Beliefs Culture Politics

Is God the missing character in ‘Downton Abbey’?

Shown left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Violet. RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

(RNS) The third season of the megahit PBS series “Downton Abbey” wraps up on Sunday (Feb. 17), capping another must-see run of ruin and redemption at Lord Grantham’s stately English manor. Yet some are still left puzzled over the absence of what should be a leading Upstairs player in this colorful cast: God.

In the Servants' Hall with Joanne Froggatt as Anna, Rob James-Collier as Thomas, Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes, Jim Carter as Carson, Siobhan Finneran as Sarah O’Brien, Kevin Doyle as Molesley. RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

In the Servants’ Hall with Joanne Froggatt as Anna, Rob James-Collier as Thomas, Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes, Jim Carter as Carson, Siobhan Finneran as Sarah O’Brien, Kevin Doyle as Molesley. RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

Writing last month in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, Todd Dorman wondered why — despite the heart-rending melodrama and all the “divine trappings” that gild the 1920s scenery — “God is a peripheral presence at best.”

“There are numerous fascinating blog posts … that search for implicit Catholic and Christian themes in the show — good and evil, suffering for cause, various types and grades of love and devotion,” Dorman wrote. “At some point, though, especially with a vicar in the family’s employ, it seems odd for such connections to remain unnamed, unspoken, and, for all we can see, unperceived.”

The Rev. Ian Markham, president of (Episcopal) Virginia Theological Seminary and a big “Downton” fan, also discerns serious spiritual themes beneath the surface of the narrative. Yet as Markham told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, faith itself is “relatively invisible. But you would expect religion to be more present in their lives.”

It’s “a bizarre omission,” Telegraph columnist Robert Colvile wrote after the second season wound up. “Perhaps it’s this godlessness, rather than any malice on the part of writer Julian Fellowes, that explains why Downton’s residents appear to have such a peculiarly cursed existence?”

There are, to be sure, a few glimpses of spiritual pathos, as in Season Two when Lady Mary — eldest daughter of Lord Crawley, the Earl of Grantham — beseeches God to keep her beloved Matthew safe in the trenches of World War I. “Dear Lord, I don’t pretend to have much credit with you,” she says. “I’m not even sure that you’re there. But if you are, and if I’ve ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe.”

Still, that doesn’t really rise to the level of what American viewers, in particular, might consider an appropriate religious response to the circumstances. What about a dark night of the soul that leads to enlightenment and conversion? A personal relationship with Jesus, perhaps? Sharing that faith with others?

“They wouldn’t do that, good Lord, no,” said Michael Walsh, a British author and church historian who has been following the series. “And they certainly wouldn’t do it in public.”

As Walsh said, that’s just not the way the English — namely high-church Anglicans like the Crawleys – did religion then. (Or now, for that matter).  And if the Brits of the age were devout, he added, they “tended to turn to Catholicism.” In fact, English Catholicism at this time was enjoying something of a countercultural revival.

Catholic chaplains had distinguished themselves with their battlefield ministry during the Great War, and major writers like G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh converted in the 1920s and ’30s along with a number of other well-known figures.

Shown left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Violet. RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

Shown left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Violet. RNS photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

Waugh’s most famous novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” was set in this era and also focused on the travails of English aristocrats, though chiefly on their struggles with Catholicism and “the operation of grace,” as Waugh put it. That formula proved to have an enduring appeal when the 1981 BBC adaptation became a trans-Atlantic phenomenon that prefigured the success of “Downton Abbey.”

Indeed, doubt plays at least as big a role as belief, which reflects the real disillusionment of the post-war era, at least for some. The jailed valet and veteran John Bates seems to dismiss faith at one point, and Lady Sybil does as well, which is especially poignant given her fate.

“It became, in short, fashionable to lose faith,” said Callum Brown, a religion professor in Scotland who specializes in secularism in Great Britain.

But above all, “Downton Abbey” has been a melodrama about tradition and change and family, and that’s largely how religion fits in — not as faith per se, but as a marker of class and status, of social and personal boundaries that are all coming under pressure to adapt to modern ways.

In this context, religion is about doing what is right and proper — for king and country and the status quo — rather than divining what one personally believes. The rituals of the evening meal are on par with the rites of the Anglican religion (and maybe more scrupulously observed). When the endlessly quotable dowager countess, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), counsels Matthew on choosing a wife, her concern is about appearances as much as the sanctity of the nuptial vows: “Marriage is a long business. There’s no getting out of it for our kind of people,” she says.

Doctrine and theology barely register, and when they do, it is usually through the filter of the anti-Catholicism that was a given in upper-class Anglicanism, and throughout England as the Irish independence struggle was in full swing.

“But isn’t there something rather un-English about the Roman Church?” the local vicar harrumphs as he baits Sybil’s Irish-Catholic husband at dinner. “I cannot feel bells and incense and all the rest of that pagan folderol is pleasing to God.”

In this third season, Lord Grantham himself, furious that his first grandchild will be baptized a Catholic (“There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!”), introduces American viewers to anti-Catholic epithets like “left-footers.”

“I don’t want the thumbscrews or the rack,” as he tells a visiting Anglican bishop, “but there always seems to be something of Johnny foreigner about the Catholics.”

