Like the Catholic Church, Downton Abbey is full of treasures. It is a splendid old mansion with many rooms, and did not our Lord himself say that “in my Father’s house are many rooms?” Like the Church it is a place of timeless wonder, splendor, beauty, and truth.
Various metaphors for the Catholic Church have echoed down the ages. She is a magnificent, ancient seagoing vessel. The Barque of Peter sails on, the rigging creaking and the below decks leaking. Depending on one’s theology she is the Immaculate Bride adorned for her husband or the Great Whore of Babylon. She is a family, a tribe, a pilgrim people.
It occurred to me not long ago that she is also like Downton Abbey. If you have not followed the classy soap opera of the same name, Downton Abbey is a grand English country house. The Lord of the Manor, Robert Crawly, Earl of Grantham, presides with Cora his American-born wife. The drama surrounds the future not only of their three beautiful daughters, but also the love and lies, aspirations and disappointments of the servants “below stairs.”
How is Downton Abbey like the Church? First is the hierarchical nature of the church. Clearly the Earl of Grantham is the Pope and everyone else falls into rank below him. There is a venerable Queen Mother the Dowager Countess and all the cradle catholics—all those related to Lord Grantham are to the manor born.
The family members are proud of their pedigree and feel somewhat ambiguous towards the converts—those who marry into the family. Lady Grantham herself is an American heiress. She is very gracious indeed and fits in well, but does she really belong? When her vulgar mother and ne’er-do-well brother visit, cracks appear in the cultured facade.
Then there is the chauffeur Branson who marries Lady Sybil, Lord and Lady Grantham’s feisty middle daughter. Lady Grantham might fit in neatly, but Branson is rather a firebrand. Not only is he of a revolutionary political leaning, but he is Irish and… a Catholic! Nevertheless, the Grantham family takes the converts to their hearts. They offer an awkward welcome and eventually even Branson not only becomes part of the family, but they learn to admire him for the innovative gifts and new blood he brings.
Below stairs is the other Downton clan: the servants. If Lord Grantham and his family represent the clergy and the establishment Catholics, the gang below stairs may well represent the pew fodder—the faithful. These are the laity who really keep the show on the road. They minister humbly to the nobility and manage their own affairs with far more dignity than those upstairs, because their dignity is wedded to their humility and there is no real dignity without humility. The butlers, valets and footmen, cooks, cleaners, and ladies maids are loyal and true, but they are not perfect. They too have their rivalries, their love affairs, their aspirations, and their disappointments.
And what of the house itself? Like the Catholic Church, Downton Abbey is full of treasures. It is a splendid old mansion with many rooms, and did not our Lord himself say that “in my Father’s house are many rooms?” The halls, drawing rooms, libraries, and ballrooms are full of antiquities, sculptures, art, silverware, and furniture. It is an architectural wonder constructed over the ages with genius and gentility. Like the Church it is a place of timeless wonder, splendor, beauty, and truth.
But the great house also has her attics where relics from the past lie dusty and unremembered. Up beneath the rafters are the banners and medals from long forgotten wars. In the attic rooms are the flea-bitten chairs, the furniture draped in dust covers. Here are the piles and shelves of journals, magazines, and encyclopedic records of the past. Here are the antiquities, the venerable curiosities, and the secret archives. Who knows, in the attics too there may be the faded clippings of past peccadilloes or maybe there dwells an ancient aunty with wild hair, chained to the walls and wailing in the night. Does not the Catholic Church have similar attic rooms—locked to the quotidian light and only available to the cognoscenti?
And if she has her attic rooms she also has her dungeons. We had better not go there, but we know what we would find. There in the darkness lie the septic tanks and sewers of Downton Abbey. There are the sordid sins, the corruption, immorality, murder, bloodshed, and mayhem that have also shadowed the splendor, glory, and truth of the Catholic Church.
Can we extend the metaphor? We are told that the separated brethren are members of the family, but cut off from full communion. Perhaps these sects, denominations, cults, mega churches, and garage churches are all part of the extended Downton estate. In addition to the grand old mansion are the stables, the worker’s cottages, the greenhouses, the kennels for the hounds, and the outlying lands with their tenant farmers and employees of every tackle and trade. Indeed, the whole nearby village of Downton is owned by the estate and most of the villagers are tenants of Lord Grantham.
Thus the separated brethren exist both independent of and yet dependent on the great estate. Likewise, all the diverse Protestant denominations are derived from the fullness of the Catholic Church. Even when they are in most hearty rebellion against what they deem the Great Whore of Babylon, and even when they deny most strenuously any allegiance, their heritage, and ancestry is still traced back to the Catholic Church.
Finally there is this poignant parallel: Everyone at Downton is aware of a loyalty to something greater than themselves. They are the heirs of a great house. They are the stewards of a legacy and the defenders of a culture older and greater than their own trivial concerns and selfish lusts. All of them are there to serve Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is not there to serve them. They are part of a greater plan and a richer history and their own lives are fulfilled as they play their part in that greater drama.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is the Highclere Castle, the main filming location for the drama, Downton Abbey, courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0.