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Downton Abbey and the #TrulyHuman Practice of Coming Alongside

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After hearing numerous people talk about how much they loved the British series Downton Abbey, we decided to check it out for ourselves. Why was there an almost global fascination with the historic lives, fortunes and misfortunes of the ‘Crawleys,’ both upstairs and downstairs. Could the primary story line be showing us something about our humanity and even create a metaphor for the church?

Many of us have loved and prided ourselves on a certain way of doing things as church. Perceiving ourselves as the ones with the resources, funding, expertise, etc. we took up a benevolent role which seemed to work quite well for a long time, just like on the Grantham estate. Robert, lord of the manor, understood his role not just as one of privilege but of responsibility. He felt quite strongly that for the sake of the tenants, things could not be changed; that he needed to be continue to be provider and overseer.

In season 3, however Matthew, his son-in-law and heir, begins to investigate the underlying finances of the estate and recognizes that it is not sustainable. In fact it hasn’t been for years! It has been running on inherited fortunes which will eventually disappear. Could the western church be running on inherited fortunes that are disappearing? Could changing times and autocratic relationships bring the whole thing down if, like the Earl we insist on holding unto the past, attempting to maintain our current approaches and postures?

How might, as Matthew suggests, setting the tenants free, while perhaps initially creating challenges for them also be a way of affirming their true humanity, their capacities and capabilities?

According to Jesus, it’s not about taking over, being in power or asserting control even when you appear to have all that it takes to do so. (Surely Jesus, the Son of God could have done so!) It’s about coming alongside. In fact, the promise of the Spirit is just that. The paraclete, the one who comes alongside, is promised to the disciples that they might be all that they are already called and sent to be IN the world, amongst the people. They become their true selves, truly human, the Body of Christ through the Spirit who is with them, not over or above them! And they help others to discover who they really are in the same way, by coming alongside, not being the providers, the authorities, the resourced professionals.

“The choice for Downton Abbey is clear, as we know well, being 90 years in their future: change or die.”[1]

Could the same be said of the church? Change or die? Allow the Spirit to refresh and renew, release and refurbish or…? What if being fully human, more fully who God has blessed us to be, means relearning what it means to come alongside others? As Alan Roxburgh explains, “God’s kingdom is announced and lived out in the midst of ordinary people”; “the gospel indwells a time and a place”[2] and this is where “God’s boundary breaking future will emerge.”[3]

Chris Lowny in telling the story of the Jesuits explains, “We’re all leaders and we’re leading all the time, well or poorly. Leadership springs from within. It’s about who I am as much as what I do. Leadership is not an act. It is my life, a way of living. I never complete the task of becoming a leader. It’s an ongoing process.”[4]

Luke 10:1-12 proposes such a posture of engagement, a way of living by coming alongside such that one can proclaim in the midst, that the Kingdom of God has come near. “Luke 10 offers an alternative direction- it suggests that the location of the church is in the public space of household, neighbourhood and town. The church rediscovers its life at the table, where bread is broken and stories are told.”[5]

This “alternative direction” assumes some significant shifts in our perceptions and practices. These include moving the focus of our church life from our commuter congregation (our abbey?) to our neighbourhood. If God’s central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be in ‘flesh and blood.’

Secondly, it will necessitate the continuing shift from postulating ourselves as doing ‘to’ or ‘for’ the neighbours or neighbourhood to entering in as the vulnerable ones. We will need to “Like strangers in need of hospitality who have left their baggage behind, enter the neighbourhoods and communities where [we] live, sit at the table of the other and there [we may] begin to hear what God is doing.”[6] From here, we learn to serve with humility as cultivators [7] who are one of; with and amongst and who lead by listening and embodying, encouraging and modeling, showing compassion and even dying to self… like Jesus.

This is a truly human sort of mission.

Thirdly, this “alternative direction” recognizes that “the world is custodian of the coming reign of God no less than the church- not through Beelzebub, but through the universal power and presence of God’s Spirit, who is preveniently at work in the world preparing for this eschatological event (Rev.21:5).”[8]

As His reign is illuminated through our Spirit infused humanity coming alongside, the world, our neighbourhoods become better places for all all to be whom God has already called and made them to be, as His children and heirs.

Shifts such as these, like those that begin to unravel the old world of Downton Abbey, will come about as we let go of what once was held so dear and embrace, perhaps with fear and trepidation, a new, renewed way of being.

As we challenge ourselves and each other to be open and attentive to God at work in His world, in our neighbourhoods may we (re)discover “the good news not only of what Christ has done but also of what the Holy Spirit is doing today and tomorrow to bring Christ’s work to fulfillment.”[9]

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1- Steve Van Zanen, Downton Abbey and World Missions http://network.crcna.org/content/global-mission/downton-abbey-and-world-missions?utm_source=CRC+Pastors&utm_campaign=010cee4de8-For+CRC+Pastors+-+January+30%2C+2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c84d0eacb4-010cee4de8-52011549

2- Alan Roxburgh, Missional Joining God in the Neighborhood, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2011. 129.

3- Roxburgh, Missional – Joining God, 131.

4- Chris Lowny, Heroic Leadership. (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2005), 15. Emphasis mine.

5-Roxburgh, Missional – Joining God, 148.

6-Roxburgh, Missional – Joining God, 134.

7-Alan Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 183-188.

8-Geroge R. Hunsberger and Craig VanGelder, (ed.), The Church Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmanns, 1996), 196.

9- Hunsberger and Van Gelder, (ed), The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 196.

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