by Twila Glenn

As you prepare for worship this coming weekend, you are probably aware that some of the congregants will bring with them grief and some will bring joy. Some will come expecting a transcendent experience, and some will just be looking for a break in the noise and busy-ness of the week.

There is also a good chance that more than a few will be chatting about the goings on at a fictional country estate in the north of England at the beginning of the last century—Downton Abbey. How is it that this elegant soap opera of a mini-series has snagged the starry-eyed and the cynical alike, divided homes between “watchers” and “toleraters,” and made the romance of Lady Mary and Matthew fodder for everyday conversations? I believe that, distance in time, geography, and social location notwithstanding, there are many points at which we identify with the themes being played out in Downton Abbey.

By the time you read this, season three has been completed. But, as I write this, episode 3 has just aired, and all references will be based on that level of knowledge. So, no spoilers: The mirror is still dim.

Scriptwriter Julian Fellows has set out a banquet in his theme and characters. His themes include, among others, the decline of the British Empire, the crumbling of the British aristocracy, the rise of socialism, the crassness of American money, the rarity of true love, the depressing regularity with which young men are ground to death in war, and the havoc that change plays in the lives of people and communities.

As for characters, we have a whole host of folks lined up to wonder about. Let’s take a look at Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. Here is a guy whose entire life is tied up in maintaining an estate he didn’t build so that he can pass it on to a person he barely knows. He weds an American heiress to secure the money to save the estate, while said American heiress uses that same money to buy herself the title of Lady Crawley, Countess of Grantham. The whole thing is made palatable for us by the convenience of their falling in love sometime after the wedding. As Downton Abbey’s world embarks upon life-after-World-War-I, Robert dumps the family fortune into a “sure thing.” He loses all of his money (which includes all of Cora’s American money) on an ill-judged investment, and everything threatens to crash down around him, risking not only his lifestyle and reputation, but the economic ecology of the estate, the neighboring village, and the surrounding countryside. But it’s a television show, and furthermore one whose very name reflects the piece of property in jeopardy, so the estate is hardly going to go on the block in the first episode of this season. Conveniently, Robert is spared by the deus ex machina of an unexpected inheritance that bails him out again.

I know a few congregations who are hoping for a “machine of the gods” to bail them out. With some regularity, I hear from congregations that have decided to invest precious resources in a gamble to “save their church.” The idea is to attract youth, or young families, or the folks in the neighborhood. Sometimes this works, but the congregations I hear from are the ones for whom it is not playing out the way they intended. They may be struggling under a mortgage that is starving their programs and ministry, the youth continue to elude them, or perhaps their attendance keeps plummeting and now they can’t even afford their clergyperson. Many are spending down reserves and can count on the fingers of one hand the number of years they have left. These are congregations that often tell me they are “dying” and need an infusion of new members to make sure they survive. They are frustrated, frightened, and burned out.

These are good and well-meaning folks. They know that they need to do something different in order to continue to exist. However, in many of the stories I hear, I suspect that there has also been a hope, perhaps even an assumption, that the “something different” that will solve their problem is essentially some external action—a new building, a new worship service, a renovated nursery.

It seems to me that these congregations are asking the wrong question. The question is not, “How do we save our congregation?” The question is, “How do we be our congregation in the most authentic way possible?” It is the internal work of a congregation that creates a magnetic force attracting those in search of a meaningful community of faith. Absent those deep, internal changes, no cosmetic modification will permanently attract new people to a congregation. But a community of faith that demonstrates spiritual vitality and authentic love of neighbor will be irresistible to the faith-hungry in their midst, even if the carpet is a bit worn.

Well, Sir Robert seems well-meaning enough, and well-meaning congregations find themselves in difficult situations all the time. But sometimes there are more dangerous dynamics at work. A soap opera often has that one dependably nasty person, designed to be the story’s scapegoat.Downton Abbey serves up that role in the deliciously despicable O’Brian, maid to Lady Crawley. Everyone in the county—not to mention the entire viewing audience—knows that she is manipulative, vindictive, and mean. Everyone, that is, except Lady Crawley. Early on O’Brien mistakenly thinks that Lady Crawley is about to replace her. Out of spite, she arranges for Lady Crawley to slip on a bar of soap, causing her to miscarry. Only then does O’Brien find that Lady Crawley was not planning to sack her. Years later, in a guilt-wracked effort to atone for that awful episode, she nurses Lady Crawley night and day through the Spanish Flu, at the risk of her own health. She even comes close, at one point, to confessing her sin to a barely conscious Lady Crawley. She restrains herself. In fact, O’Brien not only pulls back from her confession, it appears, as season two continues and season three begins, that all that guilty conscience stuff is pretty much behind her.

