Ten Ways the Church is Like Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Church Logo

By Ken Howard & Wendy Dackson

[Simulblogged on Paradoxical Thoughts and Past Christian]

It all started a few days ago, when Ken came across an Episcopal Church Meme on Facebook and reposted on his own Facebook page with a comment about how it reminded him of Downton Abbey (and not exactly in a good way). The meme in question, displayed below, showed the Presiding Bishop, along with several other resplendently attired clergy and lay people lined in the National Cathedral nave, with the slogan “Ancient Tradition. Modern Outlook. That’s the Episcopal Church.”


Much to Ken’s surprise, his snarky yet somber comment – that the Church should more than simply the “thoughtful theatre” of Downton Abbey – touched of hours of free association – between Ken, Wendy, and friends – about the many and varied ways in which Downton Abbey could serve as a metaphor for the Church generally, and the Episcopal Church specifically. [scroll to the bottom for Ken’s original comment]

By the time all was said and done, there was enough material for a blog post on the subject. What follows are the several of the ways the Church is like Downton Abbey, the fictional castle, and Downton Abbey, the show.

  1. Both are institutions caught between the future and the past, uncertain of their relevance in the present. Downton Abbey is a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but its occupants are not entirely certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world – something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing – with some of its inhabitants trying to find relevance by fitting into a much-fantasized future and other trying desperately to hang on to an over-idealized past. Sort of like the Church, right?
  2. Both are overly focused on caste, class, and rank. At both Downton Abbey and in the Church there is a definite caste system at work, and within each caste, a fiercely protected hierarchy. In Downton, there is the division between the aristocracy and the servants/villagers, and it is especially in the “common” class, the majority, where rank is most obviously important – it’s very important to be an assistant cook rather than a kitchen maid, or to be acknowledged as first In the Church, the caste system is most obviously seen in, but is not limited to, the clergy-lay divide). On the clergy side of the divide, the three ordained orders have morphed from three equally valued vocations into a hierarchical ladder in which too many are reaching for the next rung. And on the lay side, rank is too often reflected in who gets asked to be senior warden, who is “admitted” to the Altar Guild, who gets elected to General Convention, etc.
  3. Both are unreflectively obsessed with the preservation of the status quo. At Downton Abbey, when the Crawley family fortunes are on the decline, the question is not “how do we deal with changing circumstances?” but “how do we keep things going as they have been?” Meanwhile, the Church is still hanging on to the need to make things look like they did immediately after the Second World War: married with children, and the centerpiece of people’s social lives. This leads on to….
  4. Both are pretending to be in a time and place other than those in which they actually exist. Highclere Castle, the house that is the real star of Downton Abbey, is in post-modern Hampshire, far south and a century later than the Crawley estate in post-Edwardian Yorkshire, yet serves as a setting for acting out social conventions and attitudes from a bygone era. The Church – including and often particularly our own Episcopal Church, has a tendency to behave as though it is much more deeply anchored in the past than it currently is, preferring to imagine that is rooted in Victorian or medieval England, or better yet the early Christian era, while most of its current controversies are rooted firmly in the Modernism of the so-called Enlightenment and much of its current attitudes are grounded in the 1950s.
  5. Both are closed systems, suspicious of “outsiders.” Downton Abbey is, to a large extent, a closed system. Not only is it exceptionally difficult to cross from one caste to another within the house (Tom Branson being the prime example, having been a chauffeur and marrying one of the Crawley daughters), but it is even more difficult to come in as an outsider. Sometimes, this suspicion and hostility has worked to the benefit of the household: one can name Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s wealthy-but-nasty beau prior to her marriage to Matthew Crawley. Matthew, the distant heir to the title and estate, along with his mother Isobel, did not exactly receive an enthusiastic welcome to the family, either. But at least Carlisle and Matthew had some claim (either wealth and social rank or blood) to entering the system. More recently, Miss Sarah Bunting, a teacher who again crosses lines of rank (by tutoring assistant cook Daisy, and having a bit of romantic possibility with Tom Branson), finds it impossible to be an acceptable dinner guest at the Abbey. Likewise, churches often promote themselves as “welcoming”, but function as closed systems where newcomers have a difficult time finding an acceptable role. Which leads to…
  6. Both regularly rely on a system of assimilation rather than welcome. In Downton, the Crawley family ultimately learns to love and accept Tom Branson, and even to rely on his considerable gifts and talents but only after they seduce him into assimilating into their customs, manners, dress, and other affectations. Ultimately, he begins to wonder who he really is and what he has become: almost an aristocrat but still suffering from a kind of imposter’s syndrome, uncertain about the “price” of his acceptance. Churches often make the same error in their newcomer incorporation efforts, mistaking assimilation for welcome. And in almost every denomination, the Church’s systems for discerning and training clergy tend to act as an over-active immune system, weeding out any leadership that would challenge the status quo.
  7. Both have a tendency, if not careful, to reduce people to their roles. In Downton, Sir Robert often reduces Cora to her role as his wife, being unable to remember that she is (a) an attractive woman (evidenced in the suspicion of her adultery with the art expert), and (b) having interests (such as her knowledge of art and music) apart from the Abbey and the family. In Church, this is often seen in our overreliance on clergy for pastoral care and an under-reliance on lay people. Wendy recently experienced this with a Facebook friend – an Episcopal priest – who on learning she had sustained a broken wrist, asked (on Facebook) if she wanted a visit “from my parish priest,” when what she would really rather have was a visit from a friend. (She didn’t get the visit.)
  8. Both often engage in secret keeping and triangulation in defense of honor. This is almost a weekly trope on Downton, with almost every character hiding a secret from at least one other character, often from the world at large, often as an “open secret,” enough to provide “plausible deniability” of the ”elephant in the room,” and generally with the aim of defending the family’s honour. The issue is never about preventing wrongdoing (or doing the right thing to begin with) but rather to prevent scandal. Better to send the person who “caused” the embarrassment away than to confront the underlying issues. In the Church, one need not look farther than most denomination’s disciplinary procedures to find evidence of this dynamic. From pedophile priests to drunk-driving bishops, the system is concerned less with supporting healthy behavior than it is with punishing bad behavior, and less with catching and rectifying bad behavior early than with ridding itself of those who manage to get themselves caught. Which is kind of related to…
  9. Both often resort to scapegoating. In Downton, the plot lines tend to either kill off or run off anyone who might make a positive bridge between old and new, or give a critical view of the status quo. Think hard about Lady Sybil, Matthew Crawley, Tom Branson… and then think of what church does when someone wants to bridge divides. As Ken once said, “If you want to be a bridge, be prepared to be stepped from both sides. And finally…
  10. Both are metaphors of poor stewardship of real estate. The one thing that becomes immediately clear about Downton Abbey is that most of its living space is unlived in most of the time. One of the reasons they need so many maids is to keep the dust from settling on all the furniture in the unused rooms. If those rooms were being used more frequently, they would not need to be dusted so frequently, because in a well-used home, the activity of the occupants make dusting almost unnecessary. And what’s more, judging by their obvious relief when the injured soldiers are relocated at the end of the “Great” War, it’s clear the Crawley’s would like to keep it that way. Most churches are similarly poor stewards of their “living space.” A few services on Sunday, maybe another on Saturday evening, a few meetings during the week… That adds up to a lot of empty space. And even those who rent out their space do so more out of financial need than out of an earnest desire to put their buildings to their highest use.

