St. Matthew's Episcopal

What’s Religious about “Downton Abbey?”

Posted on: February 8th, 2012 by Robin Jarrell

I am SO hooked on the PBS series “Downton Abbey.”  I’m a glutton for any kind of period piece really, but this one is especially well done.  It’s filmed at the real “Highclere Castle” in Hampshire in the UK and is written by Julian Fellowes who is famous for his “Gosford Park.”  Well, I say famous if you are an over-the-top Anglophile who worships (is that heretical?) all things English when one is not busy adoring all things French.  I know.  It’s a strange irony.  But it’s not just the gorgeous period set pieces, costumes and fetching countryside eye candy that make this series worthwhile.  It is supremely well written, directed, and acted.  And there’s Maggie Smith.  Most folks know her as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films, but trust me, DAME Smith (for us commoners) is one of the finest living actors on the planet.  She’s worth the price of admission right out of the box.  But Downton Abbey is also about people and how they try and live life with integrity and compassion wherever they find themselves along the ancient but fraying  Aristocratic continuum.  The Upper Crust just want to make sure the lineage symbolized by the grand house of Downton Abbey will continue.  The servant folk are trying to juggle their own struggle for happiness with “knowing their place” in the world.  Yet, for me, Downton Abbey has a much more important story to tell.  As I see it, Downton Abbey is a metaphor for the ‘edifice’ of the church and how we are really just passing through.  Both the building and the work of the bodies (of Christ) inside it do not really belong to any of us.  Downton Abbey neither belongs to the Lord and Lady of the manor, nor to the servants – although they both inhabit the same physical space for a time.  And like the changing societal structure in Edwardian England, those English folk know that unless their way of relating to people and their assigned spaces changes, nothing will be allowed to grow and develop.  It’s the same with the church today.  We have become, like Downton Abbey, largely irrelevant.  The old way of being church is no longer working.  I suspect that it is our hierarchical structure which has to fundamentally change.  We know already that the full time live-in-the-rectory-married-male-priest-with-a-wife-who-will-head-up-the-Sunday-School-for-free model of the Priesthood is fading fast.  I’m sure I find Downton Abbey so compelling because I see an almost uncomfortable parallel with the folks in the series and a church that is also struggling with old buildings, old models of discipleship, and old adherence to forms and structures which inhibit our growth into the full statue of Christ rather than promote it.  The folks of Downton abbey, underneath their “decently and in order” exterior, are struggling with uncomfortable and uncertain change.  But without faith in that change and a real intention to embrace it, Downton Abbey as well as the church– in both edifice and body – will likely die.

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