Is God the Missing Character in Downton Abbey?
- Thursday, February 14, 2013
"It became, in short, fashionable to lose faith," said Callum Brown, a religion professor in Scotland who specializes in secularism in Great Britain.
But above all, Downton Abbey has been a melodrama about tradition and change and family, and that's largely how religion fits in -- not as faith per se, but as a marker of class and status, of social and personal boundaries that are all coming under pressure to adapt to modern ways.
In this context, religion is about doing what is right and proper -- for king and country and the status quo -- rather than divining what one personally believes. The rituals of the evening meal are on par with the rites of the Anglican religion (and maybe more scrupulously observed). When the endlessly quotable dowager countess, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), counsels Matthew on choosing a wife, her concern is about appearances as much as the sanctity of the nuptial vows: "Marriage is a long business. There's no getting out of it for our kind of people," she says.
Doctrine and theology barely register, and when they do, it is usually through the filter of the anti-Catholicism that was a given in upper-class Anglicanism, and throughout England as the Irish independence struggle was in full swing.
"But isn't there something rather un-English about the Roman Church?" the local vicar harrumphs as he baits Sybil's Irish-Catholic husband at dinner. "I cannot feel bells and incense and all the rest of that pagan folderol is pleasing to God."
In this third season, Lord Grantham himself, furious that his first grandchild will be baptized a Catholic ("There hasn't been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!"), introduces American viewers to anti-Catholic epithets like "left-footers."
"I don't want the thumbscrews or the rack," as he tells a visiting Anglican bishop, "but there always seems to be something of Johnny foreigner about the Catholics."
This isn't the sort of spiritual reckoning that some may want to see, but it does reflect the times -- and even our times. Anglican leaders are currently lobbying against a bill that would lift the centuries-old ban on members of the royal family marrying Catholics, and the influx of Muslim immigrants is testing Britain's culturally Christian identity.
On the other hand, for those looking for Fellowes to channel some of the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, a fourth season is in production. If the shockers of Season 3 and its grand finale Sunday night haven't planted the seeds for a spiritual conversion -- or crisis -- in this cast, perhaps maybe nothing can. Stay tuned.
c. 2013 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
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