Got some examples you’d like to add? We’d love to hear from you…

Coming soon: “What the Church Could Learn from Dowton Abbey” (Spoiler alert: The list is shorter)

Ken’s original snarky Facebook comment:

This recently posted Episcopal Church Meme just doesn’t do it for me. It seems to be proclaiming that the Episcopal Church is sorta like Downton Abbey: a beautiful mansion, balancing ancient splendor with modern conveniences, but with occupants not not 100% certain what they stand for amidst the changes and chance of the world. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something…missing… A two-legged stool: Tradition and Reason, minus Scripture.

I mean, I loves me some Downton Abbey but the Episcopal Church I joined is more than thoughtful theatre. We have a core of theology solidly ground in Scripture. Obscuring our engagement with Scripture doesn’t make us more attractive. Rather it makes us seem…empty.


Ten Things Churches Could Learn from Starbucks (Hint: It’s not about making coffee)

Starbucks Logo

Editor’s Note:
This article was written at the Kingsview Village Starbucks.

By Ken Howard

Churches could learn a few things from Starbucks…

Starbucks is one of those places that, even if you don’t go there, you know it’s the place to go.

It’s the number one coffee shop in the United States, maybe even in the world. It’s almost like Starbucks was selling something addictive…

They are, of course. Starbucks sells coffee, which contains the drug caffeine. But as far as we know, Starbucks coffee contains no more of the drug than the coffee sold at it’s two biggest coffee competitors, McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts. Starbucks doesn’t even sell better coffee, regularly coming in #3 behind McD and DD in blind taste tests.

It’s not about advertising, either. Starbucks hardly does any, compared to its competitors. You won’t find the Starbucks mermaid popping up on your TV next to the words “I’m lovin’ it.” Nor will you find a single billboard proclaiming, “America runs on Starbucks.”

