (and lovingly) irritating odd couple.

What might the Church learn? William Temple is frequently misquoted as saying that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for those outside it” (click here to read what he actually said), how Christians behave toward other Christians is important. When the Church treats its loyal members badly – especially when longtime, committed lay people are treated badly – it does more than encourage those individuals to leave. It undermines the public perception of the Church as a benevolent institution. Because when church is important to people, they share all the reasons why. But when church loses its luster, people share those reasons, too.

Lesson #4 –Willingness to “bend the rules” in order to “do the right thing.” There is a ongoing tension at Downton Abbey between the need to respect the rules (or follow tradition, which is harder) societally and the need to do what is right in individual cases. And example of this was the case of Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew, Archie, and his exclusion from the war memorial, which Lord Grantham resolved by erecting a special memorial to honor Archie’s sacrifice. This goes to the heart of the tension in the church between tradition (honoring things that have been tested by time) and traditionalism (worshipping tradition for its own sake), which the Church has had to learn century after century.

What might the Church learn? First, we might learn that some rules just shouldn’t exist in at all. Second, we might learn that service doesn’t have to be perfect to be sincere and devoted, and that the people who render service also don’t have to be perfect, either. Finally, we might learn that we will garner more loyalty by finding ways to show appreciation than we will by finding ways to withhold it.

Lesson #5 – Willingness to find humane ways to outplace members of the downstairs household when continued relationship becomes untenable. Time and again, the Crawley family finds ways to part ways with servants who have become too difficult or embarrassing to endure. On the plus side, they realize that in an “incestuous” institution like the aristocracy one has to take great care in the way that people are let go, since termination without reference is tantamount to a sentence of lifelong poverty or worse (in the case of pregnant Ivy), and even laying off a person due to the elimination of a specialized position (in the case of Mosley) may render an otherwise loyal and competent former employee without honorable work. They have learned from painful experience not to throw anybody “under the bus.”

What might the Church learn? Don’t throw people under the bus. See Lessons #1 and #3. ‘Nuff said.

Lesson #6 – Willingness to find ways to support and applaud the personal and professional goals and ambitions members of the downstairs household. An ongoing trope throughout the seasons of Downton is the ambitions of the downstairs household. We have seen housemaids become secretaries, footmen become chefs, kitchen maids become assistant cooks and aspiring farm owners, butlers and housekeepers become real estate entrepreneurs, and chauffeurs become family members and estate stewards. Lady Sybil helped Gwen get a job as a secretary; the entire household has been supportive of Daisy’s attempt to further her education (even if the family didn’t much care for Miss Bunting, her teacher). Alfred’s acceptance to culinary school was a triumph and a point of pride for upstairs and downstairs, and he went to London with everyone’s best wishes. Tragically, William Mason’s aspirations to serve his country did not turn out well, but the household honored his service.

What might the Church learn? Keeping people “in their place” might be beneficial to the institution – but only in the short term. Downton Abbey benefited from Tom Branson’s transition from chauffeur to estate steward (and beloved family member). Arguably, difficult as it was for the family to adjust, without Branson’s acumen and skill, the family might have fallen into financial ruin. The Church might find it difficult to believe that lay people could have skills the Church either doesn’t recognize or didn’t confer, or that some might have more theological learning than the majority of priests and bishops. Nonetheless, without the laity, the Church will fall into ruin. A little permeability between the ranks might be a good thing for all concerned.

Lesson #7 – Keeping secrets is a tricky business. Of course, there are secrets and “secrets.” Any relationship – whether family, friends, or business – has a certain degree of confidentiality that must be respected. Trust depends on that. Most of the Downton characters, but especially servants especially, have a degree of knowledge about other characters which could be devastating if it were more widely known. Anna (nee Smith, now Bates) kept housemaid Gwen’s aspirations to a secretarial career to herself once she knew them – and skillfully made the distinction between “private” and “secret” when questioned by Mr. Carson. Anna also has kept the much more sinister secret of the Turkish Ambassador’s (Mr. Pamuk) death in the supposedly-virgin Lady Mary’s bed, and not used it as a bargaining chit for her own advantage. Former-footman, now under-butler Thomas has threatened to do so, however, although his previously-secret (and then illegal) homosexuality would have come to light to his disadvantage. (That was handled interesting by Lord Robert when questioned about Thomas’s behavior.) Thomas kept the secret of how Lady Cora lost her unborn child…until it was advantageous to share it with his erstwhile enemy Mr. Bates.

What might the Church learn? In any community setting, people are going to know things about each other. Not everybody will know everything about everyone else, and that is fine. But we need to learn discretion and kindness in how we deal with confidences. That goes not only for laity, but clergy as well – there may be a bit of a stereotype of “church gossips” like that of Dana Carvey’s SNL “Church Lady” character, but ordained people equally can be the soul of indiscretion.

Don’t remember the Church Lady? Click here to refresh your memory.

Lesson #8 – Awareness of the world outside our walls. Downton Abbey (whether we are talking about the characters, story line, or production) seems to understand that there is a world beyond their walls, that to some is equally if not more compelling and attractive – and may be compelling and attractive to those within the walls (Alfred the footman who wanted to be a chef, assistant cook Daisy wanting to learn to run a farm, Lady Sybil training for nursing and marrying Tom Branson). And there is an acceptance (sometimes grudging, but pragmatic) and even encouragement (when there is manifestly no choice) to go explore that world.

What might the Church learn? The Church needs to understand that very few people – and probably a vanishingly small number of people under age 60 – believe any more that there is “no salvation outside the Church.” The Church may be a formative community, and a locus of spiritual and moral learning, but not the site of many peoples’ highest aspirations, as it might have been hundreds of years ago. The Church may need to think of itself as a starting place for peoples’ spiritual and moral journeys, but not necessarily the entire road they will travel.

That’s all we have to say for now, though we are certain we have not wrung the Downton Abbey metaphor completely dry. Will there be “Season 3” of Downton Church? That all depends on how much feedback we get from you…

In the meantime, if you’d like a more musical and satirical take on Downton Abbey, click here.

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