This isn’t the sort of spiritual reckoning that some may want to see, but it does reflect the times — and even our times. Anglican leaders are currently lobbying against a bill that would lift the centuries-old ban on members of the royal family marrying Catholics, and the influx of Muslim immigrants is testing Britain’s culturally Christian identity.

On the other hand, for those looking for Fellowes to channel some of the spirit of Evelyn Waugh, a fourth season is in production. If the shockers of Season 3 and its grand finale Sunday night haven’t planted the seeds for a spiritual conversion — or crisis — in this cast, perhaps maybe nothing can. Stay tuned.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • I didn’t live back then, but perhaps people didn’t wear their religion on their sleeves as so many American’s do today. It was part of life, but not their perceived identity. Living a religious life, instead of just talking about one. God is mentioned, Church of England and the Catholic Church is mentioned – the disagreements between the two are fairly accurate from what I know. But as for adding more God, I don’t see that its necessary. And I’m a fairly religious person. As for the household accepting a homosexual the way season 3 has shown… I think that is more of a stretch of the imagination than the God thing. Although, that would be an example of living a Christian life, and not just talking about one.

  • I’ve been watching another British television series, “Merlin,” about the magician in King Arthur’s court. It has struck me that while the series has plenty of Druids, there is not even a glimpse of a priest, a church, or a cross on a shield or anything to suggest that Camelot of old England may have had some Christian influence, for good or ill. I don’t object so much as note that perhaps, writing Christendom out of plot lines is a new development. That’s okay — perhaps not historically accurate, but there it is. The worst thing we can do, I think, is insist that television series carry our banner.

  • Well, they were all willing to go to war, or support war, so they must have been Christian under all the emphasis on family only.

  • If you owned many thousands of acres of land and employed hundreds of people and lived in a magnificent castle, in other words an aristocrat, why would you want a jesus who was a sheep herder, who communed with fishermen and the likes, and who opposed money lending etc? Religion, especially christianity was for people like Mosley, for the meek, not for aristocrats like Lord Grantham.

  • Actually Lord Grantham and his kind did have a God by whom they believed that they were blessed and entitled. God was worshiped at the source of authority and legitimacy. God ordained the monarch (Dieu et mon droit) and then the authority of God passed from the monarch to the established nobility and from them down to the commons, with ranks within the commons. There was no need to make a fuss about this and no need for ostentation about all this. It simply was the order of the universe and the order of society. The church existed to serve this hierarchy and perhaps to make it kinder (but often to make it sterner). Lack of religion in individuals does not interfere with this order as long as the monarchy, the nobles and the church as institutions operate.

    This notion of God is part of every empire. The Catholic Church for instance believes that authority comes from God to the pope and then to bishops and rulers and then down to the obedient faithful. Simply how the universe is structured. Period. Not to be questioned. But the Catholic Church, unlike the Anglican Church, contends with rulers and monarchs for supremacy so it makes a big deal of itself in a showy way.

  • the authority is thought to be from from god to Christians. Not to others. gods authority certainly does not come down to researchers at Harvard for example. These days god’s authority avoids intelligent people.

  • We should not confuse churchiness and religiosity with faith, or the absence of Jesus-talk with the lack of faith. Nor should we forget that no western industrial culture is as loudly religious as is our American culture. “Downton Abbey” is set in a different time and place. Different cultural norms were – and to a certain extent still are – in play. There are always boundaries between that which is public and that which is private, but no two cultures draw the lines in exactly the same places.

  • Now they would all be talking about the infiltration of Islam, which has been made possible simply because the Judeo-Christian religion has not been important to them. As it is said, you don’t bother the Anglican church, and it won’t bother you.

  • What is missing in” Downton Abbey” is what is present in “Chariots of Fire.” A hero like Eric Liddell, whose life is informed by his Christianity and appreciated, especially by the reigning aristocracy, for what it can teach us all.

  • Surgeon John:

    The Eric Liddell reference is a very good one, and an element to be explored. Though it’s not clear how someone of his background might come across the paths of the Crawleys. Let’s hope for Season 4!

  • God is not absent. God is there in the behavior of the characters. This is revealed especially in the last episode. There is constant expression of gratitude, very Eucharistic. There is the constant emphasis on relationships of love and respect, despite differences in ethical norms. A reflection of the two great commandments of Christ.

    A lot of talk by religionists about religion is not nearly as close to the spirit of the Gospels as the emphasis in those how on gratitude and on loving relationships and learning to respect those with whom we have differences.

    Perhaps God is more honored by Christian behavior more than by Christian talk.

  • “Perhaps God is more honored by Christian behavior more than by Christian talk.”

    John, I don’t think there is any “perhaps” about it.

    We sometimes seem to have lost the ability to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit unless it is very loud and in large print.

  • You don’t have to be a world class athlete or a missionary whose death is mourned by all England to be a person of consequence whose life was informed by her Christian faith. My mother, who passed away just last Wednesday, had the strongest and most well informed faith of anyone I knew. Despite being abused herself as a child and suffering many long years in an abusive marriage, she somehow raised seven children to become decent, loving spouses and parents; all able to cast off the yoke of alcohol and abusive personality themselves. Nothing short of miraculous! Surgeon John