My Downton Abbey fixation is well-known at Epiphany, and last year, when I wrote a newsletter article about the PBS television series, I got more positive response than I think I’ve ever gotten. Today, after seeing episode four in the third series, I am struck again by the panoply of moral and theological issues raised in just that single episode. Capital punishment, redemption, love, repentance, authority, medical ethics, ecumenism, and economic dependence all in 50 minutes! No wonder my Episcopal clergy colleagues seem to be as hooked as I am.
*Spoiler Alert!* Don’t read on if you love the series and haven’t yet seen episode four!
This episode has two significant storylines for my purposes today: the birthing process of Lady Sybil, the youngest Grantham daughter, to her first child with her husband Tom, the Irish former-chauffer for the Granthams; and the attempted rehabilitation of the former housemaid Ethel, who had turnedto prostitution in order to support her illegitimate child.
The family’s physician Dr. Clarkson is pushed aside in favor of a noted obstetrician, Sir Philip Tapsell upon the occasion of the birth of Sybil’s child. When Sybil begins to show the signs of eclampsia, Dr. Clarkson advocates for taking her to the hospital and performing a Cesarean Section. Sir Philip denies she is suffering from eclampsia and says he can guarantee a safe birth for mother and baby if they stay at Downton. Dr. Clarkson admits that he cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, but that Sybil and the baby have a better chance with the C-Section. Lord Grantham exclaims, “Isn’t a certainty better than a doubt!” to the skeptical members of his family.
Is a certainty better than a doubt? Many Christians would take up the side of certainty. They believe their faith gives them certainty for their salvation. And we, in our burial office, speak of our “sure and certain hope” in the resurrection. But I’m not sure that a certainty is better than a doubt. Certainties prevent us from seeing other options and other views. Doubts keep us open and humble.
Sir Philip’s certainties are unfounded. After the birth, Sybil dies of complications from eclampsia. The house is devastated, and full of recrimination.
Lent is a season for repentance-but all too often, I believe, we confuse repentance and regret. We regret actions when they do not have the outcomes we desire; we repent actions when we not only regret them but are committed to changing ourselves or the world around us so that there will be a different outcome in the future.
Lord Grantham regrets his actions surrounding Sybil’s death; but I would say that he is unrepentant. He acknowledges – at some level – his responsibility for Sybil’s death. But there is nothing to suggest that he sees that he would be capable of making a different choice in a similar situation. He believes it was his choice to make-despite the dissention from his wife and mother, and the lack of input by Sybil’s husband-and is incapable of getting beyond the allegiance to the doctor of his own class, Sir Philip over the local family doctor, Dr. Clarkson.
Where do we find ourselves more likely to agree with people who belong to our own class or group, and unable to hear truth from someone who is from a different group?
Mrs. Isobel Crawley has been attempting for several episodes to redeem Ethel the housemaid. Isobel finally invites Ethel into her house and offers her a job-a path back to respectability. The other maid immediately resigns: “If I tolerate her, I will be tarnished by her.”
Where does toleration turn into tarnish? What practices that we disagree with should we tolerate – and what practices must we not tolerate becaue they are so damaging?
Isobel has made a bold stand on behalf of Ethel, and sees her charity as a virtue: she is determined to redeem Ethel, even though Ethel herself is not convinced that she is worth redeeming. But Isobel is regretting her decision – Ethel is an energetic but not particularly accomplished cook and lady’s maid.
The charitable impulse is clearly a virtue. The very word, “charity” comes from the Latin and Greek for the word that means selfless love. But in practice, charity can be misguided and not beneficial to the very person it is aimed at helping.
One of the great strengths of the Carpenter’s Kids program that Epiphany participates in is that it is a partnership. We Americans did not establish what the goals or methods of the progam were; the Tanzanians knew what was most necessary, and implemented a program to address those needs. And it transforms our lives as well as those of the schoolchildren we support.
But for the meantime... catch Downton on PBS on Sundays at 9pm and see what happens next!