So if it’s not about better coffee, stronger caffeine, or better advertising, what is it? Why are so many people addicted to Starbucks? If you ask the Starbucks CEO, he’ll tell you. It’s not about making better coffee but about the Starbuck’s experience. Starbucks knows how to create an experience and provide a sense of community that fill a deep-down need.

So let’s ask the real question, “Why are so many people addicted to the Starbuck’s experience?”

Here are ten reasons:1

Reason #1: Starbucks’ mission (the “why”) is greater than their product (the “what”). Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Inspiring and nurturing human spirit is so much greater of a mission than selling people coffee in neighborhood stores. It is transcendent and transformational. It aspires to make a difference in the world. People want to be part of something greater than themselves.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. For a church to be vital and effective, its vision and mission also must be greater than its product. What is your church’s product (what it does every Sunday)? How is that different from your church’s vision (what it aspires to be) and mission (why it exists)? In what ways are the latter greater from the former?

Reason #2: Starbucks is focused on a definable market. Knowing that one size does not fit all, Starbucks focuses their attention on a particular segment of the market. They don’t exclude other portions of the market from coming. Rather, they realize that while a vision and mission can be transcendent and transformative, a product and its market must be finite and focused.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. God’s love may be infinite but churches’ human and financial resources are not. Effectiveness requires focus. Churches must make choices about which segments require their primary focus. Has your church leadership define its primary target group(s)? How would you describe them?

Reason 3: Starbucks studies its market(s). Starbucks does a lot of market research. They try to determine not only what the people in their chosen market wants (what they are consciously looking to buy), but also on what they are likely to need to feel comfortable and at ease (needs of which they may not even be consciously aware).

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches must understand their target markets at a similar depth, not only determining the wants they will have when they visit the first time, but also discerning their deepest needs, which when met will plant in them a desire to stay. Do you know the wants and needs of the people in your surrounding community? How would you describe their wants? How would you describe their needs?

Reason 4: Starbucks designs its entire business around its customers’ wants and needs. Starbucks’ CEO says of their marketing strategy, “Sell them what they want, but give them what they need.” Starbucks customers may visit because they want coffee, but they stay because Starbucks has met their deeper needs through the things they simply give away. The next six reasons will describe some of the deeper needs Starbucks addresses and how they meet them.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. People may come to a church for great worship, but unless the church provides them with great community – a deep sense of connectedness with God and each other – they may not stay, and they will never become truly committed. How does your church strike this balance? How do you provide for people’s wants? How do you address people’s needs?

Reason 5: Starbucks stores provide an intentional experience. Think of all the senses engaged when you visit a Starbucks. There is, of course, the aroma of dark roasted coffee beans in the air. Some suggest that Starbucks roasts its beans longer than most places not to improve the taste of the coffee, which is an individual sensation, but to intensify the how it smells when you open the door, which is a shared experience. Then there’s the Smooth Jazz playing in the back ground, the barista and other workers moving about assembling your coffee, the visual atmosphere that says “You’re in a Starbucks,” and all those other folks either bopping in and out or hanging out and chatting or working on their laptops. Even when it’s a brief experience, it’s an all-encompassing one. And all that doesn’t just happen… It’s part of the Starbucks business plan.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches need to put more attention and intentionality into the experience people have when they visit, yet most churches leave much of that experience to chance. It’s not a question of whether people will have an experience in your church, but whether the experience they receive at your hands is the kind of experience you want them to have. Strongly liturgical faith traditions, like my own Episcopal Church, have the capability to provide an intentional, all-encompassing experience, but we don’t provide it as often as we could, because sometimes we just lack sufficient intentionality. How much of the experience that your church provides attendees is intentional? How much “just happens?” What aspects the experience work well? What needs to be added or improved?

Reason 6: Starbucks stores provide a gathering space. Starbucks aims to be not just a coffee shop, but also a “neighborhood gathering place” and “a part of the daily routine.” Some have observed function as socially necessary “third space” – a neutral, common ground where people of many different persuasions can meet, connect, make friends, make plans, and get things done. Some say they are “the Church of the 21st century.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. Churches used to provide that “third space,” where diverse people from neighborhoods gathered in community as part of their daily routines. But now, more often than not, they stand apart from the communities they are called to serve. What is your church’s relationship to its neighborhood? Does it serve the community? When it serves the community, does it do ministry to the community, or does it do ministry with the community? How could the relationship change for the better?

