Where is the Church in Downton Abbey?

I asked this very question in a brief blogpost last year. There were several moments of pious devotion and an obligatory teatime visit of the Vicar to the Dowager Countess, but in last night’s episode, the careful omission of anything overtly religious was especially apparent. There was a scene of the wedding rehearsal, with the Archbishop (unidentified) berating the vicar’s handling of the rehearsal. And we saw the walk down the aisle at the wedding, the couple approach the altar, and then a cut. Not one word of the marriage service was uttered, not a single prayer.

On this side of the pond, at least judging by my twitter feed, Downton Abbey is a big hit with Episcopalians (although there is also considerable snark from many of the usual suspects). It appeals to our anglophilia which may be why some of us became Episcopalian in the first place but I think we ought to recognize how marginalized the institutional church and personal faith are in the overall series, and how that reflects twenty-first century sensibilities and probably distorts historical reality. The absence of religion is especially curious considering its creator Julian Fellowes’ own Catholicism, explored in a podcast featuring James Martin, SJ and Tim Reidy of America Magazine.

From Christianity Today: Why is God still absent from Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey: Where’s the Church?

I fell in love with Downton Abbey in its first season, largely because of the lines Maggie Smith was given: “What’s a week-end?” for example. And I was delighted to see how many of my facebook friends were equally enthralled. The first episode of the second season seems to have been as popular among Episcopalians as the Presiding Bishop’s latest fashion statement.

That being said, I realized half-way through last season that there was no evidence of religious practice in the show. Neither the upstairs nor downstairs contingent were shown attending services or practicing private devotions.

Trailers for the new season featured prayer prominently, perhaps because of the outset of war.

In spite of the absence of any Anglican presence in the series so far, it hasn’t stopped commentators for speculating on the spiritual lessons we might learn from watching it. Here’s the take from Spirituality and Practice.

Perhaps now that Tim Tebow and the Broncos were soundly defeated and we won’t have to speculate on the religious meaning of football until next July, the commentariate will find new topics to analyze, such as the religious significance of Downton Abbey. I wait with bated breath.

In the meantime, there is no dearth of political and cultural commentary on the popularity of DA on both sides of the pond. From Salon: Why liberals love Downton Abbey. From Slate: The very serious looks of Downton Abbey. Simon Schama writes in Newsweek about its cultural necrophilia. And Kathryn Hughes explores its popularity in America from a London perspective.

But still, the only praying we’ve seen so far (correct me if I’m wrong) comes from Lady Mary, whose pure motives are hardly to be trusted. My knowledge of the Church of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries extends no further than Chadwick’s 2 volumed The Victorian Church, so I’ve got little to go on, but I should think that the country aristocracy would have made a regular show of attending services. Perhaps its a sign of the decline in Christianity’s importance in 21st century England that the show’s writers didn’t feel a need to make even a nod in that direction.

But why are progressive Episcopalians as enamored of the show as everyone else?