Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Downton Abbey and the Church of the 21st Century

I have rarely looked forward to something on television as much as I’m looking forward to the premiere of the second season of Downton Abbey on PBS next Sunday, January 8. For those who are not familiar with it, it is a British drama set on the cusp of World War I with an Upstairs, Downstairs feel to it—the lives of the servants get about as much attention as the lives of the Granthams, the wealthy family who own the property. If you wanted to disparage it, you’d say it was just a fancy soap opera; if you wanted to honor it, you’d define it as a timeless drama about love, change, power, and war.

I think the real reason it interests me is that it depicts a world that is going through profound change at every level, and all the characters are wrestling with what that will mean for them. Everyone is asking, “What is my place in this world?” It opens with the injustice that the estate is entailed to a distant male relative rather than the Grantham daughters. Those three daughters (and their parents and grandmother) each grapple with finding how they will fit in the new world of the 20th Century—whether they want to rebel against what the older generations expect of them or embrace it. The new heir is a modern man with a profession, who doesn’t want to live what he views as the idle life of a gentleman in the country.

The staff of the house are also struggling with change; one housemaid leaves to take a secretary position—a step towards independence for her. A telephone is installed, to the horror of the butler; there are concerns that vapors from the new electric lights might be poisonous.

The church also is on the cusp of change, and many people are currently asking “What is our place in this world as a church?” Significant structural change is on the hearts and minds of many Episcopalians, because it seems that the model of the late 19th and 20th Centuries—priests trained at 3 year seminaries called as rectors of parishes with large buildings; General Conventions held every three years with eight delegates per diocese lasting two weeks—may not be sustainable in the 21st Century. Most Episcopal seminaries are facing significant financial crises, and will be changing how clergy are educated in the next decades. Many parishes cannot afford to pay a full time priest, nor to maintain their crumbling buildings. And many of those congregations are graying and have shrunk in such a way it is hard to attract younger members—especially since those younger members belong to a generation for which going to church is the exception rather than the rule. Taking a two week vacation from your job to go to General Convention is hardly an option for young professionals (clergy or lay!) so representatives tend to be retired, older, and affluent.

And yet, there are vital stories of growth and powerful mission around the church, and lots of good news, so I don’t despair. I know that the characters of Downton Abbey may as individuals be affected negatively by the winds of change, but ultimately, a society in which women are viewed as equals, class is not ultimately decisive about a person’s value, and greater liberties abound is will be a good thing for England. In the church, it is true that some parishes will sell their property; some clergy will be out of work; a three year seminary education may no longer be the norm. But the Gospel of Jesus is compelling, and the Episcopal Church has an important role to play in spreading that Good News. At Epiphany, we just had the largest Christmas attendance ever, and that came on the heels of a pageant populated by 47 human beings and one dog.

A friend’s blog recently pointed out that Google’s auto-fill-in top four choices for the sentence begininning, “Is the Episcopal Church…” are “...dying?”, “...Catholic?”, “...liberal?”, and “...right for me?” All the mainline Protestant churches get “...dying?” as the first option. Roman Catholics and Baptists get “…a cult” as their first option. But no other church gets the suggestion, “Is the Episcopal Church right for me?” There are people out there who are asking that question of Google. Our job as Christians is to make ourselves available and visible so that they can ask it of us, and give them the answer, “Maybe. Come with me and see.” There is nothing more powerful than a personal invitation to come and worship.

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