I do like me some good TV drama! Throw in period clothing, architecture, props, and I’m golden! The recent phenomenon of Downton Abbey has revived the genre for a newer, younger audience. It’s like the new-money version of Miss Marple: all the complexity and drama of the genre (minus the murder mystery) updated to reflect the perspectives of modern TV producers and viewers.
While I love the show and its romantic view of how traditions change, it does a poor job of being a piece of historical fiction. Other commentators have griped about the anachronistic phrases that locate the use of English to the 1980s, not the 1910s. From the very beginning, the show has included almost nothing of the institutional church or personal devotion that would have constituted a major part of the psychological and social lives of the upstairs and downstairs characters. They rarely attend church or church sponsored events, they do not explore theological explanations for life’s complexities, and only Lady Edith makes a visit to her local parish once to pray after learning another of her friends was killed in the war.
In the current Season 3 we only see the church as a kind of foil to the modern and independent ways of thinking. Although the show’s plot emphasizes these social changes, it is especially surprising that after the tragic death of an important character that there was no pastoral support or even presence. Old Lady Gratham’s words to her son, Lord Grantham, advise only to not blame oneself for the tragedy. No pondering about the hand of God in human affairs or about how or why God would let this death happen. No phone-call to the priest who lives on the estate and who depends on Lord Grantham for his livelihood. What does it mean to employ a vicar if not to have someone to call in emergencies?
Why do I care so much about the missing religion from Downton Abbey? About the absent God-talk? About the marginalized institutional church and about how personal religious faith is more embarrassing than anything else? Because it is bad history to not use the discursive contexts of the period that the show claims to represent. Sure, I know the show isn’t historical evidence about the 1910s and 20s, but many people will interpret it that way. The choice to avoid these aspects of life in this period dilutes our ability to understand history and social change. It lulls us into an easier history that doesn’t seem so alien to our contemporary context. It represents a crisis of Faith in which we re-tell our history ignoring some of the biggest aspects.
In the world of Downton Abbey, the Church of England is an irrelevant and forgotten blip on the horizon. It is only present in fleeting moments on the fringes of society. The invisible church mirrors how the producers and writers in the 21st century view it—as an institution that is quaint at best, but probably just a meaningless nuisance and a waste of time. Church-land was already old fashioned and out of date in the early 20th century; how much more so now. The scene in Season 1 in which Lady Edith visits local churches with a potential love interest reinforces how our society only knows how to access church buildings as part of architectural history, nothing more.
Granted, there are a few scenes in which characters pray. This nod to the English Anglicanism of the early 1920s is subtle. And even in these prayer scenes—Lady Mary’s bedside intercessions for Matthew when he is injured and the servants praying for him when he is lost at the front—it is shown as a last resort. She was embarrassed to be discovered praying when her sister Edith walked into her room.
There are also few scenes in which the tension between Catholicism and Anglicanism in England surfaces. Most notably, the family is divided over baptizing baby Sibyl into the Catholic church. As if this conflict is enough to represent the chasm between England and Ireland.
The show avoids the fluent God-talk that would have constituted more of the social interaction of everyone in that part of the twentieth century. While the show may be about the crisis of faith that was erupting in every class of society, these characters should be portrayed as more familiar with the liturgical and devotional practices of their day. That is their past and present.
Here is how one commentator summarizes the religious landscape of Downton Abbey, “In many ways it’s a secular introduction to what the crisis of faith might look like. In other words, the crisis of faith is not explicitly grounded or framed in God-talk. There’s very little explicit reference to God in the television series. Grace does not take place at meals, even though there’s a lot of eating. They rarely go to church, except for a wedding, and even then you don’t see much of the wedding service. So faith is strangely non-explicit, and yet simultaneously faith is very present. And what I think the series is doing is inviting us to think of faith in a new and different way. Faith is interpreting how we relate to each other. Faith is coping with the complexity of our past. Faith is carrying the baggage that shapes us all into the present and doing so in ways that are ameliorated and less damaging. Faith is hope even when you are in a predicament of hopelessness. All these themes bubble through countlessly.” The commentator (Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary) sees the changing faith stories of these characters taking a “spiritual-but-not-religious” turn in which their humanist values are tested.
I’m not alone. There are plenty of viewers and fans of the show asking similar questions about the missing dimensions of religious life.
- This blogger (Episcopal rector) asks the same question about how almost every significant aspect of church life has been omitted from the series.
- Julian Fellowes is a practicing Catholic as discussed in this podcast from America magazine of The National Catholic Review.
- This article from Christianity Today (Todd Dorman, 1/4/13) asks the same question.
- This essay from Thinking Faith analyzes the Catholicity of the show.