Any program that shows me the posh life in England has me from the get-go. Downton Abbey hardly needed to do more than display the gorgeous mansion, the opulent furnishings, the glittering table settings -- all kept tidy and running like clockwork by the fastidious Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and others. I would've been all in just for the look and feel of it. They needn't have even bothered with great writing, acting and direction (let alone featuring Maggie Smith, who I can never resist).
But the genius of the show isn't in the lighting or sets or costumes. It's the decision to set it in the early 20th century, when the biggest challenge facing Lord Robert Grantham isn't how to keep everything the same, but how much to let everything change.
It would have been easy to just keep showing tapestries and dinner parties and not bother with all the unpleasantness of changing social conventions, the catastrophic toll of WWI and the protean class structure. The problem is that the unpleasantness is history, and our friends at Downton Abbey are in the middle of it. So what advice would we give? I've been thinking about it, and here's what I think I'd say to Lord Grantham:
- Don't be afraid to adapt -- Should you allow your daughters more freedom, your son-in-law a say in household management, your tenant farmers a measure of self-determination? Not all change is bad change. It may be terrible to anticipate and shocking when it comes, but those emotional reactions won't help you judge the best course of action. But also ...
- Stand your ground -- You are entrusted with a family heritage and estate that goes back for centuries. Others can and should have a say, but the responsibility for its success or failure is with you. Know the difference between timeless and transitory traditions. Some rules will be bent and others will be broken, but you must do your best to uphold what you discern to be wise and true. You may not succeed, and you can't hold back the winds of change, but you will have done all you could, and what carries over to the next generation may prove invaluable.
But who, I wonder, will advise us? We stand here, a century or so after the time of the fictional inhabitants of that grand house, and this century also seems to be bringing seismic shifts to us. It's not just that the culture is coarsening, or that some of the moral underpinning that was weakened in the '60s and '70s seems to be continuing to decay.
Those things are unfortunate, but not new. What is new is that we seem to be on the verge of one of those tectonic corrections that take things onto a different level. In the '80s and '90s, no one would have imagined that morning-after abortifacient drugs would be readily available -- now they're not only available, but Christian-owned non-profits may be required to provide them. We wouldn't have thought gay marriage would be legalized in America, but now it's hard to imagine how it wouldn't be.
In other words, some of the battles we thought we had won are no longer even considered worth discussing. The Church has been marginalized as a cultural force to the point that looming questions over what course the country should take or the very nature of humanity are deemed too important for us to have a say in.
The Fall of That House ...
So what about my easy advice to the lord of the manor? I may have to reverse the order, but maybe there's still something it it:
- Stand your ground -- We also have been entrusted with something, and all of us have a share in that responsibility. It is harder all the time to withstand the pressure of public opinion that flows away from a God-centered, faith-informed life. But integrity is everything -- we must hold fast to what we were given. And to do that ...
- Don't be afraid to adapt -- We Orthodox haven't wanted to bother ourselves with anything of what has been described as the culture war. We have taken Christ's sure encouragement that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church as some promise that what happened in Constantinople or Soviet Russia would never happen to us. The problem with absenting ourselves from the battle over our common destiny is that our silence was considered a tacit approval. We can't afford to go on mutely, but we haven't much of an appetite for getting involved in an unwinnable war. But that lack of determination could be disastrous if, as it seems, the battle is coming to us.
How wonderful it would be if we could be like the fictional characters that can go on living in a lovely home that we didn't build and trusting that nothing would ever threaten to bring the walls down. We know that the good people of Downton Abbey are in for a terrible shock if they think that the first World War is the worst thing they will see in their lives. We might as well be ready for what the winds of change are bringing our way. Like the lord of that manor, we have a lot to lose; unlike him, the world we live in is all too real.