I’m a big Downton Abbey fan and have been since the very first episode. How can you resist the love, lust, drama and back-stabbing all wrapped up in a charming English package?
As the new season unfolds, I suspect that I will view Season Three in a different way. This season promises to show the honorable Lord Grantham struggling with a veritable empire disintegrating before his very eyes—and he doesn’t like it. The world of everyone in their place, of set manners and stability, is breaking apart—the “world falling about our ears,” as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) declares. The first two seasons indicated the slow beginnings of unwelcome change, but this new season will pick up the pace of change in ways that will be very real and unavoidable.
I see more and more of Downton Abbey in my own life and work.
I also lead a tiny piece of a disintegrating empire and way of life—the mainline Protestant church. And I don’t much like it. Although I grew up in the 1970s, when the mainline decline had already begun, I was drawn to the church. When I was in high school, I was actively involved in a large Congregational church in suburban Boston. I found something meaningful and inspirational at church, along with a fascinating array of people. And, I found the Bible and a life of faith to provide both answers and questions—a path to inner peace that the world around me seemed unable to offer.
It was really no wonder that I ended up an ordained pastor. But, even though the decline of the church was already in progress during my youth, I never expected to find my beloved church to be in so dismal shape when I’m not even quite at the age of fifty—an age that makes me among the youngest members of my congregation.
The winds of change began long ago, but now they seem very real and unavoidable.
Amid the obvious decline, Lord Grantham valiantly tries to highlight the virtues of the aristocracy—as major employers in the county, for example, and as an institution of manners and predictable status. Even the butler, Mr. Carson, clearly indicates his discomfort with the changes afoot. He may be a servant, but he not only knows his place, he has also obtained a significant status as head of the downstairs crew for the house.
We in the mainline church have been doing much of the same, highlighting our virtues and declaring our significance in the community. But, is anyone listening? A few years ago, a study found that people who go to church live longer than average. I, along with some of my colleagues, highlighted this piece of good news. Plus, what other community institution gathers such an interesting and wide range of folks, to work together in common purpose to witness for Christ, especially in our kind of church that welcomes and loves all people? Still, our attendance numbers lag.
As viewers like me are watching the characters of Downton Abbey desperately search for ways of hanging on to their lives in the early 1920s, we also know that their way of life will largely come to an end as it did in real life in Britain. Here’s where I am hoping that the reality of the mainline church will diverge from the storyline of Downton. Will we end up just a mere echo of our former selves, or will we find, even in our diminished numbers, a renewed sense of our mission and our purpose in the world, as the gathered community worshipping and acting on behalf of our Savior?
In this new season of Downton, Shirley Maclaine, who plays the American mother-in-law of Lord Grantham, offers a bit of good, American wisdom, “The way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. . . . Some animals adapt to new surroundings—seems a better choice than extinction.”
For the mainline church, we must also adapt. After all, that is part of the Gospel message. It’s called transformation. We live always in the midst of new life, and hope. Always hope.