My wife, Chickpastor, and I started watching Downton Abbey two weeks ago, and we have already watched all of season one and the first episode of season two. We like it so much that I’m having to limit my time on the internet to avoid reading season two spoilers. I knew I had to try it when seventy year olds and thirty year olds alike told me how much they liked it. Only later did I realize that those seventy year olds were all women, and the thirty year olds were all television critics, but I’m glad I missed those details because if I had noticed them I probably wouldn’t have watched it, and I am really enjoying it. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sink my teeth into a TV show, and there is so much great drama in this show that we always end up reflecting on it after it’s over.
The first two episodes showed me many things I had not previously seen about the relationship between an English lord and his subjects, and it got me thinking about church and the relationship pastors have historically had with their churches. This really got started when I heard Mike Breen speak back in August, but he’s English, so the topic of “lord and subject” is one that he is more familiar with than I am. It wasn’t until I saw Downton Abbey that I realized what Mike was talking about, and how deeply this “lord-subject” reletionship is ingrained into the church structures that Christians brought here from Europe.
On Downton Abbey, the lord owns everything and the servants own nothing, but they each basically give their lives to each other. The lord lives to serve the estate, which includes providing for the servants. The servants live to serve their Lord, providing for his needs so that he can provide for theirs. It basically functions as a welfare state, in which the servants give all they are to their lord, andin return the lord doles out whatever they need, as he sees fit.
All churches used to be that way, and many still are. Churches functioned like castles or keeps, with the title being passed down from one pastor to another instead of being kept within the family, but, like a feudal lord, it was treated as though the position was more important the person in it. Whoever held the title at the time was responsible for providing services like a feudal lord does: worship is a service, and so too are baptisms, funerals and weddings. Even the building is provided. The job of the congregation is to serve the church and it’s head, the pastor. They pay money and donate their time, and in return the pastor takes care of them by providing those services. That’s the social contract. It is also a kind of welfare state, only it’s a spiritual one.
Jesus addressed this very topic in Luke 22:2-27: “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
What’s fascinating to me about this is the lord of Downton Abbey would never, ever serve food to those beneath him. The castle, and those who rely on it, are his life’s work, but not in that way. There are clearly defined rules about who does what, and the social contract is clear: you give to the lord, and the lord doles it back out to you.
Jesus has a different social contract in mind.
In the Kingdom of God, there are no lords except God. No person is greater, no person is lesser, than anyone else. We are all together, serving one another, loving one another, not as lord and subject to other people, but all of us together on the same level. Further, we are not merely subjects of the lord. Instead, we are also God’s children. We are not servants, we are heirs, who are also subjects of the lord but get to sit at the same table as the lord and learning how to be like the lord. It is fascinating to watch Downton Abbey and see how important it is for the lord to pass on what he has learned to an heir. God is the same way! God wants to pass on all God is to us and we, like the oldest child Mary Grantham on Downton Abbey, want to do things our way instead.
That is the social contract God intends for us. All people on the same level, not as mere subjects of God but as heirs. It’s a wonderful vision of the church that we are trying to live out in The River. It’s new, it’s different, and there are plenty of hiccups, but it’s wonderful. So, too, is Downton Abbey, but I’d rather keep it where it belongs: on TV.