Downton Abbey: The vicar makes an appearance

It has already been noted that religion is almost nonexistent in the well-loved PBS series Downton Abbey (now in its final season). With the long-awaited nuptials of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, the question arises again of the invisible vicar, who appears only at weddings. The Toast begins with that observation, but moves on to discussing the language of the ceremony, from the Book of Common Prayer (pre-1920s revisions), and the presence faith on-screen and off:

The Book of Common Prayer, which had survived in much the same form since 1662, was at this very moment being revised in response to decades of pressure. A Royal Commission, created to undertake this work in 1906, finished its work in 1927. But the new book was rejected by the House of Commons, not once but twice, led by a group of MPs who believed that the new forms permitted undermined the church’s Reformation principles. The Church of England is an established, state church, and the monarch of Britain is its nominal head; according to a 1919 Act, any changes to the prayer book required parliamentary approval before they could receive the royal assent. Parliament’s rejection set up an awkward situation, resolved, somewhat tenuously, by the decision of the Church to assert its authority and allow bishops to use the new liturgy. In many books the old and the new forms were printed alongside one another.

Had Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes married just a few years later, then, Mrs. Hughes could have promised “to love and to cherish,” rather than “to obey,” her new partner, while Mr. Carson could have merely honored her with his body and shared his world goods. But, old-fashioned sentimentalists that they were, they probably would have stuck with the old form, just as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane do in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

Historian A.J.P. Taylor asserts that by this point in British history, religion had become more a matter of culture and morality than belief and spirituality, partly from a growing diversity of religious traditions and partly from the movement of social justice and care for the poor to secular entities:

Beginning in the 1870s, there was a shift from the severe personal convictions of evangelical mid-Victorians, to a more undogmatic, social Christianity that accepted multiple forms of belief even while it continued to regulate morality and behavior. By the 1880s, churchgoing had begun to decline.

and historian Callum Brown dates the “death of Christian Britain” to the 1960s.

Sunday’s Season 6, Episode 3 underscores the secularism of the British – sins and scandals, from tempers lost because of frayed nerves to political blackmail, are discussed and handled without any mention of religion or faith. Perhaps, says Mo Moulton, the episode is a reflection of today as much as it is of the 1920s:

Less than a year ago, in his Easter message, prime minister declared Britain to be “a Christian country,” insisting: “The church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force doing great works across our country.” Downton, by contrast, gives us precisely a church that is a collection of beautiful old buildings: the rugged, ancient stone behind Mr. Carson was far more evocative than the minister, who said almost nothing even in the wedding scene. It is an accurate reflection of modern England, where 25% of the population said in 2011 that they had no religion at all and a further 5% identified as Muslim, making Islam the second-largest religious group in the country. Two-thirds of marriages are now civil ceremonies rather than religious ones. In 1925, however, things were quite different. Downton’s vicar is missing, but what’s really striking is that, as modern viewers, we’ve hardly missed him at all.


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  1. Ann Fontaine

    I do love the line “With my body I thee worship” – the rest of the “obey” part — not so much.

  2. Margaret Sjoholm-Franks

    According to the GAFCON bishops both bride and groom should be expelled from their church and the marriage be declared null and void because the marriage would not lead to procreation; Mrs. Hughes is beyond reproductive age, and it’d be a miracle is she gets pregnant.

    • Shockingly that’s not actually what GAFCON or, truly, any small-o orthodox Christian Church teaches at all; be they Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Eastern/Oriental Orthodox.

      • Margaret Sjoholm-Franks

        One of the arguments against same-sex relationships and marriages is that those relationships do not lead to reproduction…your comment highlights the hypocrisy in those denominations and the lack of coherence and consistency in their positions in regards to same-sex couples. Thank you.

      • Odd to label someone as hypocritical when you are quite literally placing words in your mouth. Child rearing is a Aristotelian/Thomistic argument, not certainly not a predominant one among traditional Anglicans, Eastern Rite Catholics, the Orthodox or most Protestants. But I am glad you seem to know my mind better than I myself.

      • JC Fisher

        I am familiar w/ a case about 15 years ago in Brazil, when the RCC refused to conduct the marriage liturgy for a paralysed man (for precisely the reason that he wasn’t able to reproduce—at least not “naturally”). IIRC, the couple then got a civil marriage.

    • Geoff McLarney

      If one’s definition of “small-o orthodoxy” is elastic enough to encompass “Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Eastern/Oriental Orthodox” Christianity, what does it mean other than anti-gay?

      • Considering the fact that more theology is shared between those elements of the Church than not, I’d say there is quite a lot. There are a whole host of resources on each of them made available quite easily thanks to the Internet. Not very hard to find.

        But yes a common, 2000 year old consensus on the theology of the body, human sexuality, what constitutes Authority and how Scripture and Tradition are read, is definitely a part of it.

  3. Good for Downton Abbey. Always enjoyed the show but it did seem odd to see it secularized.

  4. David Allen

    This is the first of three Anglican weddings in this final season!

    • JC Fisher

      NO SPOILERS!!!!

    • David Allen

      There is also a wedding that we don’t see, but know that it has occurred!

  5. David Ouzts

    I’m glad to see the old Vicar again. Though out of sight for long periods of time, we know that he’s been there through tragedy and triumph with the Crawleys, the least of which was poor Lady Edith being abandoned at the altar in Season 3! And while I do not agree with that “obey” part of the marriage liturgy, I’m happy to know that writer Julian Fellowes was true to the practice of the times when writing those lines.

  6. Anne Bay

    Downton Abbey’s focus is on interpersonal relationships within the confines of Britain’s rigid class traditions. Fascinating, yet scary stuff because it is noticeable how people were almost doomed to be and do one thing in their life. And Downton Abbey’s writers did a good job of delving into this also. Even the current owners of the home where Downton Abbey is filmed said that he had had a discussion with his children, and he is going by the British rule that the oldest son inherits the land and all the belongings. So, they may have taken “obey” out of the service, but the traditions continue! And it’s still a male dominated society-like ours is. I was glad to see that the church was left out of the script for the most part and the story of the family and the servants were the main thing. Perhaps a new show could include the role of the church more and its influence on the roles of the people who live on these old family estates. The church was included in a subtle way in the thread of the stories-very smoothly done.

  7. Walter Baer

    The absence of the church is indeed one of Downton Abbey’s failings (there aren’t many). It is perhaps understandable. The old series “Upstairs-Downstairs” did have more of the religion of the time in it, and it was historically accurate and distasteful. For example, there is the butler leading a prayer and devotionals for the servants (quoting St. Paul) about how servants are to submissive to masters and other such texts which were used to keep the hierarchial social order intact. Other unseemly aspects of Christianity would also have to be shown, if it were done accurately. On the upstairs side, they would have to show sycophantic Anglican clergy dining with the aristocracy to whom they were beholden, not the more prophetic stance would would hope for, which hardly existed at the time. Interestingly, this was an internal debate in the planning of the series in that they never show the family sit down to a meal, but start mid-meal because they would have said grace.

  8. Stephen Whaley

    I’d like to see a gifted writer take on Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles for a look at how the church and state danced in the old days. I enjoyed the books, maybe a television program could be as enjoyable as Downton

    • Stephen, I think a series on Barchester is a wonderful idea. Why hasn’t it been done before now?

      • JC Fisher

        And look, it had the late lamented Alan Rickman (RIP). I watch Masterpiece (nee’ …Theater) um, religiously, but I confess I haven’t seen this one [1982: when I was an undergrad, and one of the few times of my life I was TV-less.]

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