Western society has never been very good at discussing religion. It’s “not polite,” many say, when really they mean that most people are not able to talk about religious differences without quarrelling. The surprise international/public television smash, “Downton Abbey” gave it a try, craftily portraying much of what we already know: most people aren’t very good at discussing religion.
The episode, the fifth in season three, is set on the heels of the loss of the family’s beloved daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) who died giving birth (watch the episode HERE). Her dying wish was that her Irish husband Tom’s (Allen Leech) wishes would be honored and that their newborn daughter would be baptized Catholic. Tom, a former chauffer married into the aristocratic Crawley family, is exiled from Ireland because of his connection to “revolution” vandalism. Staying at Downton for a short while longer as he grieves, he faces stiff opposition from the family patriarch Robert (Hugh Bonneville) who is furious about Tom’s departure from the Crawley’s Protestant heritage.
Many American viewers may have a hard time connecting to the particularities of European debates between Protestantism and Catholicism. Contemporary American religious quarrels are most typically consumed by the “culture wars” between so-called secularism and religious virtues – often about whether or not stores should say “Merry Christmas” or if the City Hall can have a manger scene out front. Rifts between Catholics and Protestants are not typically high-profile American affairs at present, with a good diversity of both in America: 22% of the country identifies as Catholic; 48% as Protestant (according to 2012 PEW data).
As the show demonstrates, though, different historical periods struggle with what it means to be a part of the “wrong,” religion, right and wrong often being decided by notions of nationalism and family heritage. Lord Grantham was worried that the baby would be indoctrinated into the “wrong tribe,” for example, and staff leader Carson (Jim Carter) is concerned that Catholics are not loyal to the Crown.
This equivocation of national-identity and theological belief makes it difficult for meaningful conversations about spirituality to succeed, as Downton’s extended storyline shows with its captivating craftsmanship. No wonder the aristocratic characters quarrel over religious difference when what is really at stake is their English heritage! Rally cries for “American Patriotism,” though less concerned about Catholicism now than in the past, have their own fair share of such problematic confusion.
Attempts at meaningful religious conversation fall apart in the episode, driven by simplifications that insult instead of illuminate. Reverend Travis (Michael Cochrane), the local Protestant churchman, is called to dinner and refers to some of Tom’s Catholic ways as pagan, with other characters then asserting that perhaps Protestantism has it wrong too because what of the whole Indian sub-continent.
Other conversations fall apart because a lack of knowledge. “What do you think about transubstantiation,” Alfred the footman (Matt Milne) is asked, leaving him confused. “I don’t like discussing religion. We’ll only fall out,” says Anna (Joanne Froggatt), “and surely it’s our own private business.” Certainly religious belief is a private, personal affair, but that does not mean that it should not be discussed in public, or at least amongst close acquaintances.
It also does not mean that religious difference has to be resolved by a simple acceptance of relativistic pluralism. Just because people are not good at discussing matters of truth does not mean one does not exist. The conversation in the episode is abated by invoking the late Sybil’s wishes, but that does not actually resolve any theological differences that the characters may have – and theological differences often have very high stakes.
The episode had hints of broader strokes toward an ultimate universalism (interestingly re-adopting Catholicism as acceptable post-Reformation), but viewers will have to wait and see just how far these proper English characters would be willing to take that line of thought. Perhaps with a little more openness, information, and practice, their theological conversations can become a little more successful, as the episode largely was in its portrayal of problematic religious talk.
But what do you think? Is religious conversation doomed at the start? Does it have to lead to “falling out” or can it be successful? And what about the connection to nationalism? Can you be a good citizen and hold a different theological view than the majority? And what direction do you hope Downton Abbey takes? Should the show continue to explore the family’s religious beliefs?
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