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Religion and Downton Abbey

Religion and Downton Abbey

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly asked the Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, “to ponder religious and spiritual themes in the series, from the invisibility of God to the relationship between faith and a rapidly changing social order:”

Religion plays a very interesting role in the series. On one level, it’s relatively invisible. But you would expect religion to be more present in their lives. You do see the connection between religion and cosmic events in this respect: It’s a social commentary in many ways. It’s a social history. So you get the Titanic, you get World War I, you get the emancipation of Ireland, you get the vote of women, you have all these significant social events which actually reflects on a sort breaking down of the semi-feudal structure, aristocratic control and elitism being slowly undermined. And there is a sort of interesting question about whether or not the sort of disequilibrium that makes up the present in Season 3 is a spiritual failing. There are practices, faith practices which come out repeatedly, so there’s quite a lot of praying that goes on. Lady Mary prays for Matthew when he’s injured in the war with real passion and sincerity. So prayer is actually an important sub-theme, and there is a sense in which it is a classic form of English Anglicanism, which in many ways is very supportive of traditional structures, and as those traditional structures break down the English Anglicanism is undermined and eroded as well.

One way in which the series is actually very illuminating is to think about faith and change, to think about social order and faith, to think about the ways in which we’ve got to adapt to a plural society. I mean, what’s very interesting about Season 3 is the whole issue of Catholicism. You’re talking English anti-Catholicism is deeply entrenched. How does an established form of religion adapt to an increasingly complex world with intrinsic pluralism of faith perspectives and a social order which doesn’t just enjoy the habit of Anglicanism?

Those one-liners from Maggie Smith are just sublime. Sometimes wicked, sometimes insightful, sometimes wrapped in prejudice, and she utters the lines we all wish we could utter. And there’s a deep biblical strand which celebrates and reflects on the power of conversation. This series, partly because of its powerful dialogue, captures that facet of human reality very nicely, indeed.


…what I think the series is doing is inviting us to think of faith in a new and different way. Faith is interpreting how we relate to each other. Faith is coping with the complexity of our past. Faith is carrying the baggage that shapes us all into the present and doing so in ways that are ameliorated and less damaging. Faith is hope even when you are in a predicament of hopelessness. All these themes bubble through countlessly.

Read more here.


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