“Downton Abbey” is a six-season drama based on one aristocratic family in England who navigates the treacherous period before and after World War I. As the 1920s come rushing in, the English aristocracy faces a cultural shift that will bring an end to their way of life. Women are entering the work force, the rigid class system is being dismantled as laborers seek employment beyond family ties to estates, easier travel is making the world a smaller place, technologies such as the motorized vehicle and the telephone make communication more instantaneous.
What is clear by the final season of “Downton Abbey” is that the aristocracy’s power is diminished and there is no going back. One episode has two pertinent scenes that capture this transition most acutely. The Crawley family, the protagonists in the entire saga, attend the auction of another aristocratic family which has lost everything. They knew this family well and want to purchase some of their belongings to keep them within the wealthy landowning families who are left. It is a dramatic scene where the Earl of Grantham, Mr. Crawley, and his daughter, Lady Mary, come to terms with this great cultural shift. They wonder if their estate, Downton Abbey, will be next.
The other scene is even more important because it isn’t nostalgic and anxious about the past. The same Lady Mary is at the local fair showing off the pigs that she has managed on their farm. The fact that she is a woman doing the managing is avant garde, but the fact that she is an aristocratic lady of an estate and she’s knee high in pig “stuff” is quite remarkable. It shows the family’s capacity to ready themselves for the future. They are willing to change with the times and keep their estate relevant for the cultural shift that has already happened.
“Downton Abbey” certainly captured the imagination of a large audience and probably surprised the Masterpiece Classic producers, but what it captured at a deep level is the sense of change that permeates our own modern culture. We are living in a moment where a massive cultural shift (or shifts) has already happened, but many of us have not even realized it. While the world always changes, the past 20 years have seen dramatic change that is irreversible. Like the aristocracy of the British Empire after World War I, the way of life that we have taken for granted is now over. This is most true for long-term institutions like the Church. The Christianity in America that we have taken for granted our entire lives is over, and it will never be the same again. We are like the Crawley family stuck between the two scenes I mentioned earlier. We are somewhere between selling off our estate and standing knee high in pig “stuff” recognizing that this will be a new way forward.
For those who lament this cultural shift as a loss, they will most certainly be selling their artifacts. Just recently I was at a meeting with other ministers and lay people, and one pastor of a large downtown church asked for suggestions about what to do with all the space they had because they simply could not use all of it anymore. She wasn’t lamenting the loss; she was looking for creative ways to use the space.
There are thousands of churches just like hers who have over 100,000 square feet of empty classrooms in prime downtown locations because the heyday of Christianity in America is over. I’ve started calling this empty space ‘Heyday Space’. Heyday Space is a profound and prophetic voice that tells all of us that the way we’ve always done church is over. The cultural shift has already happened and the heyday is passé, it is irreversible, and we must come to terms with it.
Sell the estate or reinvent it: Those are at least two options that existed for the English aristocracy after World War I, and they are still two options for how we exist as faithful Christians in America. What is undeniable at this point is that we cannot mostly keep doing what we are doing. We, like every brand of Christianity since Jesus came out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan, must determine the absolute essentials of our movement and find ways of living into and out of these essentials today. What makes our heart beat? What constitutes our Christian identity? How can we reframe these constitutive aspects of our faith life in ways that make sense in our modern world?
“Downton Abbey” is a dramatic series that is set in the apocalypse. In that way, it can be rolled into all the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic entertainment that permeates our society. Both aristocrats and zombies are ways that our entertainment speaks back to us and tells us that the shift has already happened. We live in a new day, a new time that demands something different from us. There are already materials that function as a guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse, and some of this material is helpful for us. All the anxiety from the upcoming election to terrorism (in all its forms — international, domestic, ecological) are part of the flux created during major cultural shifts.
It is never easy when old structures begin to crumble and new structures take their place. In this apocalypse, and in this post-apocalyptic period, I still believe Christianity has an important place. In fact, I think Christianity along with our other religious sisters and brothers, have a high capacity to help individuals and society as a whole as we walk through this apocalypse. If we pay close attention to our long histories and the particularities of this mini-apocalypse, we may just find exactly what we all need to make it safely through. Holding so tight to traditions that are already so dead will only leave us in the rubble of change. The faith and charity that have proven to be helpful through all the eschaton of our long history, however, may just prove to be helpful now that we standing in pig “stuff.” We may only need to reframe this faith for our new age.