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‘Downton Church — Season 2: Eight Lessons the Church Could Learn from Downton Abbey’ by Dr Wendy Dackson


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….

Would you like to know what Lessons 6, 7 and 8 might be? Please follow the link here:

1 comment on this post:

minidvr said...

An interesting reflection on two imperfect institution. In terms of the Downton Abbey position, I can quite well compare those with the social attitudes in the Army – the relationships between the Leaders and the Led. Officers, WO & SNCO’s and the Men (or women latterly). When I joined in the 1960’s, it was difficult to find a Direct Entry (DE) Officer via Sandhurst who wasn’t from the Monied, Upper Classes. An example might be that our Squadron second in command, a Captain flew his own private plane home at weekends. Late Entry Officers (those commissioned from the Ranks) were few and far between and occupied the less glamorous positions such as QuarterMaster or Motor Transport Officer. Officers were a race apart socially and financially. The were expected to pay for their uniform (having a private income) although latterly, the services have realised that not all are sons of Dukes and have provided a substantial Uniform Grant on first commissioning, which goes a long way to providing their outfit. Maintenance grants were paid annually and on promotion to allow the appropriate tailoring or repairs to their uniform. If a maintenance grant isn’t payable, than these expenses of office would be claimable from HMRC. More recently again, Officers are now issued with Service Dress on the same basis as soldiers, although they still receive a grant to provide Mess Kit and Regimental accroutements.

Among the Warrant Officers and SNCO’s, there was an awareness of their lesser status, but pride in being the next step down from commissioned rank. They strove to emulate the social life of the Officers Mess, but being soldier, where quite rank conscious, with the RSM ruling the Mess (including the ladies) with an iron fist. Social niceties were observed, but everyone knew where they stood with each other. In the Officers Mes, though, everyone was on first name terms, apart from the Commanding Officer who was always addressed as Colonel. No yes sir, or no sir here. Despite their mess status, WO & SNCO’s were not provided by Mess Kit and Warrant Officers purchasing Service Dress (required to be worn at WO1 rank) were not afforded any financial assistance at all.

An example when I was first appointed as a SNCO (1975) a mess kit cost around £700 stirling – a huge sum from my annual salary at the time. When I was appointed to WO1 rank (1987) my Service Dress, Sam Browne, Shoes and Hats (3, No 1 Dress, Service Dress and Officer Pattern Beret) cost over 2K – I needed a loan to afford them. The hook being that you could reclaim these expenses retrospectively when you were commissioned? Given that only about 5% were commissioned annually, that was a poor compensation for impoverishment. In later years (about 2002), WO & SNCO’s were issued with their uniform on promotion or appointment and Sgts received a grant to assist in the purchase of Mess Kit on first appointment to that rank.

Than we come to the Men (JNCO’s and privates). Again, socially the JNCO’s inhabited an in-between world. While the Officers and Sgt’s messes were established under Queens Regulations and had governance arrangements, JNCO Messes were not, but JNCO’s in many Regiments were expected to belong to them to prepare them for later more senior rank. Because the Mess wasn’t covered in Queens Regulations, in theory a JNCO didn’t have to belong, but it was a brave JNCO with no interest in career progression who took that stance. Again, purchase of mess kit was a liability, but not to have it was a black mark held against you by your superiors.

The Men – well they had the NAFFI Club – which was in Regiments, presided over by the Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant – a senior Warrant Officer with another commissioned officer normally holding the appointment. But the Men (and later Women) were socially free to wear what they wanted, to do what the wanted (within bounds) and socially were able to ignore the stuffiness and social mores of the echelons above them.

The unwritten thing about all of this was the spouses or ‘her indoors’ who was addressed as ‘wife off’ No, Rank, Name. Spouses were expected to conform to the social mores of the husband/wifes rank and status and to dress and to behave accordingly. Major Formal social events were inevitably Mess Kit, which for Civilian Husbands or Wives inevitably meant dinner suit or long frock. Keeping up with the Jones’ was alive and well in those days. Only later did more informal functions become the norm, rather than the formal. I know of Officers Messes today where living in officers are expected to ‘Dress for Dinner’ in DJ, while those not wishing to do this are fed in casual clothing (no jeans or slippers) from a pantry onto a private dining room – like beggers in a place that they actually pay to live in).

Social change within the Armed Forces has moved on substantially in the last 20 years or so. Women are now treated equally and in theory can progress to the highest ranks – we have yet to see a Female CGS. The institution itself is how ever, moribund, mired in tradition and the honour of the Regiment.

There are Values and Standards which apply across the board, which should level this out, and in the main they do, but those breaching them can be punished for social (not disciplinary) failures, with the loss of their job or worse, if they are judged to have ‘brought the army into disrepute’ all about protection of reputation?

Everyone in the Army should aspire to the six core values and standards of the British Army:
Respect for others.
Selfless commitment.

Nowadays, those joining the Army as Officers or soldiers are less likely to be younger sons or from landed families or their followers, but from across the wider spectrum of society. Many will be graduates or will have some form of higher level qualification, while others will struggle with basic numeracy and literacy skills. There is much more value placed on the individual and their potential and suitability for a particular role, than in the past. For officers, social skills are now part of the curriculum at RMAS (given that spread of people entering officer training) while for the soldiers – they learn by example and experience.

I suspect that institutions like the Army and the Church can be averse to risk taking and blinded by tradition to the extent that they actually can embarrass themselves unwittingly. It took a few determined individuals to take the services to the European Court of Human Rights to have LGBT personnel treated fairly. Bullying, racial and sexual harassment were all rife in the Army in my early career, but I know that a huge change of culture has reduced this dramatically over the past 25 years or so. There will always be someone who breaches the rules, but hopefully those joining now will have a much more developed awareness of social and cultural sensibilities to eradicate entirely in the future.

14 April 2015 15:25

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