The phenomenally successful TV mini-series Downtown Abbey, set in early 20th century pre (and post) WWI England, depicts a time when aristocratic feudalism was in decline. There are ancient Catholic vs. Protestant animosities at the heart of its story. This conflict, though hardly remembered today by most of the younger generation of a more “un-churched” society, perhaps holds a new-found fascination for Americans. They religiously watch every episode of the show.
In one recent episode, Irishman Tom, the Earl of Grantham’s son-in-law and their former chauffeur, drops a bombshell. He announces that his and Sybil’s baby will be baptized Catholic. “My daughter is Irish and she’ll be Catholic like her father,” he says. The news sends Lord Grantham storming out of the room.
Later that morning, Robert (the Earl) seeks an ally in his wife, Cora. “Did you hear about Tom’s announcement at breakfast?” he asks. The writer, Julian Fellows, not shy about using derogatory old world anachronisms in the script, writes Robert’s line, “He wants the child to be a ‘left-footer.’” (a phrase from the 19th century referring to Irish Catholic laborers who used their left foot when digging with a spade while Protestants used their right.) Lord Grantham goes on, “The only chance that child has of achieving anything in life is because of the blood of her mother.” In this instance, Cora bravely disagrees although she has often demurred to the wishes of the family patriarch.
The baby’s mother, deceased Crawley (Lord Grantham’s) daughter Sybil, was a privileged daughter of this very English Protestant family. Lord Grantham’s comments have more to do with the upper class advantages of being a Crawley than with the religious superiority of the Church of England (Protestant) even though in reality the two were linked.
Almost no exposition of the differences between the two forms of Christianity predominant in England is given in the story, nor reasons why the churches would be in conflict. One character puts down the Catholic Church’s use of incense and ceremony as paganism but not much else is revealed. For my own Grandfather, the “new” (1920s) Methodist church was more forward-thinking and provided a place to try out ideas about evolution he learned in science classes at the University of Toronto. Catholics place ultimate interpretive authority in the Pope while conservative Protestants place it with the individual Christian and his/her interpretation of the Bible. This was “the priesthood of all believers,” established by Martin Luther. The sectarian split led to a segregation of the faith communities.
As a young adult, I found out about my own Irish-Catholic inheritance. I learned that my English grandfather had denied his wife, my grandmother Catherine (Ojibwe/Irish), the practice of her religion, requiring her to attend Methodist Church with him. Catherine allowed her Irish Catholic culture to be destroyed within the confines of their very closed community of Scotch-English Protestants who looked down on Catholics. My mother watched our grandma place her shawl, catechism and crucifix in a trunk for safekeeping, expressing the wish that if her husband died before her, she would return to her church.
The irony in my family is that the Catholic side is mostly Ojibwe Indian. They were converted by the Jesuit Fathers centuries ago. We also discovered that Grandpa actually lied about Catherine’s relatives who lived on the Ojibwe First Reserve, and tried to conceal their existence from us. For me, to reconnect with them when I was young would have meant a kind of redemption, one that’s impossible to fully achieve now. It’s a separation I cannot completely compensate for, although I’ve made some successful efforts in that direction. In my experience, I believe this fragmentation of faith, this sectarian division between Catholic and Protestant, has had a bad effect. It actually prevented my family from fully realizing a true and balanced health and wellness.
Does the fascination with the old church-based society portrayed in Downton Abbey have any true religious significance? Probably not, I think. For example, it is not because Lord Grantham is devout Church of England that he comes into conflict with Irish Tom over the Catholic christening of the baby. The families in Downton Abbey are hardly depicted as church goers. It is because of the social status Lord Grantham wanted for the baby.
Survey’s today show that more than half of the English people claim to have no religion (or denomination). 19.9% are Church of England, and 8.6% are Catholic.
At least on our West Coast in the U.S., such religious differences are being gradually forgotten. Even though the last election showed that the Catholic stance against birth control is still a divisive issue, most ignore it and practice birth control anyway.
We can turn these old divisions into modern day soap opera because the historical Christian conflict does not have much real presence in our experience anymore.