Ah, if it were only so easy. What we see in O’Brien is a mean-spirited and unhappy life, the product, I might surmise, of the corrosive power of unrepented guilt. O’Brien shows us a reparation attempt without a change of behavior. The repentance to which I refer is the act of turning around—of identifying the path we are on, recognizing its damage in our lives, and of turning onto a different path.

We are familiar with this dynamic in individual lives. And, thanks to on-going revelations and court cases, we are all far too familiar with the fact that faith communities, as well, can be the focus of painful, damaging behavior that has festered for years. Bad things happen in the lives of congregations. Large and small, urban and rural, “liberal” and “conservative,” congregations are vulnerable to the same types of bad behavior that other organizations and systems experience.

Congregations respond to and deal with damaging behavior in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, there are a lot of congregations that find resilient ways to work through the pain and disillusionment with openness, transparency, and, eventually, healing. These congregations are able to move into a healthy future, able to take the learning with them. They are changed, but not defeated, by the experience.

In contrast, the congregations that make their way to my desk asking for Alban’s help are often the ones who thought they could put a painful chapter behind them by putting it out of mind. Congregations often try to get beyond damaging events simply by separating themselves from the central players in the episode. The problem is that is just doesn’t work that way. The residual impact of damaging behavior ripples throughout a system. Almost never does that impact completely recede with the departure of a central player. Just like a scapegoat cannot really carry our sins into the wilderness, neither does the pain and damage of bad behavior simply go away because we remove someone from our sight. Genuine recovery of a whole system requires honesty, openness, and usually a good deal of work. Often, a systemic blindness or even complicity has had a role in exacerbating or perhaps even enabling the situation. The system needs to accept responsibility for that role in ignoring or protecting bad behavior. A healthy congregation finds ways to accept that responsibility, learn from it, heal the wounds, and turn onto a new, more faithful path. The alternative is to live, like O’Brien, with the corrosion and decline brought on by secrets and their guilt.

Not every congregation is suffering under the burden of ill-chosen effort to attract new members, or the shame and guilt of years-old secrets. But almost every congregation is, at one time or another, perplexed at the constant changes confronting them. Let’s face it. It can be exhausting for nothing ever to be the same. I can just hear Carson, the butler of Downton, sighing, “Tell me about it.” Just a few years ago, he knew who would be inheriting Downton, he knew how the family would be dressed at dinner, and he knew that servants eat in the servants’ hall. Now, Downton’s finances are increasingly controlled by a middle-class lawyer, men appear at table in new-fangled dinner jackets, and the chauffeur has turned into the Earl’s son-in-law! Poor Carson. His main defense is to insist that he will resist change at all cost, regardless of how it swirls around him. Finally, the shortages of men and resources brought on by World War I cause Carson to drop of exhaustion from trying to keep up appearances. Mrs Hughes, Downton’s far more practical housekeeper, orders him to bed saying that, “The world won’t end if a maid waits at table.” Carson replies miserably, “My world will.”

How many times has this scene played out, in one form or another, in congregation after congregation, in community after community? How many people have miserably watched as their congregational worlds end? How many worship committees have struggled to find ways for organs and drum sets to coexist? How many long-time members have cringed as coffee cups and lettered tee-shirts invade the sanctuary? How many grey-haired governing boards have wondered why they have to learn to use social media as a communication tool? Endowments dissolve, roofs leak, restrooms aren’t “accessible.” The neighborhood changes, generational mix shifts, ethnicity of the community alters, the economy feels like quicksand. Sometimes wouldn’t you just like to say, “Stop! Wait a little while I catch up.” But nothing waits.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, famously said that, “The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change. One might assume from watching some congregations that there is another constant: resistance to change. It comes in many forms, but the one with which I am most familiar is the notion that if a given set of decisions can be made “correctly,” then the resulting situation will set us up for the foreseeable future. One of the hardest lessons for a congregation to learn is how to make good decisions, knowing that they will have to be reassessed and remade, over and over. The capacity to embrace change, while remaining grounded in the enduring presence of God, is the very embodiment of a nimble, forward-thinking congregation.

Of all the themes played out in Downton Abby, it seems to me that the constant change with which the characters are confronted is the one with which we may most closely identify. The constancy of change, along with our stubborn resistance to it, is a universal mark of the human condition. Whether we are a precariously rich denizen of the fictional Downton Abby, or a congregational leader trying to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the twenty-first century, we confront change. We can choose to discount it or embrace it; we can fight against it or go with the flow. What we cannot do is avoid it. Some of us will be timid, like Carson hiding in his room, practicing how to use this terrifying new thing called a telephone. Some of us will be bold, like Lady Sybil taking on her whole insular world to advocate for women’s rights.

With God’s grace, and a grounded community of faith, we can each find the courage with which to lean into the change that is all around us.



Congregations, 2013-03-22
2013 Issue 1, Number 1