Downton Abbey as a Metaphor for Church Life

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Kristen and I are late-comers to the Downton Abbey craze. Other than the season 3 finale we’re all caught up. (Don’t spoil that last episode for us, we’ll probably watch it tonight.)

Speaking of spoilers this post won’t have any. Instead, this post will talk about things in general ways. 

If I were going to preach about church life… I might use Downton Abbey as a metaphor because of its popularity and because of the parallels we can make between the life portrayed and how people in the church generally see the world around them.

Here’s the metaphor I’d use:

Living in the Abbey vs Living in the Village

On the show, those who live in the Abbey are really living while those who live in the village are left on the outside looking in… able to be called to the Abbey whenever the occupants need them. Even if people in the village carry on with their lives seemingly unworried about what’s happening in the Abbey, people in the Abbey are convinced that their lives are what the villagers lives revolve around. People in the Abbey even talk about owning the village but you can rest assured in the knowledge that people in the village don’t think of it that way.

This is so similar to how church people look at their community. Even if less than 5% of the population immediately in their neighborhood actually attend the church, and even if the pastors only know the neighborhood by its lunch spots and coffee shops, they talk about the neighborhood like they really know what’s going on. And the people who live around the church… their lives carry on as normal. If they even know there is a church they may know it by its sign or to avoid streets surrounding it on Sunday or the occasional flyer they get inviting them to a party. And yes, I’ve heard many proclamations from the church that “this is our neighborhood” as if they own the place.  (It’d be their neighborhood if they lived there!)

The Upstairs Family

Ah, the nobles. They are a class above everyone else and they know it. In fact, they are good people playing what they think if a vital role in society. “We provide a valuable service to this community. It is our duty.” And in many capacities they do. While those living upstairs maintain moral superiority they experience the folly of humanity just like everyone else. (Disease, death, divorce, etc.) The difference between them and everyone else is that there’s a strong interest in portraying something else. The vast majority of their lives seems to be engulfed in maintaining this perception.

I’ve met very, very few church leaders who think of themselves this way. (The few I do know are all pastors kids, by the way.) But many in the congregation do look at their church staff this way. People who attend churches, as much as they might pretend that they don’t do it, indeed do care a whole lot about the lives of their staff. They think of them as morally superior. They hear about the lives of the children interspersed with the preaching of the Word of God and consequently lose sight of the humanity of church staff. When a church leader falls it is often the churchgoers trying to cover things up. A person is never fired because they did a bad job, they are forced to do the “noble thing” and step aside.

The Downstairs Family

These are the real nobles in the house. They do all of the grunt work from sweeping the floors and painting the walls to changing the babies diapers, preparing meals, and taking care of guests. They are as poor as people living in the village but their employment and housing in the Abbey gives them a new community, separating them from their past. As the show so clearly portrays, coming to the Abbey to work is becoming a member of a new family. When a downstairs servant leaves the whole house feels it. When a new person comes it changes the entire dynamic. They aren’t any better than those living in the village or those living upstairs, but they are hopelessly 3rd culture to both.

Ah, these are church people. Folks like you and I. We long for community in the church because we don’t really feel like we fit in “in the village” but we struggle to connect as equals with those living “upstairs.” Consequently, churchgoers tend to build community in this third space, a little bit in the village, a little bit in the lives of those living upstairs, and translators/apologists/servants to all parties.

The Audience

To those of us watching Downton Abbey– we’re amused by the whole thing. We see the characters for what they are. People living upstairs, downstairs, or in the village are judged equally noble or sleezy or hard-working based on their actual selves and not the position they hold in life. The cultural barriers the cast works so hard to maintain are merely entertainment to those watching the show.

This is how people who “don’t get church” often see the church. Since they don’t have the context of church life they don’t care about the cultural boundaries of church life. Unless they find community with the church they’ll never get it and they’ll always look at it through bemused eyes.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

3 comments

  1. This is SO good, and the comparisons are apt. It’s the kind of post I wish I had written.

    I’ve felt the “upstairs family” perception from church members, who view and treat me as “Pastor Joel,” instead of just Joel. I’ve often felt like a Tom Branson–to keep the Downton analogy going–in season 3, trying to humbly navigate being a part of both worlds without having to be defined or boxed-in by either. This goes for abbey vs. village life too. It’s rather difficult for me to enter into the neighborhood without the title of “pastor” bringing up plenty of preconceived notions in people’s minds, but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to change the perception.

  2. Adam, you dont know how right you are! I dont follow DownTOWN Abbey as I call it, but my wife does. Enjoy the season finale!

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