Reason 7: Starbucks stores provide a welcoming sense of community. Have you noticed how when you show up at a Starbucks, several employees greet you and ask you how you are doing? They actually seem to be happy to see you. And amazingly, the smile on their faces when they greet you almost always seems to be real. They seem to be happy at their jobs, perhaps in large part, because whatever job they are performing at the moment, they seem to believe that their real job – their calling, if you will – is to engage you as part of their little community. They treat you as a friend. And because they do, you can’t help but like them…maybe even come to trust them. And most people would rather by a decent cup of coffee from people they like and trust than the Best. Cup. Of. Coffee. Ever. from someone they don’t.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. For places that are supposed to be all about welcoming community, churches don’t always do the best or most intentional job of creating it. Does your church intentionally work at creating a welcoming sense of community from the start? Do your greeters/ushers like their jobs? Are they selected because they demonstrated the gift of hospitality? Or because there was a job to be done and a warm body to fill the position? Do your greeters open the door or wait for the visitor? Do they introduce themselves and ask visitors’ names? Do they offer to make each visitor a nametag? Do your members actually wear their nametags? Do all members know that they are in the business of welcome? Do church leaders and members make time to talk with newcomers about their needs and gifts?

Reason 8: Starbucks stores provide familiarity and consistency. While each Starbucks store is a little different in its layout, the atmosphere is remarkably consistent from store to store. People know what expect, and that makes them feel comfortable and “at home.” And while some of the products change seasonally, there is a core that never changes: you can always get your “Pike’s Place.”

Lessons & Questions for Churches. In creating an experience for their attendees, churches have to find a similar balance between parts of the experience that can vary for the sake of variety, and a core experience that remains relatively unchanging. What are parts your church’s experience are allowed to change? What parts are so core to the experience that they seldom if ever allow to change?

Reason 9: Starbucks knows that rite and ritual are important, and Starbucks stores provide it. Rite and ritual? Yup. Starbucks has liturgy: You are welcomed, you line up at the register, one person takes your order and writes it on your cup, another other makes it a certain way, and you pick it up at the end from a special counter. Starbuck’s has special liturgical language: you don’t order a medium coffee; you order a “Pikes Place grande.”

Lessons & Questions for Churches. We Churches got this one. If anything, however, our names for things – Eucharist, Host, and Intinction – are perhaps even more obscure than Grande, Venti, and Trenta. But considering the fact that Starbucks can turn even buying a cup of coffee into a meaningful rite, maybe we in the Church ought to find ways build liturgy into more of everyday life’s activities, not less. What new rites and rituals has your church developed in response to the needs of its people?

Reason 10: Starbucks stores provide a place to achieve. Have you ever noticed how many people are actually do their work at Starbuck, tapping a way on their laptops doing homework, writing reports, or catching up on correspondence? People go to Starbucks not just to drink coffee, but to actually get things done.

Lessons & Questions for Churches. When I occasionally started to feel trapped or distracted in my office at the church, I would often go to Starbucks to do some work. Somehow being surrounded by seemingly creative people busy at be creative made me feel more creative, too. But because I generally was wearing my clerical collar, I was also pleasantly surprised by the not infrequent opportunities I had to talk with people about deep and important things about life. Recently, I gave up my office at church to make another classroom for our growing Sunday school, and now I work almost exclusively out of a local Starbucks (unless it involves a meeting over a meal). I do wonder, though, how could we make church more of a place that people could go to achieve? Thoughts anyone?

Am I saying the Church should emulate Starbucks?

No, not really. Obviously, Church and Starbucks exist in two different realms.

Different realms. On the one hand, as a profit-making public corporation, Starbucks exists in the realm of the secular. Ultimately, their success or failure is measured in money. Unless their marketing strategies translate into sufficient profit, they will cease to exist. Churches, on the other hand, exist in the realm of the sacred. We are – or at least we ought to be – more about the “business” of training prophets – those willing to speak the truth to the world – than about making profits from the world.

But are they really? I am questioning whether there isn’t more overlap between those two realms that we think: maybe not 100%, but not mutually exclusive either. Some of Starbucks marketing strategies – like driving up perceived value by creating a sense of exclusiveness and scarcity – are antithetical to the “always enough” and “room for everyone” values of the realm of God values. Still, most marketing strategies are value-neutral, and marketing itself is defined as promoting a fair exchange of value. And if places like Starbucks are in some ways supplanting the “third space” role of the Church in many people’s lives, I think we need to ask if they have figured out ways to connect with people’s lives that we might learn from.

After all, Jesus did call us to be “in the world but not of the world.” And if Jesus was willing to challenge us to be “wise as serpents” yet “innocent as doves,” would it be so bad for us to be as “wise as mermaids.”

An afterthought…

What if Starbucks marketed more like churches?

Watch the video below to find out…

1 Most of these 10 reasons were adapted from information obtained from the Starbucks official website or from online forums about Starbucks.