10Things Downton Abbey and the Church Have in Common

DowntonI’m a recent convert to the PBS miniseries Downton Abbey, the international hit series set in a  Yorkshire country estate amid the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family.  This highly addictive series chronicles the drama-filled lives of both the upstairs aristocrats and the downstairs servants, all of whom are navigating the social  and class changes of the 1920’s. It didn’t take this Lutheran pastor long to see  similarities between the challenges and charms of the mainline church and the congregation known as the Crawley Estate.  In no particular order, here they are: 

  1. The church and the Crawleys are challenged with an urgent and uncomfortable need to modernize, over and against the paralysis of wanting things to remain the same.
  2. The characters of Downton Abbey  and the Church understand that being part of a community includes accompanying one another in times of loss and crisis, birth and gain.
  3.  Both the Abbey and the Church are reluctant experts at employing gossip and innuendo as a way of moving information along in community.  I don’t like this one.
  4. The Crawley family has Violet, the Dowager Countess, expertly played by actress Maggie Smith. Many church congregations also have a matriarch–a colorful woman who knows where all the bodies are buried and whose communication method includes the wisdom and wit of the caustic one liner.
  5. As the inhabitants of 1924 England, and Downtown Abbey in particular, deal with the changing roles of women, so goes the church. According to Hartford Institute, a multi-faith sample of 11,000 American congregations reveals that 12% of all congregations in the United States had a female as their senior or sole ordained leader.  Whether 1924 or 2014, women will continue to exercise their voices and increase their place in leadership.
  6. Downton Abbey and the modern church are both reevaluating the tenets of their existence as well as the best use of their sometimes aging buildings.  The irony exists that even the real Highclere castle, where Downton is filmed, is rented  to the producers to cover rising costs of maintenance.   Does the Crawley estate exist to provide employment and protect tradition, as Lord Crawley and Lady Mary insist? Churches today are asking similar questions and evaluating the best “missional” use of church buildings. How can each continue to be a beacon of hope to the societies that have depended upon them? How best can they re-imagine a sustainable future?
  7.  Downton Abbey has Mr. Carson, the elegant head butler who knows everything going on under his roof, and who struggles with maintaining the standards of the past amid the hopes of the future.   The church has the senior pastor who knows much of what’s going on under her roof, and who also seeks daily to balance the future with the past, the practical with the possible.
  8. Season 4 will see many more guest entertainers to delight the Crawleys and their guests.  Likely several of the guest artists initiated the possibility of appearing at the iconic estate. Churches today are also paying for guest musicians and singers. In the church’s case, these appearances are initiated by a church that needs a few ringers from time to time as congregations age out.
  9.  Downtown’s story lines have artfully brought to light the inequities of class and race, breaking with tradition to welcome “upstairs” a son-in-law who was once employed “downstairs.”   Love is love. The church too has stretched it’s welcome and it’s witness, endeavoring to become communities of transformation and not separation.
  10.  The death of Lady Mary’s beloved husband Matthew will challenge the long held practice of gender based inheritance.  Baby George becomes heir, with Mary taking her place as a head of the Crawley dynasty.  Roles and power are seen to shift in waves.  The church of today would do well to consider its own shifting tides of inheritance,  ownership, and power.  Can anyone own tradition?  And in the long run, isn’t that the wrong question?
  11. OK, just one more.  Both church and Downton Abbey bring together grand collections of unforgettable characters, full of humor, heart, and yes, DRAMA.  I love them both.
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Pregnant for Advent

Did you hear the news? We’re all pregnant!  It is the central truth of Advent…that we are all “expecting.” Such a miracle is this!  Mary did not take a test to prove she was with child, it was simply announced and she was open to receiving it. Are we?
The knowledge that we are expecting a holy birth has the power to change everything. When you’re expecting, you are full of hope, excitement, and anticipation. You buy gifts with the baby in mind. And the closer the birth, the more you cannot ignore it. The baby kicks, wakes you up, capturing your imagination with all the ways life will change. So it is with Advent. Advent is pregnancy at its best.
I can’t help but wonder how entering the nativity story “pregnant” could change our experience of it.  Otherwise it’s just Christmas, again. And as Jesus might have said to the disciples, “that ain’t right.”